One-Slam Wonder Still Loved in France
Yannick Noah waving to the crowd at Roland Garros after winning the 1983 French Open. His father, Zacharie, is draping his arm around Noah.
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
Published: May 25, 2008
PARIS — It is a nostalgic time in France, and the tennis world is in the same mood.
Paris intellectuals have spent much of the year filling air and space with ruminations on the deeper meaning of the student demonstrations that peaked 40 years ago, in May 1968, but tennis has its own anniversary to analyze.
It has been 25 years since Yannick Noah won the French Open, beating Mats Wilander in the final, then leaping, dreadlocks flying, into the arms of his father, Zacharie, and embedding himself in the memory banks of a generation or two.
Noah had just turned 23 and would never come close to winning another Grand Slam title, but the nature of that lone victory was enough to secure him a permanent place in the French cultural firmament. A one-Slam wonder indeed.
“Certain players of my generation and the generations that followed won many more titles than I did, but very few of them got the same level of love and support that I received,” Noah, now 48, said in an interview last week with the French magazine Sport.
“Why? The victory in itself only explains about 10 percent of why the French took me to their hearts. The rest, which is the essential thing, is that moment of union between a father and his son.
“Normally, you don’t cry for joy in your father’s arms in public. For me, it happened in front of thousands of spectators and millions of viewers. The image of a tough athlete got submerged, and humanity took over.”
It certainly did not hurt that Noah, the son of a black Cameroonian soccer player and a white French mother, was as handsome as a male model and bright and sensitive enough to be able to express his hopes and fears with a soft-spoken eloquence.
It certainly has not hurt his profile since then that no other Frenchman has won the French Open title or any other Grand Slam singles title. But what has also helped is that 25 years later, Noah has embedded himself in the memories of a new generation or two for a very different reason.
That is not because the eldest of his five children, Joakim, plays for the Chicago Bulls. It is because Yannick Noah has fulfilled many an athlete’s pipe dream by becoming a legitimate pop star, selling millions of his albums in a second career that began with the release of the single “Saga Africa” in 1990, his last full year on the circuit.
Not that Noah, the chanteur, appeals to every Frenchman. “I think I wish he would still be playing, then he would not be singing,” said Philippe Bouin, the lead tennis writer for the sports daily L’Equipe.
But even though his range with a microphone in hand is not quite as impressive as his range at the net in his prime, he consistently draws big crowds when he tours in France. And on Friday night, he and Wilander, long a good friend, picked up their rackets and played a lighthearted rematch of their 1983 final on a miniature, makeshift court on top of a barge in the Seine river.
Though a symbolic and sympathetic figure, Noah has had his setbacks. His first two marriages ended in divorce. He has served as a adviser to Amélie Mauresmo at the French Open in an unsuccessful attempt to help her break through and finally play well at her home Grand Slam.
Of late, he has been an occasional adviser to France’s top men’s player, the young and inconsistent Richard Gasquet, who is currently in a tailspin of a slump. But Noah is still viewed as both a bon vivant and a winner here, and what is remarkable is to think how close it came to not happening at all.
If Noah had not managed to hit a few flashy shots at just the right moment at age 11, Arthur Ashe might not have noticed him during his goodwill tour of Yaounde, Cameroon, and might never have recommended him to Philippe Chatrier, then president of the French tennis federation.
Coming into the 1983 season, Noah had yet to advance past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event. But after a late night in Monaco resulted in a miserable first-round loss in Monte Carlo, he remembers walking off the court feeling ashamed and receiving an ultimatum from his coach, Patrice Hagelauer.
Roland Garros, where he had lived and trained as a youngster, was his goal, and he ended up peaking at just the right time. He won the German Open in Hamburg by beating José Higueras of Spain. Once in Paris, he helped himself by beating Ivan Lendl in the quarterfinals.
But he got some help from elsewhere, too. The biggest break came when his 230th-ranked compatriot Christophe Roger-Vasselin stunned Jimmy Connors in the quarterfinals, sparing Noah a semifinal against a champion he had never beaten.
Roger-Vasselin, a friend of Noah’s, was not nearly so intimidating an opponent. Noah did not lose a game in either of the final two sets, which left him fresh to put his attacking skills to use against Wilander, the defending champion, who later affirmed that he had learned more from that straight-set defeat than from any other during his career.
Noah learned plenty from victory, too, not all of it pleasant. Noah struggled after his victory, moving to New York to escape the pressures and expectations in France.
“At Roland Garros, I gave everything and I had achieved my goal, my dream,” Noah said in an interview with Le Figaro. “And after I had managed it, I didn’t have any other dreams. I never imagined myself during the night with the trophy from Flushing Meadows or Wimbledon, which were totally inaccessible in any case for me. And that day on Court Central in Paris, nothing was missing. There was all my family, all my friends, all the people of Roland Garros. I was in my country, in the stadium where I had lived and grown up, dreamed and kissed a girl for the first time. All my life was on this court.”
He would never reach another Grand Slam final and reach only one more Grand Slam semifinal: at the Australian Open in 1990, near the end of his playing career. But there would be more tennis success. It came in December 1991 in Lyon, where Noah, in his first season as France’s Davis Cup captain, called on his charisma to inspire Henri Leconte and Guy Forget to play the tennis of their lives in the final against the United States and its Davis Cup rookie Pete Sampras.
Leconte, in particular, was a sight to behold, slapping winners from seemingly everywhere as he seized the moment, while the young Sampras — rattled by the crowd and the occasion — did not. France and Noah won, putting an end to a 59-year drought. And Noah was soon leading a conga line in the arena, as the team and spectators sang along to “Saga Africa,” which might have seemed like a marketing ploy if not for all that genuine raw emotion.
Understanding the impact of this in France would be difficult for someone now accustomed to seeing French teams win major titles, including the World Cup and European Championship when Zinédine Zidane was at the controls. But Noah the player and Noah the captain set the tone for a new era in French sport and society, one in which victories, even big victories, were well within reach.
Though no French man has won a major singles title since Noah, he does have a true successor.
Mauresmo started playing after watching Noah’s victory on television in 1983 and later reached No. 1 in the world and won the Australian Open and Wimbledon. But the wait for a French men’s champion continues, and with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic all in the men’s mix, the end does not appear near. Gasquet is slumping, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a surprise finalist at this year’s Australian Open, has struggled with a knee injury and is expected to withdraw from the French Open.
“There was a time when it honestly would have bothered me that some other Frenchman would win Roland Garros,” Noah said. “But I’ve moved on. It would now be a pleasure.”