The French Open is a major tennis tournament held each year at the Stade Roland-Garros in Paris, France. It is the best-known and most famous clay court tennis championship in the world, and is considered part of the tennis “Grand Slam”. The stadium at which the event is played is named after the French aviator Roland Garros, and as such, the tournament itself is sometimes called Roland-Garros. This all begs the question – who was Roland Garros?
Who Was Roland Garros?
Roland Garros was born in Saint-Denis, Réunion, in 1888, and began his aviation career in 1909. A participant in various European air races, Garros gained fame in 1913 when he became the first person to fly non-stop across the Mediterranean Sea, departing from Fréjus in the south of France and landing in Bizerte, Tunisia.
During World War I, Garros was a pioneer of aerial warfare. He is credited with shooting down four enemy planes. Because of this, he is sometimes considered the world’s first fighter ace, however, the definition of “ace” is typically five or more victories. Still, it was the way he was able to accomplish these victories that helped gain him fame.
Garros is known for developing his own invention, using steel wedge plates attached to propeller blades, that allowed him to use a forward firing machine gun. Peter Jakab, the chief curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, claimed the invention allowed for a technique that, while not the most efficient, was effective in certain situations.
Either way, this invention, which would be improved upon by others, proved useful enough. German pilots were said to have feared Garros.
The Great Escape
On April 18, 1915, Garros was either shot down or his fuel line clogged (there are conflicting reports), forcing him to glide to a landing in German territory. He was captured by German troops and spent the next three years as a prisoner of war.
During his captivity, Garros was able to send coded messages back to France. According to legend, this would lead to the delivery of a map of Germany, hidden within the handle of a tennis racket. Garros would eventually escape in February of 1918, gradually making his way back to Paris. Upon his arrival, he was greeted with “a true hero’s welcome.”
Garros was offered a job in France’s air force away from the frontline, but he instead chose to once again take to the air. On October 5, 1918, he was shot down and killed in the Ardennes during one final mission, a month before the end of the war and one day before his 30th birthday.
Inventor, Hero, Friend
Roland Garros lives on today as a French war hero. And while his flying accomplishments were impressive, it was the invention he created that has left the largest mark. Eventually, a Dutch engineer named Anthony Fokker would greatly improve on Garros’ technology, changing aerial combat forever.
Garros will also be remembered as the namesake of a tennis stadium constructed in Paris by Emile Lesieur. Though Garros had little connection to the sport of tennis, Lesieur, who had been a close friend during wartime, insisted on the name. And now today, when you watch the French Open and hear talk of Roland Garros, you will know who he was.