October 5, 1918: the day French aviator Roland Garros was killed in action during World War I

Every day Tennis Majors takes you back in time to celebrate a great moment in tennis history. Today, we go back to 1918, when Roland Garros, after whom the French Open venue was famously renamed, was shot down

WHAT HAPPENED EXACTLY

On this day, October 5, 1918, the famous French aviator Roland Garros, the first man to have flown over the Mediterranean Sea, was killed in the Ardennes after his plane had been shot down by the German army. Although Garros himself didn’t really play tennis, ten years after his death, the brand-new stadium built to host the Davis Cup as well as the French Championships would be named after him by his friend from the Stade Français, Emile Lesieur.

THE PLAYERS INVOLVED

  • Roland Garros’s early life

Roland Garros was born in 1888 in Saint-Denis de la Réunion. However, he studied in Paris, at the prestigious HEC school, before starting his own business as a car seller near the Arc de Triomphe. Garros was an accomplished sportsman, who had especially taken on cycling to restore his health after having suffered severe pneumonia as a teenager – however, he never played tennis seriously. His life changed forever in August 1909, when he witnessed an aircraft demonstration in Champagne and enjoyed it so much that he decided to become an aviator. He bought an airplane at once, learnt how to fly it by himself, and obtained his license as early as July 1910.

  • A pioneering aviator

Only two years after starting to fly, the adventurous Roland Garros participated in the Bastille Day parades of July 14. He also took part in several races and set two altitude records, the first one at 3,950m (12,960 ft) in 1911, and the second one at 5,610m (18,410 ft) in 1912. However, his most famous feat was making the first non-stop flight across the Mediterranean Sea, in 1913, from the south of France to Bizerte in Tunisia, a journey that lasted eight hours, during which he had to fix two engine malfunctions. At the time, this achievement gained him considerable fame.

When the Great War, Roland Garros was involved in the very first air battles, and it was him who developed the first interrupted gear. Thanks to this device, French pilots could use a precise and powerful machine gun in flight, which earned them many victories in air battles in the early stages of the war.

In 1915, Garros’s aircraft was shot down by ground fire. He was captured and, not only did he become a prisoner of war for almost three years, but the capture of his aircraft allowed the Germans to copy his interrupted gear and prevail in the air battles that followed.

In 1918, Garros managed to escape and to make his way back to Paris. His health had seriously deteriorated, but he decided to rejoin the Army. On October 5,1918, he was shot down and killed near Vouziers, Ardennes, a month before the end of the war and one day before his 30th birthday.

WHAT NEXT

At the end of 1927, after the famous Four Musketeers had won the Davis Cup for the first time, both directors from the Racing Club and the Stade Français made an offer to buy a piece of land at the Porte d’Auteuil, in the west of Paris.There, they wanted to build the 10,000-seat arena they needed to host the first  Davis Cup Challenge Round to be held in France, as well as a great venue for the French Championships. They went as far as using personal funds to secure the loan, which Emile Lesieur, from the Stade Français, accepted on one condition: the new venue had to bear the name of a fellow member of the Stade Français. This fellow member was Roland Garros, who had died nearly ten years before. The new venue would become so linked in public memory with the French Championships in the eyes of the general public, that the tournament itself would become known as Roland-Garros.

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