Designing Grand Slam tennis venues


The quartet of tennis Grand Slam championship venues at the heart of the global game have been serving up an array of ace new structures and have plans to deliver more


Words by Stephen Hitchins

Modern-day tennis started out as a garden party diversion in the 19th century, but has come a long way since then, as the history of the US Open tournament demonstrates.

The US National Championship, as it was known originally, was an event for amateurs and moved from the Newport Casino, Rhode Island, where the inaugural event was staged in 1881, to the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York in 1915. From there, it was transported three miles north to Flushing Meadows Park in 1978. As the site of the New York World’s Fair of both 1939 and 1964, the park is one of largest in the city and was well capable of accommodating the tournament’s expansion, which was to include the building of four ‘show courts’. The 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium was opened in 1997; the 2,800- seat Court 17, known as ‘The Pit’, was built in 2012; the 8,125-seat Grandstand opened 2016, while a retractable roof was added to the Arthur Ashe Stadium; and two years later, the 14,061-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium opened with a roof, a serve clock, and Hawk-Eye electronic line-calling, as the tournament celebrated the 50th anniversary of it becoming the US Open, when professionals were first allowed to compete alongside amateurs.

The completion of a five-year development programme that the United States Tennis Association dubbed a ‘strategic transformation’ of Flushing Meadows, the Armstrong structure had been originally built for the 1964 World’s Fair before being renovated and expanded, and re-emerging anew as a terracotta louvred edifice. Other work included a complete rebuild of the West Stadium Courts and Practice Pavilion, and a redesign of the South Campus and tournament courts. All 22 courts, including the four show courts, were later illuminated, Hawk-Eye was fitted everywhere, and the playing surface painted ‘US Open Blue’.

Court Simonne-Mathieu, Roland Garros, Paris. Image Credit: Pauline Ballet / FFTCourt Simonne-Mathieu, Roland Garros, Paris. Image Credit: Pauline Ballet / FFT

Now known as the French Open, the Championnat de France was originally played by ‘French club members only’ and moved home four times before settling at the Roland- Garros stadium complex in Paris in 1928, which had been newly constructed as a suitably grand venue to host ‘the World Cup of Tennis’, the Davis Cup, following France’s first ever victory in the tournament, against the United States in Philadelphia the previous year.

Court Philippe-Chatrier, Roland Garros, Paris. Image Credit: Cedric Lecocq / FFTCourt Philippe-Chatrier, Roland Garros, Paris. Image Credit: Cedric Lecocq / FFT

The stadium complex – consisting of three courts initially – was named after a pioneer aviator, Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros, who completed the first flight across the Mediterranean and in 1915 transformed aerial combat when he, as a fighter pilot of World War One, devised a synchronisation device, the ‘interrupter gear’, that enabled fighter pilots to fire a forward-firing machine gun through an aircraft propeller.

Today, there is not much left to remind anyone of 1928. A decade ago there was a serious proposal to move the tournament out of Paris – a move supported by former champions like Amélie Mauresmo – to a new 55-court venue, either at Versailles or Marnela-Vallée, home to France’s Disneyland, but in 2011 the decision was taken to develop the existing site, a decision that was then rejected by the city in 2015, endorsed by the mayor (who signed construction permits later the same year), and then stopped by order of the courts a few months later. The appeals process took until 2018, when renovation work and new building commenced in earnest.

Narrow greenhouses run along the Court Simonne-Mathieu’s four sides. The theme is tropical: one greenhouse each for the exotic plants of Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. Image Credit: Christophe Guibbaud / FFT Narrow greenhouses run along the Court Simonne-Mathieu’s four sides. The theme is tropical: one greenhouse each for the exotic plants of Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. Image Credit: Christophe Guibbaud / FFT

The delays were due to eco-minded objections over the construction of a new court amid the soaring century-old greenhouses designed by Jean-Camille Formigé in the Serres d’Auteuil botanical garden. The two venues have always been uneasy neighbours, but in 2019 the Court Simonne-Mathieu – named after a French tennis champion of the 1930s, who was also a leader of the women’s branch of the Free French Forces during the Second World War – opened.

Located beyond the cobblestoned Allée de l’Orangerie, as you approach the crowd noise drops, magisterial trees of the woods are glimpsed, a faint scent of blooming thyme may be caught, and then, suddenly, it appears: set at the heart of a 6,000 sq m complex of the 19th century greenhouses (complete with Rodin sculptures) there’s a new set of hothouses surrounding a 5,000-seat sunken tennis arena.

The redevelopment of Melbourne Park includes a new roof for the Rod Laver Arena, a new hospitality area, a new function and media centre, a new public cafe, and a new 5,000-seat show court arena All images: Images Supplied Courtesy Of Development VictoriaThe redevelopment of Melbourne Park includes a new roof for the Rod Laver Arena, a new hospitality area, a new function and media centre, a new public cafe, and a new 5,000-seat show court arena All images: Images Supplied Courtesy Of Development Victoria

Now there are forehands among the flora. Narrow greenhouses run along the court’s four sides, forming transparent outer walls for an inner walkway encircling the playing area. The theme is tropical: one greenhouse each for the exotic plants of Africa, Asia, Australia and South America – a botanical world tour complete with stone bridges and ornamental waterfalls to complement the global game. As you leave your seats there are paths through these conservatories, reminiscent of the tranquil cultivated landscapes within which the Victorians first strung their tennis nets.

The architect was Marc Mimram, the designer of a number of award-winning sports facilities. Michel Corajoud was responsible for landscaping the original overall concept, and ‘took the risk of defending the indefensible: putting sport in a garden’.

The redevelopment of Melbourne Park includes a new roof for the Rod Laver Arena, a new hospitality area, a new function and media centre, a new public cafe, and a new 5,000-seat show court arena All images: Images Supplied Courtesy Of Development VictoriaThe redevelopment of Melbourne Park includes a new roof for the Rod Laver Arena, a new hospitality area, a new function and media centre, a new public cafe, and a new 5,000-seat show court arena All images: Images Supplied Courtesy Of Development Victoria

Not only is Roland-Garros the smallest of the four Grand Slam venues, it is also the most urban due to its proximity to the city centre, and inevitably therefore it is also the most crowded. Nevertheless, the Court Simonne- Mathieu is an oasis.

With its green jewel completed, and the main Court Philippe Chatrier largely demolished and rebuilt with a roof in time for this year’s currently postponed tournament, the second-largest court, Suzanne Lenglen, will also be renovated and roofed before the Olympics come to Paris in 2024. The architects are ACD Girardet & Associés. To round things off there will be a new Place des Mousquetaires courtyard, adapted to form a vast esplanade of greenery occupying over a hectare in the heart of the complex and designed as an area for rest and relaxation for spectators.

Wimbledon’s No 1 Court with ‘The Hill’ in the foreground. Image Credit: AELTC/Joe TothWimbledon’s No 1 Court with ‘The Hill’ in the foreground. Image Credit: AELTC/Joe Toth

The Australian Open began life as the Australasian Championships and was first played at the Warehouseman’s Cricket Ground in Melbourne in 1905. Five Australian and two New Zealand cities later it ended up in 1988 moving to Flinders Park, which is today called Melbourne Park.

The ‘Happy Slam’ as it is known was never contested by a particularly strong field of players due to being geographically remote. When it was held in Perth in Western Australia no-one from Victoria or New South Wales took the approximately 3,000km train journey to play. Few Australians bothered to turn up when the event was played in New Zealand as travel across the Australian continent was hard enough. Making a 45-day boat trip from Europe just did not seem worth it either.

As prone to the vagaries of the weather as anywhere else, Wimbledon was slow to respond with proposals to put roofs over its main courts. Image Credit: AELTC/Bob Martin
As prone to the vagaries of the weather as anywhere else, Wimbledon was slow to respond with proposals to put roofs over its main courts. Image Credit: AELTC/Bob Martin

It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s when travel was less difficult that the top players finally began to enter, although competitors like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal argue for the date of the tournament to move from its current January time slot, while New South Wales still makes bids to get the tournament relocated. Yet with three major courts fitted with retractable roofs the Australian Open has been at the forefront of technological developments in recent years, with another major show court planned.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the oldest and most prestigious tennis championship in the world, and the only Grand Slam played on grass (the French play on clay, while the Australian and US opens take place on hard courts), Wimbledon is the very embodiment of tradition, heritage and aspiration, and is secure in its belief that it is ‘the world’s premier tournament – outside of the Olympics and the World Cup, the world’s most powerful sports property’, according to Martin Sorrell when he was chief executive of the advertising and PR company WPP.

The No 1 Court Exhibition at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum. Image Credit:  AELTC/Thomas LovelockThe No 1 Court Exhibition at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum. Image Credit:  AELTC/Thomas Lovelock

A seasonal milestone, The Championships, as it is grandly known, is a national obsession and transcends sport. It has not, however, always been a manifestation of innovation. In its world of ‘gentlemen’ and ‘ladies’ dressed all in white and bowing to the Royal Box on Centre Court, the All England Lawn Tennis Club has only a few hundred members, categorised as full and life (375), honorary (70), temporary (120) and junior. There is a waiting list of over 1,000. The easiest way to become a member is to win the competition or marry a royal; after that, it gets really difficult. Slazenger has supplied the balls since 1902 – the longest partnership in sporting history – while Robinsons supplied the drinks for more than 80 years. A few other brands are intertwined with the place tighter than the strings of a racket.

Rescuing the Wimbledon brand has never been easy. The official green and purple colours established in 1909 meant every single official, including umpires, linesmen and ball boys, had been dressed in green – right up until 2006 when some unflattering Ralph Lauren navy blue and cream outfits were introduced. As classic, traditional, country club aesthetic, the visual language is not as timeless as the creator’s fans would have you believe, and not as quintessentially British as its designer thinks. Instantly recognisable, yes, following days’ (the event became open to professionals from 1968). A total of 22 men – no women were permitted at that stage – stumped up the one guinea entrance fee, being warned to bring their own rackets and ‘shoes without heels’, while the balls would be provided by the club gardener. Founded solely for the purpose of croquet in 1869 on four acres of rented meadowland at Worple Road in Wimbledon, south-west London, the All England saw croquet rapidly overtaken by the new pastime of tennis.

The view of Court 12, overlooking the southern outside courts as well as Centre Court. Image Credit: AELTC/Thomas LovelockThe view of Court 12, overlooking the southern outside courts as well as Centre Court. Image Credit: AELTC/Thomas Lovelock

Conditions were primitive. A temporary three-plank stand offered seats for 30 people, the total attendance for the first final was 200, the rackets resembled snowshoes in shape and weight, and the balls had hand-sewn flannel outer casings. But it was a success. So much so that in 1884 the club finally capitulated and included a ladies’ competition, although it was not allowed to commence until the men’s event had been completed. Within a few years crowds regularly exceeded 3,000 for the later rounds and a special stop was installed on the railway line. Olympic tennis was played at Wimbledon in 1908 and 1912, with matches spread over six months, split either side of The Championships. From 1913 there were a full set of singles and doubles events, and in 1922 the move to Church Road, Wimbledon, was made.

The construction of the new home of tennis, with accommodation for 13,500 people, was completed amid forecasts the place would become a white elephant. Never have such forecasts proved more wrong. A new court, No 1, opened in 1924 with room for 3,250 spectators and a grass playing surface, having originally been planned as a hard court. Its capacity was gradually expanded to 7,500, until in 1997 an entirely new No 1 Court seating 11,000 was constructed along with a food village, a merchandising shop, 11 hospitality suites and a debenture holders’ lounge. At the same time a broadcast centre and two new courts were also built. The site of the original No 1 Court is now the Millennium Building that opened in 2000 with player and press facilities.

Rafael Nadal in action. Image Credit:  AELTC/Ben Queenborough.Rafael Nadal in action. Image Credit:  AELTC/Ben Queenborough.

As prone to the vagaries of the weather as anywhere else, Wimbledon was slow to respond with proposals to put roofs over its main courts. It was only in 2009 that the one over Centre Court, all 3,000 tonnes of structural steel and Tenara architectural fibre of it, was completed. In the same year, a new 4,000-seat No 2 Court and a new 3,000-seat No 3 Court opened. In April 2013 Wimbledon unveiled its ‘Master Plan’ vision to improve the Championships over the next 10 to 15 years. This was in large part due to other to the expansion and redevelopment plans that had already been announced by both the French and Australian opens. Aspects of the plan included new player and media facilities, expansion of the No 1 Court, including a new retractable roof, new catering and hospitality areas, an additional floor to the museum building, construction of an underground car park and new indoor courts, and also a total reconfiguration of the site, such as the relocation of a number of practice, clay and championship courts. The plan also included the purchase of Wimbledon Park Golf Course in order to expand the area available for qualifying matches to be played. It’s ambitious, and all a long, long way from game’s origins as a 19th century garden party diversion.








Progressive Media International Limited. Registered Office: 40-42 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8EB, UK.Copyright 2020, All rights reserved.