If somebody says to you “tennis” and “Paris”, what comes immediately to mind? The French Open, almost certainly. One of the four so-called Grand Slam tournaments, played at the Roland Garros stadium on the city’s outskirts, it’s the world’s premier event on clay courts. After decades of middling significance—at one time a good seat could be bought an hour before the finals—it has become a major happening in the tennis world in general and Paris in particular.

But the city bears a tennis distinction that is more surprising. It boasts more than 40 municipal tennis locations, with a combined collection of courts that may well surpass 200. It’s all but certain that no other major city anywhere has nearly so many. I’ve often played in Paris, and I had no idea that either of those numbers was anywhere near that large.

That plentitude of courts is scattered around town in an interesting way. The courts in the Jardin du Luxembourg, in the 6th arrondissement, are the only substantial facilities in or near the center of the city. The location is convenient—several Métro stops are within walking distance—and certainly the most prestigious: the beautiful Luxembourg gardens are on the grounds of the former palace built for Queen Marie de Medici, the widow of King Henri IV, which now houses the French Senate.

The great majority of the city’s other facilities are at or close to its outer reaches; most of the “Portes”—the former city gates—have one. Among the arrondissements, the 13th and 15th have the most, the 7th and 8th none at all. In the 5th, a single court—Tennis Poliveau—sits at 39 rue Poliveau (Métro: Saint-Marcel), while 21 courts—more than three times the number at Luxembourg—comprise La Faluère at 113 Route de la Pyramide, in the Bois de Vincennes (12th, Métro: Château de Vincennes). Reservations can be made via the Internet only, at all the Paris facilities except the Luxembourg.

One of the better alternatives to the Luxembourg is located nearby: the Jardin Atlantique (15th), a city park built over the Montparnasse railroad station, on the same level as a small but very good museum, the Mémorial Leclerc/Musée Jean Moulin, commemorating two important figures of Free France and the French Resistance in World War II. Elevators on both sides take you up. Five courts are available.

Tennis Elizabeth at the Porte d’Orléans (14th), with five courts outdoors and four indoors, is another notable venue; the downside there is the proximity of the périphérique, which generates noise antithetical to most players’ concept of an ideal, or even acceptable, tennis venue. The Suzanne Lenglen complex (15th), named after the intriguing, balletic French champion of yesteryear, offers a far better setting, with 12 outdoor courts in a large park; although the périphérique is not far away, it’s not a distraction.

A Senator’s privilege

In the mid-1980s, Paris indoor courts were few and generally unheated. At my little club the single “covered” court was enveloped in canvas, which served only to block out most of the wind. I remember playing there once with the temperature at some 21°F, bringing to mind my short-lived teenage brainstorm involving a heated racquet handle.

Now many municipal courts are covered, although few, if any, are heated. There are also lots of lighted outdoor courts, though none at the Luxembourg. At the top end of the Jardin, senators working late presumably frown on the idea of “their” park being garishly illuminated for the benefit of a handful of tennis-playing plebians.

Furthermore, the Senate has things at the Luxembourg courts quite to its own liking. Senators and staff members have priority on two of the courts whenever they choose to exercise the right, which, it seems, is dismayingly often. Priority on the other four goes to two other sizable groups: children, on Wednesdays during the school year; and “clubs” whose origins are as mysterious as their presence is predictable. Club members can cavort for up to two hours in succession, which is, as I will explain shortly, four times as long as the average length of a session.

Next to the multitude of courts, the best things about playing on Paris’s municipal courts are the fees and the court surfaces. The basic price is a very reasonable €4.50 per half hour, one hour at €7.50—and a bit more, reasonably enough, for indoor or lighted outdoor courts. Kids get discounts; so do players buying a 110 € (reduced rate of 58,50 €) ten-hour package-deal forfait; seniors don’t, although they do for many other things, including movie and train tickets.

Playing on clay

Many years ago, most, if not all, of the municipal courts had “soft” surfaces. But if that conjures images of the immaculate, lovingly tended terre battue (literally “beaten earth”) clay at Roland Garros, conjure again. Even at the Jardin du Luxembourg the surface was simple dirt, much like the ordinary pebbly stuff outside the courts’ chicken-wire fences. Balls headed in a certain direction could, when they bounced, take off on an entirely different vector.

Today, terre battue, where available in municipal facilities, can still be dodgy; it’s expensive to maintain and, if not rolled and watered properly and regularly, becomes dry, dusty, pebbly, sometimes almost corrugated. Paris’s standard municipal surface, called Quick, is free of all those defects. It’s “hard”, durable and produces a medium-speed, thoroughly reliable bounce. In addition, it dries with impressive speed, a major advantage in a city where showers are a way of life.

Habitués of the Luxembourg courts know that the best time to get straight on is just after a shower, when less-calculating types think the courts will be too wet to play. This involves, however, a delicate decision: if you take to a Quick terrain that’s still even a bit too wet, you risk slipping, falling and getting a nasty abrasion.

Equal time

Lest the foregoing comes across as an unadulterated endorsement of Paris’s municipal tennis, it must be said that there are a few negatives. The most important downer, for lovers of the Luxembourg, involves the allotted length of play—like the impossibility of Internet reservations, it’s a hitch particular to the Luxembourg Garden’s much-coveted courts.

Across virtually the entire world, the accepted length, in private and public facilities alike, is one hour for singles and anywhere from one to two hours for doubles. At the Luxembourg, it is 30 minutes for either singles or doubles—a period so short, so insufficient, so unsatisfying, that it brings gasps of disbelief from foreigners confronting The System for the first time.

No one has ever explained satisfactorily why les responsables think tennis can be enjoyed if there’s barely time to warm up. Parisians I’ve questioned greet the inquiry with a Gallic shrug. My own guess is that the half-hour rule is a twisted offshoot of the French passion for égalité: better to have hordes of citoyens playing for an inadequate period than far fewer for an adequate one.

The half-hour rule at the Luxembourg has led to some conniving and even bizarre behavior. Inside the little green tennis house, where a blackboard lists the names of those waiting to play, other kinds of games can determine who actually gets on the court when. Aspirants can be struck from the board for being 30 seconds late to plunk down their money. Arguments often flare about who’s ahead of whom. Habitués looking to play doubles for half-hours on end know how to space their names so that when one playing period expires, another in their foursome qualifies for the next one.

Logic loses

Much of the skullduggery is ignored by the gardiens who preside over the list and generally—but often irregularly and far from impartially—enforce the rules. Those gardiens can be an unpleasant lot. They are widely, whether rightly or not, suspected of pocketing some of the court fees and of accepting bribes in exchange for secretly reserving courts in advance.

Some 15 years ago, a legally resident American went to the mairie of the 6th arrondissement to suggest a more logical plan. “I proposed an hour for singles and somewhat more for doubles,” he said. “I mentioned the New York City system, with season cards that allow you one session per day at the Central Park courts and more if nobody’s waiting. It was all logical, and it would have worked.” The result? “They looked at me like I was crazy.”

So the half-hour rule at the Lux marches on, as do some grumpy gardiens. But that doesn’t apply at any of the other Paris courts, in their plentitude, with their reasonable fees, good court conditions and hour-long, Internet-reserved sessions. And at the Lux, the location and the sheer beauty of the surroundings makes even a short stint a pleasure. Odd as it may seem, therefore, if you really enjoy tennis, pack your racquet for your next flight to Aéroport Charles de Gaulle. www.paris.fr/tennis

From the France Today Archives. Updated in May 2014.

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  1. We are here for 55 days and wish to play singles daily at Luxembourg Gardens tennis courts but do not know how to get a court. Please advise the best way to get to play. Thanking you in advance, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Pratt