PARIS — Virginie Dollat crouches in a bustling corner at the French Open, creating her art. She says that remodeling Roland Garros could mean the end of what she does.
She works precisely and soundlessly. She dares not make a mistake. Tennis fans stand just a few feet away. Most hardly notice her. They focus instead on her masterpiece.
The Draw. Le Tableau.
Line by line, section by section, spread for all to see on a high, wide wall draped by a green canvas. A map of every battle on the clay courts. A chronicle of fates.
Dollat, 53, a Parisian painter of fine art, started working on Le Tableau for the 2018 French Open on the Saturday before the tournament began. She climbed a steel ladder. She bent and stretched. Then, carefully, methodically, in finely crafted script, she used a thick pen filled with white paint to inscribe the name of every singles player in the tournament.
On the left were the men, or Simple Messieurs in French, 128 of them, starting last name first, with Nadal Rafael.
On the right were the women, or Simple Dames, another 128, ending again last name first, with Halep Simona.
The entire enterprise took six hours.
To show round-by-round progress as the tournament unfurled, Dollat has returned to Roland Garros to update her tableau every day but one: last Saturday, when she worked as a costume maker at a local street fair.
“The tournament moves forward,” she said. “I go along like a flow.”
Fans who stop to scan the latest results see a lithe, brown-haired woman sketching names and scores with the precision of a master calligrapher.
She is familiar to some; this is her 19th year creating the draw.
Henri Leconte, the French great who made it to the singles final in 1988, said Dollat was “barely noticeable for some reason.” But, he added, “When you watch, you can’t believe it. She has such passion. It reminds you of the old ways.”
Like many others who stand nearby, Leconte said he did not know why Dollat does this year after year.
“For the love,” she said, softly. She prefers not to be noticed. “I am here for the love of the creative.”
When Dollat began painting Le Tableau, at the 1999 French Open, the champions were Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. Much has changed since then.
Roland Garros has new courts, new stands, new buildings. Soon the grounds will expand. The centerpiece, Court Philippe Chatrier, built in the 1920s, will be torn down days after this tournament is done, replaced by a stadium with a sleek exterior and a retractable roof. Court No. 1, known as the Bullring, is also set to be demolished.
There are other changes, and Dollat doesn’t like them much. At Roland Garros, as in the world, now “everything is so very fast,” she said.
Even the fans. From her ladder, they seem to walk more quickly than they did two decades ago. They expect results to pop up in the blink of an eye, the click of a keypad.
“They are used to, how do you say, the digital? Yes, the digital,” she said. “They are used to fast.”
She draws a breath. Smiles. Fixes the clip that keeps her shoulder-length hair tucked neatly out of her eyes.
“I do not go fast, I go slow,” she said. “I stay still. This is a meditation. It is delicate work.
“People, they say they like this because they do not see slow very much anymore. More and more over the years, the people, they tell me this. For them, it is maybe a kind of therapy, just to see somebody draw letters and numbers with the hand, with care.”
In the gleaming new Roland Garros, will there always be a place for Le Tableau? Will it be replaced by a digital scoreboard?
Sometime in the next two years, its wall will be torn down to make way for a new pavilion.
François Chaigneau, the French Tennis Federation logistics director, vowed that Le Tableau would be put someplace else, although he was not sure where. He said it would continue to be drawn by hand because “the fans love it.”
But Dollat is skeptical. She considers her future uncertain. “This could be the end,” she said. “I do not know if I will be back after this year. They have not told me what will happen.”
Dollat recalled how, when she first painted Le Tableau 19 years ago, its surface was wood and she used a narrow paintbrush.
Roland Garros replaced the wood with a thin vinyl-like covering attached to the wall. She had to stop using the paintbrush.
She adapted again when a tournament official asked her to modernize her script, like letters on a keyboard. Now she paints block letters.
Stubbornly, though, she retains small flourishes: a graceful twist, like a miniature mustache, at the bottom of her every Q, a dot at the top of every i and every j.
“Better for the eyes,” she said.
Dollat has never seen a French Open match in person. The pass she wears does not allow access to courts. That doesn’t bother her.
“I must concentrate very closely on what I do,” she said. “There is good in the quiet.”
She steps back and surveys her work. Fans take pictures of Le Tableau. Some debate the path forward for their favorites. Others stand in silence, eyes poring over every corner, top to bottom, all the scores, all the names she has written.
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