Masters of the Courts

Rafael Nadal may be the king of clay court tennis, but these unsung groundskeepers are the true artists of Roland Garros.

Groundskeepers Najim Snoussi, left, and Hamid Tebbi spread a layer of the French Open’s iconic red clay, during the preparation of Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland-Garros earlier this month.

Photographs and Text by Pete Kiehart

PARIS — Rafael Nadal just may be The King of Clay. The Spaniard recently set a record by winning 50 consecutive sets on the surface. He is once again the favorite to win this year’s French Open, the only one of professional tennis’ four grand slams played on clay courts.

But the people who know Roland Garros’s crimson grounds most intimately rarely pick up rackets. They are the tournament’s groundskeepers; some have worked the tournament since before 31-year-old Nadal was born.

“They know the feeling of sliding. They know the feeling of playing,” Fabien Tiquet, a towering groundskeeper, says of the competitors. “What happens underneath, they don’t know.”

Malek Benyahia, 68, is the godfather of the French Open groundskeeping crew.

Tiquet, 37, and his colleagues are responsible for 32 courts that stretch from the…

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