PARIS -- To get to the press seating at Court 1 at Roland Garros, you slip through a door between two public entrances with an unobtrusive "Tribune Access'' sign posted next to it, feeling as if you're privy to a secret. You enter a corridor painted white and industrial gray, and if you glance overhead, you see an overworked and ancient ventilation system that slicks the floor with condensation in hot, humid weather. At the end of the hallway is a short set of steps, perpetually covered with a fine film of red dust, and at the top is a heavy, dark green metal door with a porthole window. You have to push it hard to open it, and its hinges creak. Then, if you're me, you let out a small, involuntary gasp.
To borrow from John Updike's famous description of Fenway Park, what you find once inside the "Bullring" -- so nicknamed because of its circular shape -- is reminiscent of the interior landscape of an old-fashioned panoramic Easter egg: a wholly contained world on a different scale. The pie-wedge-shaped media section in the southeast corner, which has just shy of 60 seats, starts at ground level. From the front row, the players at that end are so close, their effort so palpable, the experience so intimate that I often found myself trying to avoid eye contact with them. The court can't help but make you a fan even when you're trained to be an observer.
The 3,800 spectator seats -- forest-green chairs with backs lower down, bleacher-style benches higher up -- rise around you uninterrupted by modern intrusions, save for video scoreboards at opposite corners. Flags of the world dance on poles spaced at regular intervals around the top. The ubiquitous "babababababa ba dah dah dah -- Olé!" cheer (come on, you were chanting it when you read it) feels as if it must have started here, in the arena where even modestly sized gladiators seem larger than life.
Built in 1980, the Bullring is destined for demolition after this edition of Roland Garros, just shy of its 40th birthday, to make way for open space, a fan pique-nique and viewing area. That has been on the drawing boards for a few years, and I've said farewell to Court 1 before, but this time it appears that the tournament means it. The expanded footprint of the Philippe Chatrier show court (which is to be crowned with a roof by next year) next door and the extra pedestrian traffic headed to the new Simonne Mathieu "greenhouse" court in the adjacent Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil have led to claustrophobic logjams at that crossroads on the grounds.
At less crowded times, spectators plop down on the asphalt plaza with their beverages and ice cream cones and stare up at the giant rectangular screen on the round concrete façade. Ivy spills from the second floor, where offices lie behind outward-slanting windows, and the base of the stadium is softened by plantings of white roses, petunias and weeping birch. Square plaques bearing the names of past champions -- starting in 1891 and proceeding through Simona Halep and Rafael Nadal in 2018 -- ring the top of the stadium above. Three plaques remain blank, and perhaps always will.
I came late to the Bullring, in 2007, the first time I was assigned to cover the French Open, so I missed Mary Jo Fernandez holding fast through Gabriela Sabatini's five match points to prevail in their 1993 quarterfinal and Gustavo Kuerten's breakthrough third-round win on the way to his unexpected 1997 title.
It has been a memorable venue for up-and-comers, comebackers, gallant underdogs and dark horses. I watched Steve Johnson, still wrestling with fresh grief over his father's passing the month before, battle Dominic Thiem through a tenacious, second-set tiebreak two years ago as purplish thunderclouds massed overhead. Johnson ultimately fell in straight sets. I saw Anett Kontaveit snap Petra Kvitova's impressive 13-match clay-court winning streak in the third round last year, in Kvitova's first full season after she recovered from a vicious knife attack in her home.
A few days ago, a polite security guard stopped me just inside the exterior door and told me I would have to wait: The press section was full. Stan Wawrinka and Grigor Dimitrov were playing a third set, continuing a third-round match that had been suspended the night before due to darkness. That match had been moved from the much larger Suzanne Lenglen stadium the previous day, when the schedule backed up. Fans who trekked across the grounds only to be denied entry booed so loudly from outside that Wawrinka and Dimitrov, as well as the players on court at towering Chatrier next door, clearly heard them.
When a few journalists left and I finally got in, the sunshine and heat had driven some in the press section to abandon their seats and squat in the slice of shade available against the wall. Dimitrov was whaling emphatically on the ball from behind the baseline at that end, his feet leaving the ground and his shirt rising to expose his torso with every forehand. Wawrinka cracked his signature one-handed backhand in response, mostly to good effect. He fist-pumped and raked his hand through his spiky forelock.
The crowd cheered any quality point but was clearly disposed to back Wawrinka. In the post-autograph crush after his previous win, a child near the front of the crowd had been separated from his father and, understandably, became frightened and tearful. Wawrinka lifted him out of the stands and comforted him, a scene that went viral. The Bullring has made for great matches and lovely parables, sometimes at the same time. After Wawrinka sealed the match against Dimitrov on his serve in the final point of the tiebreak almost parallel from where I sat, I felt the vibration of the crowd's roar as he patted his heart and pointed back in appreciation.
Sunday was the last day of main draw singles play on the Bullring. Doubles, juniors and legends matches were scheduled through Wednesday, but rain could postpone the final farewell by another day. I might try to drop in one more time, but I've already bid my adieus.