The Cold War in 1954 was at its chilliest and ugliest. I was 26, an American living and flying as navigator-bombardier-radar officer for two years now at Sculthorpe RAF Station in East Anglia. Ours was one of the first jet bomber wings, and our mission in NATO was decidedly serious. There wasn't much time for tennis.
Having earned some leave time, I decided to attend the French International Championships, one of the world's four Slams, held at Roland Garros in Paris. My flight from London to Paris was my first-ever by commercial airline. The two-engined prop transport of British European Airways was comfortable though tame in contrast to the training missions in our powerful B-45's. I noticed a fellow across the aisle with several tennis rackets in tow. I didn't recognize him, but I later learned that his name was Armando Vieira, from Brazil. He had just played in a losing Davis Cup effort against Britain, and would make a nice run at Garros.
We landed on the grass at le Bourget, and the next morning I took the subway to Garros, where I purchased a general admission ticket. The price was quite moderate. It was first-week Wednesday, and the crowds were not large. Everyone freely moved between the main stadium and any of the outside courts, where the seating arrangements were bleacher-style.
It was big-time tennis but not "open"-i.e., pros were not welcome. Probably the world's best players were pros Sedgman, Kramer, and Gonzalez, none of whom were present. But all the top amateurs were there, including contingents from Australia and U.S. Leading the Aussies were Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, teenagers, who months before--despite the loss of Sedgman to the pros--had defended Davis Cup against a strong American challenge. Also on hand in Paris were Americans Tony Trabert and Vic Seixas, the American twosome who had only narrowly fallen short in Australia.
The stadium had been built for the 1928 Challenge Round, when the Musketeers held off the Americans with Tilden. There was no mistaking the richness of the foliage and landscaping around the tennis grounds, the splendor of the tall trees of the Bois de Boulogne. Stade Garros seemed not especially impressive to my inexperienced eye--it was about what I expected after having seen Forest Hills. The rest rooms were hideous. On the outside courts the seating was close to the action, and sometimes one or more players would sit with the fans and become part of noisy, general discussions. Once, uninvited, I stood outside the stadium with a group of Australian players and listened to Harry Hopman's wisdom. I guess everyone thought I came with someone else.
The tennis seemed wonderful, and I soaked up every match I could, especially those of the recent Davis Cup protagonists. I had heard of the red clay of Garros and how it drained the power from the shot-making of the big hitters. All watchers seemed to enjoy the young Italian player Nicola Pietrangeli, a fast mover who hit the ball hard and with decided relish. The French player Paul Remy was almost as effective but without the Pietrangeli flair. The second echelon of Australians--Mervyn Rose, Rex Hartwig, and a relatively unknown young player, Neale Fraser, also scored well in the early rounds.
The Czech expatriate Drobny was fascinating and was among the gregarious ones with the fans. He would win Wimbledon just a few weeks later. Sven Davidson reached the late rounds. Enrique Morea of Argentina was fun to watch, showing the power game to go with his height. There was no armada of clay artists from Spain--that would come in another generation or two--and only a few representatives from eastern Europe and Germany. After Morea, the best South American was Bob Falkenburg, a transplant from U.S. to Brazil and a recent Wimbledon champion. I vaguely remember watching him as doubles partner for Vieira.
The Davis Cup had resided in Australia since 1950, so a powerful U.S. showing seemed unlikely, especially in view of the slow surface. So I felt both surprise and satisfaction when an American surge began to take form. Trabert, with benefit of high seed, advanced comfortably, and Seixas defeated Rex Hartwig. Then on first Sunday came the truly unexpected. Forty-year-old American Gardnar Mulloy defeated Hoad, and unpredictable lefty Art Larsen defeated two-time tournament champion Drobny in five sets. Budge Patty, an American living in Paris, also reached the Final Eight. Thus there were five Americans in the quarter-finals. (The non-Americans were Rose, Morea, and Davidson, who had beaten Rosewall.) My recollections are faint, but I believe I watched nearly all the fourth-round matches as well as some of the quarters.
Meanwhile there was little doubt who would win the women's singles. Maureen Connolly had captured the Grand Slam in 1953 and was regarded in a class by herself. Her dominance was the more remarkable because, in contrast to the male game, there were no female stars among the pros. I watched Connolly deliver her punishing ground-strokes in several one-sided matches. She would indeed win the tournament, and Wimbledon soon afterwards in capturing the last of her nine singles Slams. Just weeks later would come the terrible accident that ended her career.
There was plenty of rain and chill along with intermittent sunshine during my week at Garros. There was no nighttime play, but daylight lasted late each afternoon, as we were nearing summer solstice. It was interesting around the hotel to see the newspaper headlines and photos reporting the day's tennis action. My French reading ability was almost nil, but the player names and scores were decipherable.
I recall no episodes of ill behavior by any of the players. The watchers likewise seemed good-spirited and considerate. There were crowd favorites, but winning or losing didn't seem critically important. Perhaps Europe and Europeans were just grateful that the war was only a memory, that everyone was making their way back to decency. It was a sober time for the French, as the disaster at Dien Bien Phu was only weeks past.
I believe I watched full action at Garros every day but one during my Paris stay. I returned to Sculthorpe at mid-week of Week Two, and was later pleased to learn that Trabert prevailed at the end. Ten years later I met Tony, who was the banquet speaker at our Air Force championships, held in Colorado. He was friendly and direct with everyone, and he acted interested when I said that I had watched him at Garros. We had a nice conversation, which he mentioned during his speech later. Trabert won Garros again in 1955 against a weaker field, but after that no American would win until Michael Chang in 1989.
It's hard to believe that fifty years have passed since my adventure at Garros. Somehow Europe has managed to escape the horrible conflict that seemed so thinkable at Sculthorpe. I like to believe that international tennis played a role in civilization's muddling through.
Tennis history, too, has found its way since 1954. The exclusion of professional players has ended, and Davis Cup and the Slams continue to give the international game a superb structure. A few players now earn great wealth, and opportunities are open for all comers. Sponsors, broadcasters, advertisers, promoters, agents, and player entourages have large roles. Still, the game is fundamentally the same, and its traditions have been enriched by the wonderful court battles among the superstars that have intervened. What a privilege to have watched the unfolding over the tennis generations.