I have always been a huge tennis fan. Growing up watching Connors, Graf, Borg, McEnroe, Navratilova, Edberg, Evert-Lloyd, Agassi and the like, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to get anywhere near close to watching the greats of the game in the flesh at iconic venues.
On June 9 all events and interactions in my life culminated in what can only be described as an out-of-body experience that will never ever happen again. Being a Nikon ambassador, I have contact with some of the more influential individuals in the photographic world, and a chance meeting with one of the more senior Nikon management team involved a chat about tennis and my love of the game. (My son, Ethan, is pursuing his dream of getting onto the ATP tour and that has amplified my love of the sport exponentially.) We got chatting about photography and I expressed that one of the items on the top of my bucket list, was to photograph Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros. Rafa has always been to me, the epitome of what a sportsman should be. Competitive, but not aggressive, confident, but humble – he is my all-time favourite sports star. The Nikon manager and I shared a few more stories and I remember thinking how cool my life was that I have the privilege of meeting and interacting with such amazing, passionate people. Fast forward a few months to a moment that I will always remember. I received a text saying that there was one press pass available for me for the 2021 French Open, if I wanted it. Really?? Is the Pope Catholic? Jokes aside, I still cannot believe that someone who I knew for a relatively short space of time would go to the effort to do something like this for me.
I left home in the early hours of the Saturday morning aptly named “Super Saturday”, as the three best tennis players of all time were playing on the same day. Something that will probably never happen again. Arriving in Paris five and half hours later and shaking with excitement, I registered at the accreditation desk and was assigned my locker and desk. I quickly unpacked what I was going to shoot with and headed to the outer courts. For the gear freaks, I had the Nikkon D6 and D5 for my bodies, the 180-400, 70-200, 24-70 and 14-24 lenses. Most of the shots were with the D6 and the 180-400 or 70-200. The D6 is a beast of a camera with14 FPS and a really cool new 105-point all-cross-type AF system that is phenomenal. The built in WiFi allows you to send images to your phone or iPad immediately making it the ideal sports or event camera. I have never been to Roland Garros, so have nothing to compare it to, but it was just the right amount of busy. I’m aware that during “normal times” it would be jammed packed with tennis enthusiasts, maybe too packed for my liking. Because of the Covid restrictions, there were a lot fewer people allowed onto the stands, which made moving around so easy, I could literally shoot from anywhere in the stands. What a pleasure! I had an “All Access ” pass which allowed me free reign. After shooting on the outer court for an hour or so, I headed to Court Phillipe Chatrier where Novak Djokovic was playing. What an athlete! He is so quick around the court and watching him, or any of the players on TV is nothing like the real thing. After shooting for around 15 mins, I was tapped on the shoulder (with me that usually means that I am doing something I shouldn’t be doing) and it was the head of accreditation from the French Tennis Federation. “Monsieur Florens?” “Yes?” I replied tentatively. “I thought that was you – with your Nikon shirt on – I am Christophe, let me show you some great places to shoot.” As if I didn’t think that I was already living the dream, I was shown how to get into “The Pit” where you are below the court and if you don’t keep an eye on the ball, you could get literally get whacked by one traveling at nearly 200k per hour! Wow, what an incredible view point. I had been keeping an eye on the time, as the Djokovic and Nadal matches overlapped and as much as I was enjoying seeing Novak in action, I headed to Court Suzanne Lenglen to see the phenomena that is Rafael Nadal. Well, when he entered the arena, the crowd erupted and my dream had come true. I think I ran off 200 images of the warmup alone! I was determined to get some amazing shots of my hero, this incredible athlete. As you can see from the image sent to me by my friend, Luc, who saw me on TV, I was in the best position to shoot and as mentioned, I moved around from court-side, to the pit, to the highest point of the grandstand to get as many different angles as I could. Rafa was amazing and as clinical as always. It was such an honour to be in the presence of greatness for those few hours. After the Rafa match, I headed to the merchandise store to buy a few mementos and get something to eat and drink. Having refueled, I headed to Court Simonne Mathieu to watch Berrittini battle it out with Kwon and loved shooting in the newest of the Roland Garros courts. Then I had an anticipating wait until Roger Federer stepped onto the court, as he was due to play at 9pm. There was a curfew in place at that time, which meant that the match was played without crowds. This made it all the more surreal – there were around 8 photographers, the players and support staff, umpires, ballkids and a few TV crew, not more than 100 people in total watching. It felt like they were playing just for us. Insane. I remember seeing the “Fedal” match in Cape Town on TV thinking – “How can anyone see anything from so far away? And I am now so close I could hand the players their towels!” Crazy. I headed to the pit where I met one of the nicest pro-photographers ever – he was Roger’s personal photographer and he was shooting with the D6 and Z6 cameras. He had been covering the tour since 1978 I asked he what he thought of the Z series and he said that he was still getting used to it. “It’s like a computer!” he exclaimed. “Let me show you a few things to get you going”, I offered. I had recently been on a shoot for Nikon where, for two weeks I shot intensively with the Z series, from the small, compact Z50 through the Z5,6ii, and Z7ii models so know my way around them really well. After a 5 minute lesson, he was really impressed with my knowledge and was really grateful for what he had learned. I then tentatively asked him how he nails his focus with such fast moving players through the net. My time to learn. “Don’t tell anyone that I told you this…..but put it onto auto. It’s amazing.” Auto? Really? Wow, how right he was. The AFC-Auto mode is so intuitive and incredibly sharp even under the lower light conditions. The night ended at around 1.45am with me trying to fall asleep with the words from a Counting Crows song echoing in my mind – “And the worst part of a good day is knowing it’s slipping away – That’s one more possibility day that is gone” I never wanted it to end. That was one of the highlights of my life and I will be eternally grateful to my mate at Nikon!! Merci beaucoup. Below are a selection of the images I shot and in the more impressive images, I have given you metadata. The images have been uploaded at full resolution to give you the best possible viewing experience. Please be patient whilst they load.
Great viewpoint in “The Pit”
As close to Star-Stuck as you can get!
D6 180-400 @180mm 1/800s F4 iso1000
D6 180-400 @280mm 1/1600s F4 iso2200