Can You Capture a Backhand in a Watercolor?

In an age of SUVs, he pedals to work on his bicycle.

As millions tap messages on computer keyboards, he communicates with pencil and brush.

And when television cameras shoot digital images of French Open tennis matches across the globe, he captures his images by hand on paper.

He is Franck Lehodey, a droll, unassuming artist whose subject is the 2007 international tennis championships at Roland Garros, one of the shrines of French sport. His assignment is to capture its flavor with a series of watercolor portraits.

Lehodey is following a tradition. Over the years, a small procession of artists have accepted commissions to make art at Roland Garros. Three years ago, Joel Blanc, who used pen, ink and oils, drew a series of sketches shown on French television.

Now, like Blanc, Lehodey continues to defy digital technology, but finds himself a captive of it. To publish his sketches, his works are being scanned and conveyed digitally to the printers.

A former newspaper reporter and photographer, Lehodey is no stranger to modern publishing. His day job during the tournament is to write headlines for a glossy French tennis magazine printed each night during the two weeks of play at Roland Garros.

"I make the titres (titles)," he tells an American reporter.

So, in his head, Lehodey works with words at night and with his hands, he works with watercolors by day.

With many deft strokes, he captures the look and feel of the vast Chartrier tennis stadium built in 1927, its exterior south wall covered with ivy.

Taking the Wide View with a Slow, Steady Stroke

Lehodey's eye is on the wide view: the shape and look of the spectator boxes, the slightly stooped posture of a photographer, the reflection of light on the ivy.

Anyone expecting to see the jet-fast action of a tennis stroke or the angry blur of a player disputing a line call won't find them in Lehodey's sketches. There is too little time to compose an action shot, he complains with a slight smile.

"If you are good," he said, "you can draw someone moving fast. (But) it's very difficult to compete with photography."

This hasn't stopped the artist: "There are many ways of approaching tennis," he said, insisting that it is possible to "conjure" it. "It's a special world," he said.

It's a world in which Lehodey finds himself deeply involved. His employer is the French Tennis Federation, which publishes posters, pamphlets, books, and magazines extolling the virtues of tennis to a public that appears wildly interested in the sport and its personalities.

Yannick Noah, one of the country's tennis heroes from the 1980s, adorns billboards again as a singing star. He will soon be seen in America in an HBO profile on his son, Joakim Noah, the basketball star (and a likely first-round NBA recruit) from the University of Florida. Meanwhile, their country roots for its current tennis stars each year at the French Open.

In this milieu, Lehodey works as an editor, illustrator, and "concepteur" (one who comes up with concepts) for the FFT. "I am Norman," Lehodey told a curious passerby.

It's an explanation as much as a definition. Lehodey is a descendent of the Normans who conquered Britain ("1066," he grins, reminding his listener of the year they invaded.)

So even though Lehodey lives and works in Paris, he remains a Norman at heart: "Inside my head, I live in Normandy all the time," he said.

Two or three days a week and on holidays (he works part time), Lehodey goes to see his children, Marie and Valentin, who live with their mother at Saint Aubin sur Mer, near Calvados, which is more than 160 miles away.

In a matter of days, he will complete a series of sketches that embody history as much as sport. The south wall of the stadium (Tribune C, it is called), will be torn down after 80 years to be replaced with a new structure more congenial to television cameras.

Lehodey's sketches will offer a way of looking back in time at a sight the French associate with their current crop of players as well as the glory years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, when their players captured the Davis Cup from America for the first time.

Since the 1990s, there has been a resurgence of tennis here. A million-plus players belong to the French Tennis Federation, enjoying league and tournament play.

Franck Lehodey's sketches are a reminder that the French spirit of art lives in harmony with its love of sport.