France’s Yannick Noah remains not only one the sport’s great players but one of its great personalities as well. It is hard to believe that this will be the thirtieth anniversary of Noah’s surprising and historic run to the Roland Garros men’s title, an achievement that still carries weight considering Noah remains the last Frenchmen to win his nation’s Grand Slam. That we still look back with fondness at how he went about his great achievement says a lot about the man who remains a fixture of French culture, even if now at age 53, it is in an entirely different career.
Back in 1983, Noah was a top ten player but no one expected him to carve through the field in the men’s draw as he did at Roland Garros that year. Though he entered the event with victories at Madrid and Hamburg, plenty of others were tipped as the favorites. A pair of cantankerous Americans in Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were the top two seeds respectively followed by baseline powerhouses in Ivan Lendl and Guillermo Vilas. Mats Wilander, who at age 17 won the French Open the previous year, was also considered a big threat to repeat as champion.
As often happens at Grand Slams, the draw and personal destiny seemed to align in favor of Noah who would only drop one set en route to reaching the finals. With his trademark Rastafarian-style dreadlocks and aggressive all-court game that often found him slashing away winning volleys up at net, Noah moved through the early rounds including defeating Lendl in four sets. But instead of facing Connors in the semis, who Noah had never beaten, he got fellow Frenchman Christophe Roger-Vasselin who defeated Connors in a surprise upset the round before. Noah ousted Roger-Vasselin in the semis and soon was only a win away from entering tennis immortality.
Standing in Noah’s way was Wilander back again in the finals to defend his title. The cool Swede versus the swashbuckling Frenchman proved an irresistible matchup as fans jammed into Court Centrale to cheer on Noah. It had been 37 years since the last Frenchman, Marcel Bernard, had won the title and those fans certainly hoped that they would have a front row seat to history.
Despite Wilander’s steady baseline play, Noah seized every chance to attack and glide his way into net. Wilander would pass him sometimes, but too often it was Noah who lunged just wide enough to snap back a volley winner over the net. Having taken the first two sets, Noah found himself in a tiebreaker in the third set as Wilander hoped to extend the afternoon.
But destiny was in Noah’s corner that day. Wilander sent a final return well over the baseline and with that Noah was the champion of Paris 6-2, 7-5, 7-6. Pandemonium erupted in the stands and on the court as a jubilant Noah was mobbed by fans and photographers. His own father, Zacharie, managed to break through the crowd and embrace his son. It was not just Noah’s moment of glory. It was France’s as well.
Noah’s victory made him an even bigger star in France, but the overwhelming attention he faced there proved too much for him. Noah escaped to New York and lived part-time there for many years. Noah wasn’t able to back up his incredible win in Paris the following year in 1984, but he did win the men’s doubles with Henri Leconte. In total, Noah won 23 career singles titles. Noah again made more tennis history in 1991. As captain of France’s Davis Cup team, he lead the team to their first Davis Cup title in 59 years.
Perhaps it was his bold method of play and the fact that he was the last man to win a Major with a wood racquet that continues to make Noah’s French Open victory still widely remembered. And it is also probably due to it being an unexpected yet emotionally satisfying moment for all who witnessed it. Noah remains one of the most popular people in France, and not just for his tennis exploits. After he retired from the sport, he focused his energy on music and is now one of the nation’s top singers.
Noah may fall into the “one-slam wonder” category but his win in 1983 hardly feels like a fluke. Instead it embodies every player’s dream that through talent, hard work, and with a little luck coming together at just the right time that achieving what many think is impossible can come true. Noah’s victory is still a wonder to behold for his nation and for the sport and will remain so even when the next Frenchman, whoever that may be, stands on the podium and raises the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy in triumph.