As prominent as France is as a tennis nation, over the last 60 years, only once has a native son won the singles title at Roland Garros. As you might expect from this regal republic, that champion is no upstart interloper, but an enchanting member of tennis royalty. Ladies and gentleman, we give you Yannick Noah.
Even Noah's peers -- a fairly jaded lot -- describe him as bigger than life, a towering figure like no other this highly individual sport has ever seen. "He is an artist of life," said Mats Wilander, the man Noah beat in the 1983 French Open final. "Wherever he goes, there is sunshine. We all love him for that."
Noah stands 6 feet 4 inches tall, a large-bodied soul who prowled the court like a panther, particularly when he struck his massive serve and charged the net. "He covered the net so well, he'd make you hit yet one more passing shot," said his contemporary, former top-10 player Tim Mayotte. "He could really tough things out."
Hall of Famer Dennis Ralston, who coached Noah late in his career, echoes Mayotte, saying that "when he stepped on the court, you knew he would compete right to the end. He'd just swarm people."
One reason Noah created so much competitive commotion was technical. Aside from his exquisite service motion and superb overhead, the rest of his technique was scarcely orthodox. The backhand was often sliced, not so much with the smooth, knife-like crispness of a Ken Rosewall but more of an awkward hack that awkwardly would twist the ball. The forehand often was shoveled, Noah appearing to will the ball into the court more than strike it efficiently. Even the volleys, while often effective, were reliant more on agility than carefully-orchestrated body work.
At the age of 11, Noah had been spotted by Arthur Ashe on a trip Ashe had taken to Africa. A call from Ashe to French tennis honcho Philippe Chatrier had helped the young Cameroon resident get coaching. And while certainly Noah gobbled up tennis with his heart and soul, the urgency and passion with which he pursued the opportunities by this sport meant he had little patience for the intricacies of ballstriking.
But if not an exemplary craftsman, Noah was an impassioned artist, a happy warrior who could summon up great emotions and competitive willpower on many a high-stakes occasion. "He was the kind of guy who could turn winning one big point into 10 winning points," said analyst Jimmy Arias, who beat Noah 7-5 in the fifth in a scintillating quarterfinal at the '83 U.S. Open. "His energy was amazing."
True to form, following that epic, the defeated Noah came to net and hugged Arias: Together, they had created a masterpiece. "Losing a match that tight would have infuriated me," Arias added, "but not him: pure class."
Never was Noah's love of the stage more vivid than at the '83 French Open. It was a perfect storm convergence. Wilander said "the clay that year was really, really fast," a perfect fit for Noah's attacking game. Reaching the quarters without the loss of a set, the sixth-seeded Noah played Ivan Lendl, a formidable opponent but not yet the giant he would become. Noah won in four sets. His semifinal opponent likely appeared to be No. 1 seed Jimmy Connors, a player Noah had failed to take a set off in four matches. But Connors was upset by Frenchman Christophe Roger-Vasselin. An inspired Noah, out to prove he was the nation's true hope, smoked Roger-Vasselin, 6-3, 6-0, 6-0.
Losing a match that tight would have infuriated me, but not him: pure class.
Then came the final. Wilander, winner the year before, thought there was no way he could lose.
"And then, after 10 minutes," said Wilander, "I saw there was no way I was going to win." Noah's technical deficiencies vanished amid repeatedly inspired net rushing. He won the first two sets, 6-2, 7-5. The third reached a tiebreak. Noah having burnt incandescent all match, each player knew this could tell the whole story. "But Yannick knew what he needed to do," Wilander said.
Inspired by the cheers of 17,000, Noah closed out the match. The crowd erupted. Not since 1946 -- just a year after World War II -- had a native son won Roland Garros. Noah's father, Zacherie, ran out of the stands to embrace his son in a tearful, joyous embrace. Said Noah afterwards, "I am doubly happy because I did not win this alone. It was with my family, my friends and the French Federation. It is our victory."
Though three years later he would reach a career-high ranking of No. 3 in the world, never again would Noah advance past the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. It hardly mattered. Already popular before winning Roland Garros, the victory made Noah a French icon, a celebrity who currently sings, entertains and continues to captivate the hearts of his countrymen and others.
It all had been inspired by the confidence of a man willing to take a long journey. From a tiny African village, he had climbed the mountain and become a national hero. The power of his personal story created a halo wherever Noah walked.
"He was one of those guys who had a capacity to detach his ego from the outcome," said Mayotte. "His whole identity wasn't bound up in his tennis."
Several years ago, playing a senior event, Noah pointed to more combative souls wandering the grounds of an event and noted that, "We all love each other. We don't admit it, not Jimmy, not John, but it's true, it is a fact."
Naturally, Noah's transcendent spirit inspires a whole other line of questioning than one usually applies to athletes. Following Noah's declaration of love, he was asked what makes life worth living?
Said Noah, "The smile on my son's face."
That son turned out to be Joakim, a star on the University of Florida's back-to-back NCAA championship basketball squads.
But that's another story.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.