The French Open During World War II: A Hidden History

Rafael Nadal won his sixth title this weekend. The story of two fellow champions the Open would prefer to forget about.



For the sixth time—matching the record set by Bjorn Borg—Rafael Nadal walked off center court at Roland Garros yesterday as French Open champion. He took his place once again in the tournament's roll of honor along with such other multiple conquerors of the terre battue as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Gustavo Kuerton, and Jim Courier, not to mention France's own Henri Cochet and Rene Lacoste—but also Bernard Destremau and Yvon Petra, too. Not that you will find Destremau and Petra listed in the roster of former singles champions on the tournament's official web site, for they won the tournament in 1941 and 1942 (Destremau) and 1943 to 1945 (Petra) when, according to that site, the tournament was "cancelled from 1940 to 1945 due to the Second World War." But that is more of a convenient, than an historical, truth.

For decades after World War II, the day-to-day experience of "ordinary" French life during the war was obscured by two prevailing narratives—that of the all powerful Nazi occupier and that of the heroic Resistance. It was only a quarter century later that Marcel Ophuls's controversial documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity and American historian Robert Paxton's seminal study of Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order first challenged these polarities. These works launched a more searching and disquieting inquiry about the complicated and often ambiguous reality of life in wartime France that has continued ever since.

And this is where those officially ignored Roland Garros champions Destremau and Petra come in, because French tennis provides its own evidence about the nature of everyday life in that troubled time that was long obscured by these conflicting, but also complementary, story lines.

To start with the legendary "Musketeers"—Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra, Jean Brugnon—who wrested the Davis Cup from the United States in 1927, and for whose successful defense of the Cup the stadium at Roland Garros was built the next year: Other than doubles specialist Brugnon, who made it to the United States after France's defeat in 1940, each came to terms, at least initially, with life in a defeated France that was trying to carve out a place for itself as a defeated nation in Hitler's new European order. Most prominently, Borotra, "the bounding Basque," was named Commissaire General a l'Education Physique et aux Sports by Marshall Petain's Vichy regime in the fall of 1940. In that capacity, he undertook to a vigorous effort to regenerate the supposedly "decadent" French nation through sports and exercise until German suspicions about his loyalty led to his dismissal and then his arrest and imprisonment in Germany until May 1945. Rene Lacoste—whose innovative crocodile-logoed shirts continue to set the pace in tennis fashion—was appointed the president of the French Tennis Federation in November 1940 and held that position until September 1943. Henri Cochet, who had played as professional before the war, regained his amateur status in December 1941 and competed at the highest levels of French wartime tennis.

Indeed, within a year after France's defeat in the spring of 1940, French tennis was in full swing and an active competitive schedule was maintained throughout the rest of the war ( as illustrated by these photographs and texts) , notwithstanding a report in the American press that the manufacture of tennis balls had been banned under the terms of the armistice with Germany , a ban, it was explained, "not on tennis balls as such but on rubber in general."

In December 1940, a pioneering "open" tournament was held in Paris in which professionals (including Cochet) were eligible to compete along with amateurs for the first time. The national championships—which were not played in 1940—resumed in the summer of 1941 at Roland Garros, where the men's singles title was won by Bernard Destremau. Destremau repeated as champion the next year. The 1943 championship was won by Yvon Petra, who had been released from a prisoner of war camp. As a French newspaper reported, that year "was a very prosperous period for tennis" with "crowds flocking to Roland-Garros." Perhaps most remarkably, in late July and early August 1944, even as Allied forces were driving on Paris from Normandy, the Roland-Garros tournament went forward, with Petra defending his title before "numerous spectators."

Although it is true that the wartime tournaments were limited to French players, so too had the French championship been before 1925 and the winners of those earlier tournaments are duly recorded as champions on the tournament's official web site. And Petra was no mere wartime hacker—he won the Wimbledon title in 1946. Nor was Destremau. Together with Petra he won the French doubles championship in 1938, defeating the great Don Budge and Gene Mako in the year that Budge won his singles grand slam.

Alan Riding's recent book And the Show Went On, documents the continued vitality of cultural and artistic life in Nazi-occupied Paris. The history of French tennis during World War II tells a similar story, much as France's tennis officialdom may not want to acknowledge it.