Skip to main content
Original Issue

Noah and the deluge

The French have rained cheers on their new idol at center court, Yannick Noah

If he were an American, he'd be on posters, into residuals, under a microscope and over the rainbow. Johnny Carson would be talking to him. Johnny Anderson would be soliciting his vote. Pepsodent would call. Margaret Trudeau would dance. Don King would take a percentage. He'd live in Bel Air, drive a Mercedes, get his wardrobe from Giorgio and strut about with a media-inspired nickname, something on the order of the Ebony Cat. But no. Yannick Noah, Le Chat Noir on your language scorecard, is a Frenchman, and at 20 he is a spectacular vision in black and white. He was born in Sedan and spent his early years in the West African country of Cameroon. In less than two years on the international scene he has dazzled the world of tennis as much with his talent as with his looks. Which are some dazzling. Up from Cameroon's capital city of Yaoundè, presumably by way of Hollywood and Vine, Noah, a 6'4", 180-pounder, has crashed his big serve and crackled his myriad athletic skills to a ranking of 17th in the world. More important, he has become France's No. 1 player—Jean-Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois Caujolle, his closest national rival, is 76th on the ATP computer—with all the attention and pressure that station brings.

So it was last week, as the French Open began on the bronze clay of Roland Garros Stadium, that an entire nation stood on tiptoe to see how its new phènomène would perform. Noah had arrived in Paris directly from his best showing in a major tournament—impressive in that he reached the finals of the Italian Open, but somewhat illusory in that he had defeated Eddie Dibbs (who retired with an injury) and Tomas Smid to get to the title match against Guillermo Vilas. Though he lost in straight sets, 6-0, 6-4, 6-4, Noah declared that in the second half of the match he had played the best tennis of his life. Now, back home on his own stomping grounds—literally, in fact, his apartment being in Porte d'Auteuil, a short and fragrant tree-lined stroll from Roland Garros, and Noah tends to stomp about the courts in rather monstrous strides—he continued to assert himself.

In the first round Noah battered Roberto Vizcaino of Spain 6-0, 7-5, 7-5, and in the third he disposed of Eliot Teltscher, the young Californian who had reached the semifinals in Rome, 6-3, 6-0, 7-6. Both were cases of a good big man overpowering a good little man. But it was in the second round that Noah proved his mettle by surviving a tingling five-setter against the shrewd and polished 16th seed, Jose Luis Clerc. The match wound through four hours and over parts of two days before Noah won 6-3 in the fifth. Clerc, a dirt-court specialist who had upset John McEnroe to highlight Argentina's Davis Cup victory over the U.S. in March, admitted that Noah's height, intimidating manner and weight of shot "give me nerves," while Noah said it might have been his proudest victory.

Of utmost satisfaction to Noah undoubtedly was his ability to steel himself not only at the end of the match—he recovered from a 1-6 collapse in the fourth set—but also in the beginning, when he had to uphold French honor amid a center court of fuming Parisians who had just watched Caujolle pitifully blow a two-sets-to-love, five-games-to-two, match-point lead over Jimmy Connors.

Caujolle, who is French tennis' Warren Beatty to Noah's Billy Dee Williams, barely missed a backhand pass on match point, but then he rapidly disintegrated. He petulantly disputed line calls, lost 17 of 19 games, unloaded one disgust-laden tape-measure blast that cleared the stadium heading for Switzerland and finally smashed his racket to sawdust. After his monumental, choking give-up, Caujolle received a well-earned, unmerciful booing. But an angry Noah disagreed with the spectators' reaction. "I am not surprised," he said. "The crowd, it is very awful here. If you are French, they want you to win so badly. Until you lose, then they don't know you."

On Sunday, having earned the round of 16 in the national championships, not to mention the most important moment of his career, it was Noah's turn to face Connors. Though he had to default with a pulled thigh muscle after 97 minutes, Noah struggled admirably, extending Connors in 7-5, 6-4 sets in which experience was the telling factor. This time nobody booed. All of France has come to know him too well for that.

Noah was discovered by Arthur Ashe while Ashe was on an exhibition safari to the mountainous rain forests of Cameroon 10 years ago. That smacks of Schwab's drugstore stuff, yet Ashe swears all is on the level: winsome child, 10 years old and tiny, slaps away at ball with beat-up piece of racket on insect-covered mud court. Celebrity notices, gives child one of own rackets. Celebrity hits a few, tells kid to take his best shot. Boom. Ace. Tells kid to check out a return. Ka-bock. Half-volley off shoetops. Winner.

"First he serves right down the middle past me. Then he whaps one clean into the open court," said Ashe last week. "Here was this little chocolate-colored person knocking the absolute hell out of the ball. I said to myself, what is this? He hit it then the same way he does now. Only now he's a giant." Ashe laughed. "Our next Great Black Hope."

Noah is hardly an "Ashe protègè," as most people reverently assume. After telephoning his friend, Philippe Chartrier, president of both the French and International Tennis Federations, to notify him of "a colonial subject" who could play a little, Ashe left Noah's fate in the hands of the French. The Federation persuaded Noah's parents he had potential—Zac Noah was once a professional soccer player in France and understood the ropes—so, at 11, Yannick left Africa, as he says, "pretty much forever."

"It was very difficult to depart from home," Noah says. "My grandfather was wealthy, with much land. We had horses, a swimming pool, a big garden. It was warm. In France I was so alone, living in a pension, working hard, bad weather. I went home for Christmas and there were many tears. I didn't want to go back to tennis."

But he did go. Noah attended high school in Nice and trained under Patrice Beust, a respected junior tennis coach. Noah's mother, Marie-Claire, a white Frenchwoman, and his two younger sisters, Nathalie and Isabelle, followed him to Nice and live there still. But Noah dropped out of school to concentrate on tennis and went to Paris under the tutelage of Patrice Hagelauer, coach of the French national squad.

Noah's progress has been remarkable. In 1977 he reached the Junior Orange Bowl final against Ivan Lendl and was two points from the match but eventually lost. In 1978 he had two victories in small tournaments in Manila and Calcutta. Last year he won back-to-back championships in Madrid over Manuel Orantes and in Bordeaux over Harold Solomon. And in 1979 Noah made the round of 16 in the U.S. Open before losing in five sets to Johan Kriek.

Noah's well-rounded game bodes well for him on all surfaces. He grew up on clay and seems to have the necessary top-spin as well as the temperament that clay's waiting game demands. His oppressive service, agility and lithe quickness at net (aside from an obvious weakness on the backhand volley) make him formidable on fast courts as well. Veteran tour players are practically unanimous in predicting a Top Ten future for Noah. Ashe says that when Noah shortens his bolo windup backswing and learns the true value of his personal intimidation, he can win Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow and "be [Pancho] Gonzalez all over again."

A marvelous phrase defining Noah's character is Chartrier's: "He has the will of his means." Confidence. Burning desire. Fist-shaking, screaming emotionalism. A dig-it-out, fighting spirit. These also distinguish Noah from the stereotype French player whose guts are basically the texture of pommes frites. Besides Caujolle, two other Frenchmen, Denis Naegelen and Christophe Casa, had a total of five match points in the early rounds and ended up chok...uh, losing.

Noah has not only a valiant spirit but also a romantic heart. One of his adventures has caused severe trouble within the Davis Cup team. Then there are the complaints from Cameroon that Noah never publicly recognizes Africa, that he has forsaken his heritage and hasn't paid his dues to his people. Ironically, it is the same cross Ashe once bore.

"I have never had a problem being black," says Noah in a soft, lyrical English that is almost perfect, or at least more euphonious than that of, say, McEnroe. "But the Cameroon Federation never helped me. The reason was my mother was white. Then they want me to say they helped me. It is too late. I have no responsibility to a race or to a country. Just to my family. In the United States people look at me funny. But I don't care. I don't need to have contact. Here, being No. 1 is more pressure than being black."

On Sunday, Noah could have tasted the tension as he faced Connors. Seventeen thousand people in Roland Garros urged him on as he served for the first set at 5-4. But Noah got a bad bounce, then was tentative with an overhead. He was broken at 15 as Connors ultimately won 12 of the last 14 points.

At 4-5, deuce, in the second set—Noah having just saved one set point—Connors delicately angled a backhand touch volley when Noah was trapped in the far corner. But he came roaring after the ball anyway, took a huge slide, which appeared to begin somewhere in the Bois de Boulogne, and finished up splaylegged, on his back and hurt. He came up limping. After a three-minute delay, Noah tried to serve, but he couldn't move for Connors' return and was forced to retire. "AB" the French write it. Abandonnè.

"This guy is big and strong and solid off both sides," Connors said later. "The more confidence and experience he gets, the better he'll get." Jimbo was asked if Noah had a chance to intercept that ill-fated volley. "With those big strides, it's difficult for him to keep under control," Connors said. "He would have had to make a great shot, but he got pretty close."

Which is approximately where Noah seems to be relative to the elite class in his game. And getting closer.


When he was 10 years old, the lithe and lethal Noah aced Ashe.