A Tennis Reporter Turned Graffiti Artist Draws on French Open Memories

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Suddenly, after 30 years, these walls could talk.

Members of the news media and French Open media relations team wrote messages on the walls and windows of the Roland Garros media center, which was slated to be demolished the next day along with the rest of Court Philippe Chatrier in a multi-year renovation project.CreditPete Kiehart for The New York Times

By Ben Rothenberg

  • June 13, 2018

Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.

PARIS — Twenty minutes after Rafael Nadal finished dismantling Dominic Thiem in the French Open final on Sunday evening, we were invited to experience more destruction.

Roland Garros was throwing a “Demolition Party,” toasting the last night its 30-year-old media center would be in use. Built into the side of Court Philippe Chatrier, the tournament’s principal stadium, the media center was slated to be torn down, along with most of the rest of the building.

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“It was jarring to see the people who had theoretically been maintaining order in the place more delighted than anyone else to draw on the walls.”CreditPete Kiehart for The New York Times

Speed is imperative for this renovation project, so a readiness for the wrecking ball had been apparent even before the tournament ended. During the women’s semifinals on Thursday, two workers had timed themselves to see how quickly they could disassemble a media workstation near mine, using a drill to remove electrical wiring and a television screen mount.

But before the power tools were brought in, it was time to celebrate what had been, and gift wrap it for oblivion. In addition to commemorative hard hats, tournament staff members handed out paint markers of various colors, without further instructions.

Defacement began. Suddenly, after 30 years, these walls could talk.

The first messages echoed recent history: praise for the dominance of Nadal, calling him “King of Clay” and other superlatives. (One orange inscription, in elegant cursive, simply copied down the entire first paragraph of the French version of Nadal’s Wikipedia entry.)

A message congratulating the 2018 men’s champion, Rafael Nadal.CreditPete Kiehart for The New York Times

Simona Halep, Saturday’s women’s champion, and Marco Cecchinato, the 72nd-ranked Italian who made a shocking run to the men’s semifinals, were also given their due.

The next waves of messages grew increasingly personal. Many reporters left inscriptions in their native languages; Serbian, Japanese, Italian, Spanish and more soon dotted the walls. Liu Renjie, a Chinese reporter, wrote the date of Li Na’s breakthrough victory here in 2011, when she became the first Asian Grand Slam champion in tennis history.

With plenty of flat surfaces left in play — ceilings, windows and countertops were fair game — there was room for significant creativity. Many elected to memorialize favorite moments on tour.

Spanish reporters contributed an endearing gaffe from the 2013 finalist David Ferrer. When he received a code violation — “Warning, Mr. Ferrer” — he replied with immediate exasperation that outpaced his limited English: “Why Mr. Warning?”

Others shared quotes from French Opens of decades past. The German reporter Rene Denfeld recalled Caroline Wozniacki’s excoriation of a chair umpire who disagreed with her on a line call: “Did you go to school?”

The German reporter Rene Denfeld (at the top of the stairs) memorializing an oft-quoted comment Caroline Wozniacki once made to a French Open chair umpire.CreditPete Kiehart for The New York Times

I had two French Open memories, one old and one new, that I most wanted to tattoo onto the place.

The first was a complete rendering of the comments Bernard Tomic made after his first round loss this year. Tomic had shown more unyielding tenacity in shutting down the news conference than he had in shutting down his opponent, so the task wasn’t too hard: 11 answers totaling 65 words.

The author’s rendering of Bernard Tomic’s very brief thoughts on his very early exit, in this year’s first round.CreditBen Rothenberg for The New York Times

The second was an older memory from my earlier years as a fan. Watching on NBC in 2003, I was appalled by the moment that derailed the best Grand Slam streak of Serena Williams’s career: Justine Henin-Hardenne refusing to acknowledge that she had hindered Williams by holding up her hand as Williams began to serve.

The chair umpire hadn’t seen it and Henin-Hardenne denied it, but I thought what Williams said calmly and correctly to the chair umpire afterward deserved to be the stadium’s last words on the matter: “She had her hand up.”

A memory from the author’s earlier years as a fan, when Justine Henin-Hardenne derailed the best Grand Slam streak of Serena Williams’s career, while Williams was serving in the third set: “I thought what Williams said calmly and correctly to the chair umpire afterward deserved to be the stadium’s last words on the matter.”CreditBen Rothenberg for The New York Times

Soon, much of the media center staff joined in, many with heavier duty cans of spray paint. It was jarring to see the people who had theoretically been maintaining order in the place more delighted than anyone else to draw on the walls.

My favorite bit of graffiti was from one of them, in a nod to perhaps the most memorable moment of the tournament’s press coverage: when Novak Djokovic, sullen in defeat, sulked into auxiliary Interview Room 2, which by the time of his quarterfinal loss had been decommissioned, and refused to move, leading to an overstuffed news conference by a 12-time Grand Slam champion without cameras or microphones.

Had he arrived on Sunday, it would have been hard to miss the helpful message and arrows scrawled across the room’s door: “Djoko, main room is on this way.”

A light-hearted nod to the news conference held by the 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic that nobody saw or heard. (Disheartened by his quarterfinal loss, he stumbled into an interview room that had already been decommissioned, and refused to move.)CreditPete Kiehart for The New York Times

Considering that most of the journalists who covered this French Open write to mass audiences for a living, it was strange that writing something for the handful of others who remained should feel so invigorating. The open bar upstairs certainly helped, as did the intensifying wafts of paint fumes, but there was also a thrill in creating something at once so temporary and so permanent. (Everyone who had filed an article during the tournament had done so wirelessly, tracelessly.)

As we sportswriters travel the tour, we pack up and move on, never really making a visible mark, or doing anything to make our various offices home. Suddenly, our thoughts and memories took tactile form, as big or small as we wanted, all around the sterile corridors we had paced for the last 15 days and many more days in the years before. It wasn’t until it was teeming with stories — as any creative venue should, really — that the media center seemed complete.

The place was a mess, and it had never looked better. In just a few days, it will all probably be gone — but at least we had it for a night.

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