Just when Roland Garros had regained its footing on one level, it lost its footing on another level.
In 1973, Roland Garros — able to field 128 men in its main draw after failing to do so in 1972 — should have been able to enjoy a restored identity. The U.S. Open had gone through minor growing pains as well in the first years of the Open Era. It had a field of just 108, not 128, in 1970, before restoring a 128 field in 1971. The non-Wimbledon majors were trying to put their events on the same plane of significance and stature with the Big W. Tennis was facing a new landscape.
Therefore, Roland Garros — by regaining its 128-player men’s field — should have reveled in the recapturing of stability. It should have felt it had reclaimed its mojo. It got its groove back.
Well, apparently not. Roland Garros panicked.
The tournament thought it couldn’t handle best of five sets all the way through that 128-player draw. It went to best of three sets in the first two rounds before moving to best of five in the final five rounds.
Worse, it didn’t abandon the experiment after 1973. It kept that format in 1974 and 1975.
In 1976, Roland Garros returned to a full best-of-five format. It took three years for Roland Garros to get with the program.
Let’s underscore one key point about all of this:
In 1972, Roland Garros did not have tiebreakers. It adopted the tiebreaker in 1973.
As most people are aware of, the 1969 Wimbledon tournament featured a match (Pancho Gonzales-Charlie Pasarell) which had a 46-game first set, a 30-game third set, and a 20-game final set: 22-24, 1-6. 16-14. 6-3, 11-9. That marathon gave rise to the tiebreaker at the U.S. Open in 1970. Wimbledon adopted the tiebreaker in 1971.
If Roland Garros wanted to contain the length of its matches, merely using the tiebreaker would have been sufficient. In 1968, 1969 or 1970 — before the tiebreaker came into existence at the majors — the French Open would have contained some structural consistency if it had insisted on best of three in the first two rounds. Once the tiebreaker was a possibility in 1971 at Roland Garros, the avenue to shorter matches without sacrificing best of five was available. RG didn’t take it.
It refused the tiebreaker in 1972. It then adopted the tiebreaker in 1973, which WAS the solution by itself… but it then added best of three in the first two rounds.
Tennis. Tumult. This sport makes no sense on many levels today, but it made even less sense in the mid-1970s at Roland Garros.