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French Open – Named after a War Hero and not a tennis star

"Victory belongs to the most persevering."

Sport is one hell of a way to fight Covid-19, doing it and watching it reminds us our normal life we lived not a long time ago. Right now, besides the NBA Final the biggest sport competition is the French Open which is also called the Roland Gaross. Normally the most physically demanding tennis tournament in the world is held in early summer but because of the epidemic it was postponed to the end of September and the beginning of October. The venue for one of the four annual Grand Slam tournaments is named after French aviator Roland Garros. Since we are a military history tour operator and not ESPN we are going to devote some time to monsieur Gaross and not to the tennis event itself.

Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros was born in Saint-Denis on October 6 thirty years prior to the last year of the Great War and became one of the French pioneering aviators in the early days of aviation and one of the first fighter pilots during that world conflict that changed our planet for forever.

Roland Garros in 1910 in front of his plane, Demoiselle
Roland Garros in 1910

Aviator and fighter pilot? Not a tennis champion? Nope! Although he certainly was a sports buff taking up cycling – even winning an inter-school championship – and trying soccer, rugby and yes, tennis, too but never picked up a tennis medal. His passion was flying, breaking flying records, and inventing. When WWI broke out Garros was already a celebrity – at least in aviation. He needed five years to accomplish this fame after visiting the Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne that changed his life and after which he started his aviation career and entered air races with his monoplane, including the 1911 Paris to Madrid air race and the Circuit of Europe. Before joining the French army at the outbreak of World War I he set two altitude records of well over 10,000 ft and gained fame for making the first non-stop flight across the Mediterranean Sea from south France to Tunisia. Whoa!

If you dear reader think that is still not an enough reason to name a tennis tournament Roland Garros who was not a tennis player wait for this: in the early stages of the air war in World War I the problem of mounting a forward-firing machine gun on combat aircraft was considered by several people. Building on research by engineer Raymond Saulnier, Garros invented a synchronization system that enabled pilots to shoot through a plane’s propellers. His aircraft being equipped with the new system he scored three victories over the Germans in April 1915 when he was forced to crash-land his plane and was caught by the enemy. Garros could not destroy his aircraft and so Anthony Fokker could improve this synchronization system, which was then fitted onto German planes that started shooting down Allied aircraft. After achieving the first ever shooting down of an aircraft by a fighter firing through the propeller, his invention, and setting up his records he spent almost three years in captivity as a POW. Unfortunately, his health deteriorated during his time in the POW camps and he became severely short-sighted, but he survived the camps and escaping from the Germans after 3 years he was ready to continue to fly again. Even George Clemenceau wanted him to stay away from the war, stubborn as he was could not resist to keep fighting and was shot down over the Ardennes and died on October 5, 1918.

Roland Garros photographed in an aircraft cockpit
Ready to fly, ready to fight

Garros is called by some the world's first fighter ace but as he shot down only four aircraft altogether that is not true since you needed five or more victories to qualify. The honor of becoming the first ace went to Adolphe Pégoud another French airman. But it is not hard to imagine what would have happened if he had not been shot down by the enemy in 1915. He could have been the first ACE of the war, he could have beaten the Red Baron, and it would have taken a little longer for Mr. Fokker to finish his project and maybe, we would call the Fokker Scourge the Gaross Scourge. Maybe. Maybe in this case the French Open would not be called the Roland Gaross. It was not until 1928 that the Roland Garros tennis stadium was named in his memory and now the French Open takes the name of Roland-Garros from the stadium in which it is held.

Maybe you enjoyed reading a few facts about an extraordinary man during these extraordinary times we live in today. A few days and the French Open is over with those sport men and women fighting their own battles there and try to entertain us who watch them on TV. Maybe, they do a little bit more than that: they give us hope.

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