Posted: Friday May 26, 2006 3:37PM; Updated: Friday May 26, 2006 4:21PM
Justin Gimelstob was one of the few U.S. men this year who played in the European events leading up to the French Open.
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PARIS -- I was practicing on Court 3 at Roland Garros on Friday morning, getting my butt kicked by Russian Max Mirnyi, when I took a deep breath and a long look around.
Considering how poor my shots were and how badly I was getting beaten in our practice match -- this with the French Open just a few days away -- you'd think my mind would be consumed with one of many relevant dilemmas.
But instead of getting frustrated with my less-than-satisfying performance, I found pleasure in the beautiful surroundings. The beautifully maintained red clay courts, which the grounds crew meticulously waters and sweeps with unmatched efficiency, and the lush grounds, filled with flowers in perfect bloom and statues of former tennis greats, are part of what give the French Open its artistic identity.
Each Grand Slam has its own unique characteristics, and most of the tournaments represent the culture of the cities they inhabit. The French Open is as much an event as it is a tennis tournament. Roland Garros more resembles a museum than a sporting venue, with numerous free-standing courts that resemble mini-Coliseums and create an incredible environment in which to play and watch tennis.
While I have never had much success here (apart from winning the mixed doubles tournament with Venus Williams in 1998), it has always been one of my favorite events. I try to get here early because the week of practice before the main event is my favorite week of practice all year. That's a sentiment I share with many players; early in my career, my old practice-mate Todd Martin told me the same thing.
Unlike other Grand Slams, Roland Garros isn't jam-packed during the week leading up to the event. I'm not sure if it just seems that way because the facility is so spaced out, with ample practice courts and two huge locker rooms and cafeterias, or if it's because of more practical reasons. Regardless, I always feel like I have my own space, which is a huge luxury.
Additionally, unlike Wimbledon, I can practice on the actual courts on which matches are played. This can also be done at the Australian and U.S. Opens, but it's difficult to get on one of the show courts unless you're practicing with a highly seeded player or if you're buddies with the people who assign the practice courts (a distinction I happen to own in New York).
I arrived in Paris on Wednesday night, a little later then usual because my back has been acting up, but I've already practiced on two of the best courts: Suzanne Lenglen -- named after the famous French female champion -- and Court 1, an isolated show court that is the perfect size and has acoustics that make every shot sound crisp. (And trust me, they weren't all hit that way.)
While tennis is always the priority, the pleasure of playing in the French Open is a direct result of Paris being such an amazing city. The Parisian experience has so many things to offer in the way of shopping, art, cuisine and culture that the pleasure of being here extends far beyond Roland Garros. Hopefully, when I take the court this week, I can appreciate my surroundings and find inspiration in the beauty of this tournament and this city.
Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is a frequent contributor to SI.com. He'll face a qualifier in the first round of the French Open.