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The French To A Frenchman

Yannick Noah overwhelmed his countrymen as well as his opponents en route to winning his nation's title

His likeness is spread across magazine covers, posters and the walls of Parisian girls' boudoirs. He attends lectures on philosophy at the Sorbonne, plays guitar in a reggae band, dates a model from Boulder, Colo., shares a TV variety-show stage with actress Annie Girardot and peers off the box of a popular biscuit. The only product Yannick Noah, he of the demi dreadlocks, may be incapable of selling in the Republic of France is hair spray. And now he's the first Frenchman in nearly four decades to win the Championnats Internationaux de France. Vive le Cameroun.

It was 11 long summers ago that the frightened little black child left home and family in the tiny village of Yaoundé, Cameroon in central Africa to come to Paris to learn tennis. He undoubtedly hadn't heard of Rastafarian 'dos back then. But on Sunday, on the sweltering terre battue of Stade Roland Garros, a gloriously skilled and Rasta-coiffed Noah, now 23, finally fulfilled his dream with a 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 victory over the young Swedish defending champion, Mats Wilander. When Noah received his trophy from the last native titlist, Marcel Bernard, who won in 1946, it was obvious how much French tennis had evolved. Bernard is almost bald.

Unlike Noah's results over the previous two weeks, in which he lost only one set—that in the quarterfinals to Ivan Lendl, whom Noah now seems to own in big matches—the final was closer than it may have appeared. Noah had an especially easy time in the semis, where he crushed his compatriot, the Jimmy Connors assassin, Christophe Roger-Vasselin, 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 and exhibited his gentle nature. "C'mon Chris, you can do better," Noah mumbled to himself as his poor rival foundered in the dirt.

Against Wilander, however, Noah had no time for sentiment. He revels in the grand occasion, the entertainment of tennis, the show. The 6'4" Noah is the game's most gifted athlete, and fully aware of his great talent, he often struts about and macho-intimidates the fellow across the tape. Wilander, who won the French last year at the age of—what was it, 12?—was hardly scared. He had won love sets in three of his own matches, including a semifinal defeat of Jose Higueras, who bravely battled throughout the tournament with a painful tennis elbow. But Noah imposed his mighty presence on the final from the beginning. Time and again he followed his backhand scroogy to net for put-away volleys. Up there Noah constantly cheated to the forehand side to intercept Wilander's dangerous down-the-line backhand. A lunging forehand volley at 2-2 of the opening set gave Noah the first break of the match. In the fifth game of the next set, another diving volley got him to break point, which Noah converted. Wilander broke back for five-all with an artistic offensive lob, but in the next game Noah countered with a game-winning lob of his own. He then served out the set by picking off a Wilander backhand.

"It was very strange playing this great final at home," Noah would say later. "I wanted to win so bad it didn't matter how I played, just so I won. But Mats let me play my game. I could stay on the baseline and come in when I wanted."

Noah opened the third set by breaking serve, but then nerves and cramps set in. He looked the weaker player after Wilander immediately broke back and then-held his own serve on three Noah errors to take a 2-1 lead. Wilander had two more break points for 3-1, and Noah was moving slowly between points, favoring his right leg. Was he exhausted or just Jimmy Brown getting up from the gang-tackle? Wilander quickly found out. An ace and a service winner saved the fourth game. Another ace closed out the sixth. A double-pump slam-dunk overhead helped Noah win the 10th at love.

After Noah broke once more with three tough approach shots, the home-court crowd stomped and bellowed for blood as their countryman served for the match at 6-5. Wilander responded with his best game, absolutely coldcocking two returns that seemed to sail through Noah's legs. But in the tie-breaker Noah kept pinning Wilander in the corners, where he was helpless against the Frenchman's headlong dashes to the net.

Speaking of which, Noah's immediate concern following his victory was for his father, Zacharie, who nearly upstaged Noah fils with a 15-foot header out of a box seat and onto the copper dirt. "My first thought was 'Who is that guy?' " said Noah. "Every time he comes here he goes back to Cameroon with more white hair. But now I finally win for my family. Leaving was so very hard. I am happy to show them it paid off."

In certain respects the earlier hours of the French belonged to the American male contingent as much as they did to Wilander and Noah. Arriving in Paris fresh from his triumph at the Italian Open, 18-year-old Jimmy Arias looked like a contender until he was rudely dispatched by Willie Vilas in the round of 16. Still, Arias' European spring remained the most impressive tour of foreign soil by an athlete from the mangy outskirts of Niagara Falls, N.Y. since Sal Maglie was tearing up the Mexican League.

Then, of course, there were our goodwill ambassadors to the world, Jheemee Konorzzz and Jhonn Maceeenreau. The Album Programme at Roland Garros, a beautiful hard-cover book chock-full of stories, stats and pictures that sells for 25 francs (about $3.50) and should be required, reading for promoters of every sporting event in the U.S., contained a terrific color spread of Connors embracing his estranged wife, Patti, and of Patti gazing soulfully alone. To acknowledge current events, the accompanying caption read, "Jimmy l'Incertain...un roman d'amour est mort." But if Connors was uncertain it didn't show on court. Playing with his old energy and desire, Jimbo had what appeared to be an easy draw to the semifinals. Then here came a most improbable stranger on the scene, Roger-Vasselin, a man in possession of three names, two passports—his father being a Frenchman; his mother is from Putney outside London, where Roger-Vasselin was born—and one puffball backhand, which he undoubtedly copied out of a 1930s instructional guide.

Noah called this tall, affable, knock-kneed fellow "Chris," the French crowds chanted "Ro-zhay, Ro-zhay"—"I wish they'd get my name right," Roger-Vasselin said—and the press referred to him as "Vaseline," as if he were the touring pro out of Chesebrough-Pond's. Ranked just 129th, Roger-Vasselin, 25, admitted to once using a spaghetti racket, to being so unfit that when he jogs for 15 minutes he's exhausted and to winning only one match on the circuit this year before Paris. He also could be forgiven his identity problem. Roger-Vasselin has a twin brother living in Massachusetts, and his sister worked the hospitality room at Roland Garros for the player agency ProServ, while he himself is under contract to IMG, ProServ's arch rival.

Roger-Vasselin was lucky to have made the quarterfinals against Connors, having survived Heinz Gunthardt in the third round after losing the first two sets. Yet five days later, Roger-Vasselin greased the skids for Jimbo with slow balls to the soft underbelly of midcourt, usually aimed in the vicinity of Connors' vulnerable forehand. Not only did Roger-Vasselin defeat Jimbo 6-4, 6-4, 7-6, but he also beat the revered Noah by a couple of hours to the semis, where no Frenchman had tread since Noah's brother-in-law, Patrick Proisy, did so in 1972.

"These things happen. I saw Gonzales lose a match once," quipped Connors, who wound up with 66 forehand errors, most of them unforced. Jimbo grumbled about "clay specialists," but he assumed a marvelous diplomatic air when asked whether he had been beaten by a good player or had just played badly. Connors' reply was "Yes."

As for our other roving troubleshooter, McEnroe began by assaulting a Canon Fl camera, which presumably had the effrontery to be focusing on his bad side, with his foot. At other intervals during that first-round match against one Ben Testerman he addressed assorted officials as "moron" and "bleeping chicken bleep" and with his new alliterative house special, "you bleeping French frog fag." In his quarterfinal loss to Wilander, McEnroe was ultimately destroyed by a line call that provoked one of his vintage tirades. This time the primary target was tournament supervisor Kurt Nielsen, who was sitting at courtside. Mac screamed at Nielsen that the call—get this alliteration—was "the most disgusting, disgraceful decision I've ever seen. You guys do nothing...just go by what this moron [the chair umpire] says. Hey, Kurt, have I been fined yet?" But between his first match and his last, why, McEnroe might as well have been Charles Aznavour, so mellow was he.

Wilander put Mac out of his misery—"I hate this country," McEnroe was heard to shout on one occasion—with a 1-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 victory that was shocking in its denouement. After some brilliant serve-and-volley stuff in the first set, McEnroe regained control in the third, even though Wilander had gained some rhythm on his punishing ground game. At 4-1, however, McEnroe netted a forehand volley that would have given him triple break point. Quickly he degenerated into a horribly loose patch, losing the sixth game and, from 40-15 on his own serve, the seventh as well, on four straight points. Wilander held at love for four-all, but despite having lost eight points in a row, McEnroe was still in it. Then, suddenly, he wasn't.

Game 9, first point: Routine forehand drop volley for McEnroe. Wide. Uh, oh. First Mac ordered the linesman to show him the mark. Then he squealed at the chair for a reversal. Then the net judge got into the act, pointing out the mark himself. Then McEnroe launched his attack on Nielsen. Was Mac in a rage? Was the Court Central in an uproar? Doesn't a drop volley land so gently that it hardly makes a mark anyway? None of that mattered. What mattered was that McEnroe fell apart, and he lost 14 more points in a row. That made 23 consecutive points for Wilander, who didn't miss until he was leading 2-0, 40-0 in the fourth set.

McEnroe continued to berate the audience, bitch at officials and clown around. Once he halted play to sit and applaud the Columbia as the space shuttle flew overhead atop its caddy plane on a break from the Paris air show. Later, during a shirt change, he popped his pecs like Lou Ferrigno or somebody. In the end McEnroe had provided still another stupid display of temperament or paranoia or whatever it is that his private demons have concocted to deny him crowd respect, personal joy and, this time, a splendid chance to win a match and a tournament that were quite within reach. "It didn't disturb me," Wilander said of Mac's actions. "But I think this time his complaining disturbed him."

More was less on the distaff side at Roland Garros. That is, the more Chris Evert Lloyd thought about winning her fifth French championship—of tying Margaret Court's record—the less likely anyone was to beat her. When Martina Navratilova was upset by Kathy Horvath in the 16s by a score of 6-4, 0-6, 6-3, someone pointed out to Evert Lloyd that it now looked like "her" tournament. "You mean it wasn't my tournament before?" she replied with a bristle. That's how Evert Lloyd feels about her chances on clay—against anybody. Evert Lloyd was returning from a doubles match, pausing in the runway beneath the stadium, at the moment Horvath completed her shocking victory. The 17-year-old comeback kid—remember Horvath as the youngest player ever to enter the U.S. Open, at 14?—simply kept pushing Navratilova deep into her backhand corner and then volleying away her feeble recoveries. "All I thought was, damn, I wish I'd been the one to beat her," said Evert Lloyd.

Navratilova's winning streak since the end of last year had reached 39 matches, including two over Evert Lloyd this winter. But with all the Team Navratilova computer baloney (Newsflash: Martina blames loss on Renee Richards. Says she was "advised wrong." Wants to see the readouts before ditching the whole entourage. Film at 11.), Evert Lloyd is the one with the three straight Grand Slam titles, having won the U.S. and Australian Opens in 1982. Moreover, the last time the two met on clay, in Amelia Island, Fla. in 1981, Evert Lloyd won 6-0, 6-0. "I wanted Martina on my surface," said Evert Lloyd in Paris.

Instead she had to settle for avenging her last two defeats at Roland Garros by beating Hana Mandlikova 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the quarters and Andrea Jaeger 6-3, 6-1 in the semis. Her final-round victim was Mima Jausovec, a former French champion (1977) in one of the three summers Evert Lloyd was off chasing boys in World Team Tennis.

If the women's final was sweet and short—6-1, 6-2 in 65 minutes were the key numbers for those into humiliation—the result was only part of a pattern. One day in a press interview—Evert Lloyd's conferences with the media are noticeably longer than her matches on clay—she let this slip: "Martina and I are head and shoulders above the other girls." Chris! No!

But yes. After upsetting Navratilova, Horvath won only two games against Jausovec and went down whimpering at a ball boy, "You trying to hit me or what?" The late great Tracy Austin, who's rumored to have fallen in love, lost to a pleasant English lass named Jo Durie, who currently can be heard singing a ballad entitled Wimbledon Lawn with a group called The Racquets. Maybe Durie can make a living on her voice. Then there's Jaeger, who wants to go to college against her father's wishes and who appears to have no fun playing tennis anymore. And Mandlikova, who seems to be suffering from acute delusions of grandeur. "I think I'm a much better player than Chris. If I'm in good shape, I beat her two and two," said Mandlikova after their match, a good part of which she had spent ricocheting forehands off stadium walls.

That match was halted a couple of times, once when Mandlikova, ahead by a set and 2-1, fled the court to go, as she described it, "to the bathroom." Upon returning, she won only three games. Earlier, a vicious fight had broken out in the stands, probably between two women's tennis fanatics battling over the relative merits of Nancy Richey and Francoise Durr. Or maybe over the proper term for Evert Lloyd's new twiny headbands, which she wears wraparound-style in the manner of Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring, formerly of tribe Howdy Doody.

"Everybody wears headbands. Only I wear these," said Evert Lloyd, speaking in a grande dame manner befitting one who had just appeared in her 24th Grand Slam final and had won her 15th such title. As for Noah, he's one for one in Grand Slam final rounds. If he ever reaches 15, they'll have to alter the name of one of Paris' landmarks. Make it Noah's Arc de Triomphe.





Surviving a hair-raising final set against Wilander (below) in the championship match provided quite a tonic for a jubilant Noah.



Evert Lloyd, who now has won the French five times, regretted that she didn't get a shot at Navratilova.



After huffing and puffing, Mac gave all a peek at his pecs during his loss to Wilander.