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Vive Les Musketeers: The Enduring Mystique of the French Open

by Jim McCready

The Four Musketeers with tournament director Pierre Gillan. (from left): Jacques ("Toto") Burgeon, Henri Cochet, Gillan, Rene ("the Crocodile") Lacoste and Jean Borotra

Most historians agree the very essence of modern tennis has descended from centuries of noble French gamesmanship. From the thousands of court tennis structures cluttering Paris in the 16th and 17th centuries, to the early stories of primitive ball and racquet competition on "terre battue" (red clay), acquiring a French accent for two weeks in May and winning the French Open is every great player's dream.

In the 19th Century the French Open was played on grass at Boulogne-Sur-Mer

The original French Championships, played from 1891 to 1924, were closed events (only French countrymen), and for many years played on grass some miles from the current Roland Garros complex. Top Frenchmen were playing the event, but just like other big tournaments on grass, nothing unique. The defining moment came in the late teens and into the 1920s, when Suzanne Lenglen put French tennis on the map with her unbeaten and flamboyant style at Wimbledon. Following her wave of popularity as the first recognizable female tennis star, the Four Musketeers appeared and conquered all foes in a new home of slow red clay.

Enter Rene Lacoste, the supreme baseline strategist; Henri Cochet, playing a youthful and modern on-the-rise game; Jean Borotra, a personality with Houdini tricks; and doubles-specialist, Jacques Brugnon. Overnight, France had the most powerful David Cup team. Because of the success of this traveling troupe and the fierce rivalry between American Big Bill Tilden and the Musketeers, a state-of-the-art complex was built to house these great match-ups in defense of the Cup. Defend it they did, and the French tennis federation flew a proud flag over Roland Garros, attracting a giant international field, year after year. Then in 1938 Don Budge laid claim to winning the four major international titles in one calendar year, elevating the quest for the Grand Slam to it's history-making pinnacle for decades to come.

Cochet (left) and Tilden had a tremendous rivalry over the courts that translated into professional matters as well.

Cochet played a modern on-the-rise game. Tilden was a power and strategy player. Photo taken at Roland Garros, 1933. Roland Garros in 1928 was the new temple of world-class tennis, where the Four Musketeers were practically unbeatable.

Who were the Musketeers? Lacoste appeared on the scene first in the mid-1920s. An inquisitive young man, he mastered his competitive strategies by being a pioneer and charting Tilden's matches, in an effort to break Tilden's "king of the court" status. From 1920 to 1926, Tilden didn't lose a significant match anywhere in the world. Lacoste, successful at playing a slow, tantalizing game from the back court, was a champion when most events were contested on a grass surface. An ancient Borg, perhaps?

Henri Cochet, a talented athlete, was actually the first to defeat Big Bill. On Bill's home court at the US Nationals in 1926, Cochet came from behind, hitting the lines in a fury of aggressive, on-the-rise plays, taking away Tilden's bid for a seventh straight national title. Later it was learned Big Bill had twisted his knee during the match. Nonetheless, this was the first of many hard-fought victories for the deserving Frenchman.

Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon, the two lesser know, but very valuable part of the foursome, also had important wins between them. Borotra was nick-named the "Bounding Basque", because of his acrobatic pranks in front of thousands during big matches. Once, in a doubles match, he was struck on the head with a ball in a close exchange and lay motionless for minutes, sending quite a stir through the crowd. Moments later, he got to his feet and played better than ever. Tilden despised his show-stopping antics, but lauded his competitive skill. Brugnon, primarily a doubles specialist, was a chameleon, completing an effective team when any one of his compatriots were in need.

Roland Garros in 1930 was the new temple of world-class tennis, where the Four Musketeers were practically unbeatable.

In the 19th Century the French Open was played on grass at Boulogne-Sur-Mer. Tilden and the American brigade kept the Davis Cup and most Slam titles as secure as Fort Knox directly after World War I. But the Musketeers were one for all and all for one, and from that first Forest Hills' moment, they fought and defeated the worlds' best regularly. Just as it is today, a Grand Slam title was the mark of greatness, and the Frenchmen as a team, won a total of 51 singles and doubles crowns, 49 of them (except Cochet's 1922 French singles and 1945 doubles win) within the 12 years between 1924 and 1936. Lacoste had 11; Cochet, 14; Borotra, 15; and Brugnon, 11, strictly in doubles.

Although the Musketeers have all passed away, their legacy and tournament records stand proud. Individually they garnered a sterling collection of career titles. As a band of four, their records are the real reason why the French Open has a deep history of character and the ambiance of a magnificent championship.


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