If its name evokes more the mythical Parisian grand slam tournament, Rafaël Nadal’s lifts, the “Vamos” and the ocher earth, Roland Garros was above all a king in the domain of the skies, a story now unknown. “It’s all the paradox: he is the most famous aviator in the country while a majority of French people do not know that he flew”, smiles the historian Luc Robène, specialist in the history of sport and author. from the series of books The man who conquers the air (The Harmattan, 1998).
A century ago, the name of Roland Garros only evoked its own legend, far from racket blows. It must be said that the aviator did everything at the time to fuel his myth, chasing record after record, and himself inviting the press to follow his exploits. You are never better served than by yourself, it seems, even if it is to write your legend. So the aviator was on all fronts: height record (nearly 5,000 meters above sea level), races won, and distance crossing never equaled then, including the nearly 800 kilometers of the Mediterranean in 1913.
Legends and sportsmen
The era lends itself particularly well to legends. Aviation is in its infancy, and is still seeking its limits. It’s up to the bravest, reckless and daredevil pilots to find them and fend them off. The pilots, precisely: if you want to become famous, this beginning of the century is made for you. Roland Garros crossing the Mediterranean is a bit of a mix between Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon and Kylian Mbappé winning the World Cup.
Because aviation at that time was above all sport, and even the king of sports. “In several sports dailies, aviation represented 40% of the pages. Aviation was then neither used for war nor for public transport. It was a practice reserved for a few insiders, but which fascinated the crowds, ”abounds Luc Robène. When the aviator won the First Grand Prix of the Aéro-club de France, in 1912, a sort of race from hell where you had to do the Angers-Cholet-Saumur triangle seven times in two days, i.e. 1,100 kilometers in total , he was crowned champion of champions and athlete of the year by the media.
Sportsman, Roland Garros is certainly, even if he does not particularly practice tennis. The posterity of his name in the small world of the yellow ball, he owes it… to rugby, and to his friendship with Emile Lesieur, whom he rubbed shoulders with at the Stade Français in 1906. Twenty-one years later, it is the latter who will demand that we give the name of his friend to the future Parisian tennis stadium, otherwise he would not give a penny to help finance it.
Alone in the world
Roland Garros has another trump card of destiny to mark history: its nationality. France was, before the Great War, THE country of aviation. “Any French exploit becomes world famous in the second”, supports Luc Robène. The good homeland, the perfect era, “RG” accumulates the nudges of destiny. But nothing was acquired for as much: he learned to drive alone, between 4 and 6 am, in Issy-les-Moulineaux (Hauts-de-Seine), the land being privatized after dawn.
Place therefore in the crossing of the Mediterranean, in 1913. To resituate the exploit, the crossing of the English Channel – about forty kilometers against nearly 800 for the flight of Roland Garros – was carried out the first time only four years ago. year. It is therefore a distance twenty times longer than the aviator will cover alone. “A real technical, sporting and human feat”, ignites Luc Robène.
And a lot of courage, since he was not followed by any ship at sea in case of glitches, and his plane consisted of wings, a propeller and 200 liters of gasoline. “A flammable bomb”, for the historian. It took off on September 23, 1913 from Fréjus and landed in Bizerte (Tunisia) after 7 hours and 53 minutes of flight and an average speed of 101 kilometers per hour. For the little anecdote, when it lands, there are only five small liters of gasoline.
The war is coming
It was enough to make him a hero and the darling of Tout-Paris. The next great crossing in the history of aviation, the Atlantic, will only take place after the war, in 1919 by Alcock and Brown, and especially in 1927 by Charles Lindbergh, in a completely different era. We are not there and Roland Garros has plenty of time to be celebrated as it should be.
“All the time”, yes and no. A year later, the First World War begins and there is no privilege, even for the stars of the time. Anyway, as before a new challenge, “RG” is voluntary, and even innovative: he proposes to place a weapon at the end of its propeller, “at a time when aviation is only seen as useful for observation and not as a real tool of war”, supports the historian. Roland Garros is already conceptualizing what will become the modern fighter aircraft, ahead of its time.
His plane was shot down in action on October 5, 1918, three weeks before the armistice. Prisoner for three years from 1915, he insisted on returning to battle, while George Clemenceau would like to preserve him in the rear. “He owes this extended life in war solely to the fact that he was a prisoner,” notes Luc Robène. The overwhelming majority of pre-war air sportsmen died during the first two years of the conflict. At the end of these four years of horror, aviation is no longer a sport, but a tool of war like any other, and soon a means of transport. The romanticism of the first flights is dead, the plane is no longer a myth but an increasingly tangible reality, and the heroes of yesteryear are no longer celebrated but rest in silence in cemeteries. Apart from Roland Garros, known for a clay-court tournament far from its desires for heaven, who even today remembers their names? The dream is over, the dreamers will have been beautiful.