Who Was Roland Garros? The Fighter Pilot Behind the French Open


Roland Garros, in Tunisia, after crossing the Mediterranean by plane in 1913.

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The French Open comes to a conclusion this weekend — and virtually every story about the tournament has referred to a man who had little to do with tennis.

He is Roland Garros, the French war hero after whom the Paris tournament’s main stadium is named.

In 1913, he became the first person to fly across the Mediterranean. During World War I, he was a pioneer of air warfare, shooting down four enemy planes with the help of his own invention: wedge-shaped steel plates attached to the propeller blades, which allowed for a forward-firing machine gun.

“The rate of fire was that most of the bullets would miss the propeller, but every so often one would strike it,” Peter Jakab, chief curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, told CNN. “So this was a way to deflect the bullets from the propeller.”

According to Mr. Jakab, the technique was not very efficient, but it nonetheless rendered Garros’s plane more lethal than any other aircraft flying during the early stages of the war.

“Over a very short period of time, he shot down a number of German airplanes and created quite some terror among the German pilots,” Mr. Jakab said.

Mr. Garros was captured by Germany in 1915 and spent three years as a prisoner of war. He escaped after sending coded messages to France arranging for a map of Germany to be delivered in the hollow handle of a tennis racket.

According to Michaël Guittard, head of collections at the French Tennis Federation, the escape, undertaken with another captured French pilot, “was nothing short of an adventure movie.”

“They slept in a cemetery, spent an afternoon in a cinema, blended into the crowd and finally, after numerous attempts, made it through the Netherlands, on to London, and finally back to…

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