May 14, 2023
Jean-Paul Belmondo, Roland Garros, 2003
Jean-Paul Belmondo is remembered as a great actor who appeared in nearly a hundred films, the leader of the French new wave (after the great Jean-Luc Godard's A bout de souffle), and a charming Parisian who conquered everybody with his appearance. "Bébel," as he was fondly referred to, rose to popularity in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, he had become a symbol of French cinema, as well as a "national treasure of France." In addition to acting, he enjoyed sports, including tennis, football, and boxing. Indeed, during the last years of his life, the actor who died two years ago could practically only be seen at the Roland Garros tennis tournament. Belmondo spent the last week of May and the first week of June in the west of Paris, following his tennis idols. An anecdote from the 1996 semi-finals confirms his dedication to tennis, when Swiss tennis player Marc Rosset gifted him his racket at the end of the match, saying, "Given that I have been seeing his face for years every day during the fifteen days of the tournament, Jean-Paul is like a friend!" Last year, the first Roland Garros was held without a famous actor. There was a framed photo of him in the spot where he would have sat as proof of his passion and love for tennis.
Roland Garros, 1970s
The French Open, also known as Roland Garros, is the only Grand Slam tournament played on clay court. The Paris tournament dates to 1891 when it was known as the Championnat de France and was only open to French club members. The French Open was quickly renamed Roland Garros after the French aviator in World War I. As tennis became a professional sport in 1968, the competition grew in popularity. The event expanded from five to ten courts in the 1970s to as many as twenty today, including the two main courts, Philippe-Chartier and Suzanne-Lenglen. Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Monika Seleš, Björn Borg, Gustav Kuerten, as well as Justine Henin and the great Steffi Graf, dominated these courts. Yet, many renowned names in tennis, including John McEnroe, Boris Becker, and Pete Sampras, have failed to win this most difficult Grand Slam competition. Nevertheless, the absolute dominance of Roland Garros is led by Rafael Nadal, who has redefined the meaning of success in the tournament with fourteen titles won.
Nadal and his biggest rivals are closely watched from the front rows by members of high society. Looking through the tournament's image record, it's impossible not to notice Jean-Paul Belmondo. He persistently enjoys the finest of tennis under his distinctive sunglasses. Smiling, in good company, ready to pose to the official photographers, but also willing to give advice to the tennis referees.
Belmondo and Boris Becker, 1987
Tennis is known as a silent audience sport because, throughout the game, even the slightest sound, not even a whisper, is forbidden, at least until the point is over, after when there is applauding, cheering, and delirium. Belmondo listened carefully to each point in silence before correcting the judges with enthusiasm. Belmondo sat in the first row, parallel with the baseline (therefore called the “Belmondo baseline”) and was frequently seen raising his hands animatedly to indicate that the ball had gone out. According to Patrice Dominiguez's book L'amour du Tennis (2011), Belmondo sat directly behind the linesman and, therefore, "participated" in the game.
Bébel did not attend Roland Garros solely to be seen or because he was invited. He simply enjoyed the game. The players on the field also enjoyed seeing him in the audience. Belmondo remembers when, after playing a point, the famous Boris Becker found himself right next to the box where Belmondo was sitting, and the famous tennis player proudly greeted him and shook his hand. He was never alone in the box; there was always a large group of people sitting next to him, his partners, and his closest friend.
Belmondo and Gerard, 2011
Belmondo was best friends with the actor Charles Gerard. Belmondo and Gerard have dressed appropriately for Roland Garros in light summer jackets, shirts, as well as sweaters. Most people at the French Open wore hats or the recognisable "bucket hat" to protect themselves from the sun and make it easier to follow the game, but the two didn't bother. Belmondo (like many other actors of his age) was always impeccably dressed in the films he appeared in, and he maintained this appearance on private occasions as well. During his tennis moments, he was always seen in the stands in impeccable clothing solutions, but what he especially liked to complete his clothing choice with was certainly jewellery. Belmondo enjoyed rings (especially on his little finger), bracelets, necklaces, and the inevitable aviator glasses. And maybe he started each outfit with a choice of jewellery? We will never be sure of that, but he radiated charm and, in this case, a love for sports.