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Noah's Arc: Yannick Noah Discusses Life On The 20th Anniversary Of His French Open Win


Photo By Michael Baz By Paul Fein
05/02/2003

On a 1971 goodwill tour to Africa, Arthur Ashe finds himself across the net from a skinny 11-year-old in Yaounde, Cameroon. The boy aces him. Impressed, Ashe gives the awestruck kid a fancy racquet. He sleeps with it for a year and dreams of future greatness. Ashe recommends him to the French tennis federation, which trains him at its National Tennis School in Nice.

Twelve years later, the muscular 6-foot-4 man wins the French Open, cries tears of joy and becomes a national hero. Yannick Noah’s odyssey from obscurity in West Africa to international stardom is a Hollywood story thus far ignored by Tinseltown. This odyssey also plunges the sensitive Noah into what he calls the "jungle of pro tennis" and produces culture shock that buffets him to this day.

With the same adventurousness that impels him to serve and volley on Roland Garros terre battue, Noah’s vast appetite for life pushes him in many directions. Fast cars, beautiful women, drugs, charity work and a blossoming music career distract him from tennis, but help him achieve a balance for which he desperately searches.

In this interview, just before the 20th anniversary of his memorable Roland Garros triumph, Noah talks about his life and today’s celebrated stars and burning issues with the same passion and conviction that have made him one of tennis’s most compelling personalities.

Q. Does Roland Garros plan to celebrate the 20th anniversary of your historical victory?
A. I’m not sure what’s going to happen. For me it’s kind of abstract. It’s like so long ago. I was the last French player to win, and I understand the interest. I understand that some people may be happy if something happens. And it would be a very good way to raise money for the charities I care about.

Q. You are the last Frenchman to win Roland Garros. The French have fared well in Davis Cup, but why haven’t they had more success at the French Open?
A. We’ve definitely had a team spirit for the last 15 years. The result of that is success in Davis Cup, which is totally different from the Grand Slams, which are obviously more individual. And we don’t have a guy among the top four or five seeds, anyway. [Also], I was probably [in] the last generation growing up on clay because I was staying in the south of France. Now, all these guys come from Paris, where they spend most of the winter playing indoors and on hard courts.

Q. Frenchman Arnaud Clement beat Sebastien Grosjean in the 2001 Australian Open semifinal. Do they have what it takes to win a Grand Slam tournament title?
A. I definitely believe so. They’ve gotten to the Top 15 or 10. They are fresh mentally and eager to do what it takes in the next couple years. They are really close — same age, same size, same coach, good friends. They play basically the same way. Grosjean is a better all-around player. But Clement has a quickness that Grosjean doesn’t have. Maybe Clement has an edge because he can improve certain parts of his game.

Q. You are one of the few people ever to captain both your country’s Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams and the only one ever to win titles in both events. What do you remember about France’s winning the Davis Cup in 1991?
A. The joy, looking at all the joy around. Being able to hug my best friends at this particular occasion. Just crying. It’s unusual to cry in happiness with your best friends. I experienced that with Guy [Forget] and Henri [Leconte] and Patrice [Hagelauer], who used to be my coach and who was coach of the team. I enjoyed coaching the ’91 French team more than any team, whether it was in ’96 when we won again or in ’97 when we won with the girls. That’s because I was coaching my friends, and they had asked me if I would become captain. That came from the heart.

Q. Is it difficult to be an African in the tennis world?
A. It’s pretty lonely; that’s for sure. That’s the way I would put it. …I went through some tough, lonely times in my career, and a lot of people thought I couldn’t deal with the star system, the pressures of being recognized. But that was not the case. I was just trying to cope with what other human beings go through. And, yes, coming from Africa, I’ve had a lot of changes throughout my life to deal with.

Q. You are the last black man to win a Grand Slam tournament singles title. Why is it so difficult for black men to excel at the sport’s elite level?
A. For two reasons: First, most black kids are looking for black role models, and most of their role models are excelling at other sports. Their first priority is to play basketball or football. Tennis is probably their third, fourth or fifth choice. And, obviously, tennis is more expensive than most sports.

Q. Can you explain what you meant when you said, "I have never had a problem being black, but the Cameroon Tennis Federation never supported me. The reason: My mother was white."
A. In Cameroon, I was already privileged. To play tennis in the first place was unbelievable. So, yes, the federation would not help me because I was the son of a white woman, which equaled being rich, which was not totally untrue.

Q. What do you remember most about Arthur Ashe as a person?
A. He cared. He cared about people. He cared about humanity. He was a citizen of the world and an activist. Everything that I try to be is because of him. He not only helped me the first day I met him, but he remains a great example for me. And he should be for many athletes now.

Q. In 1988, Ashe said, "Given the same chance as others have had, blacks would dominate our sport as they have done in other sports." Do you agree?
A. If you give a racquet and a coach to an inner-city kid who doesn’t have much, he’s going to do more with it than a kid who has racquets and a court in his backyard. They’re not going to take for granted the opportunity. Yes, they will ultimately dominate the game if they get the chance.

Q. Ashe added, "There is a terrific apprehension among some people that blacks will take over the sport.... It will create problems because their behavior, speech and dress is just a completely different culture." Is there still that apprehension among whites?
A. I don’t believe so. Also, his time was so far from now. Tennis had been pretty much a white sport with certain upper-class attitudes. Now I see a lot of kids coming from a lower class. Frankly, I don’t see how many black guys would change the sport in terms of behavior. That might have been a possibility 30 or 40 years ago, but not now.

Q. Are the outspoken Williams sisters and their controversial father creating exactly the problems Ashe predicted?
A. I don’t think so. I don’t see Venus and Serena and Mr. Williams as the ambassadors of black sport. They are the Williamses. I do not see myself in much of what they say and the way they behave.

Q. Do you reject their behavior?
A. I don’t. I just think differently in many, many ways.

Q. Tell me about Les Enfants de la Terre (Children of the Earth), which you and your mother, Marie-Claire, co-founded and Fete le Mur (Celebrate the Wall), which is your collaboration with the French Tennis Federation.
A. We started [Les Enfants] 18 years ago in northern Cameroon. We started to buy and build houses to help orphans and others who don’t have parents around and need to regroup and recuperate physically. We’ve helped about 3,000 kids so far. [With Fete le Mur], we provide courts, racquets and coaches to kids from the inner city. And we open what we call our centers, which are places with at least two courts and a wall. We started that four years ago, and now there are 19 centers all over France.

Q. Can you produce a champion from those kids?
A. I definitely would love to.

Q. Nicolas Ayeboua, the executive director for the Confederation of African Tennis, told me: “Yannick Noah is a very charming person, and I know he’s doing a lot of wonderful things for humanitarian causes. But he never took any action toward the development of tennis in Africa.” Why haven’t you?
A. It’s not because I come from Cameroon that I need to or I must help African tennis. When I work with inner-city tennis in France, I’m talking about 2,500 disadvantaged kids coming from Africa. I don’t have to help tennis in Africa. I can help my brothers, and my brothers are all over the world. As far as tennis in Africa, what I did was work in programs in Cameroon.

Q. What did you do there?
A. We have a couple of clubs in Cameroon that are open to children. Personally, I’ve brought about 15 guys from Cameroon to France, and they are now coaches or tennis teachers and have families. I am very reluctant to do such spectacular things like going to tournaments and presenting cups [to finalists] in Africa. A lot of people, especially presidents of tennis federations, are there for the limelight and not much for what’s really going on in tennis.

Q. In 1996, you admitted that you smoked marijuana during the 1983 French Open.
A. Well, I said I smoked marijuana during 1983. But I didn’t smoke during the tournament. I never smoke during a tournament — never. I smoked a lot after the tournament. It’s funny how people made it into such a big deal.

Q. Aren’t famous athletes supposed to be role models?
A. I believe the best role models are the father and the mother. If somebody can be influenced by what he sees on TV, then there is a problem with his education. Yeah, I smoked, yeah! I haven’t smoked in 10 years. If my children are smoking, I hope they will be able to talk to me about it.

Q. I’ve heard about a certain 6-10 high school basketball standout in New York City.
A. (Laughter) My little one is getting there. My son, Joakim, is living his dream, which is playing basketball. He loves playing basketball. He loves playing in the States. He loves being part of the guys. He loves team sports. I’m proud of him being who he is. He’s a good person. He’s doing his thing. There are kids who are better, but he’s a hard worker and he definitely has potential to do something, which is to make a living playing pro basketball.

Q. Did you invent the spectacular, back-to-the-net, between-the-legs shot that you hit at the 1983 U.S. Open?
A. No. The one I first saw hitting that was [Victor] Pecci. [Guillermo] Vilas was the second one to do that. And I was the third one. The only shot I invented was the overhead jumping high with my two legs together like Sampras does.

Q. The slam-dunk overhead.
A. Exactly. That is my shot.

Q. Did you squander some talent with your less than ambitious training program and lack of single-mindedness?
A. Well, probably. I look at all these guys who were in front of me. And there is nothing that I really miss that they have. ...Everybody has his own choices. People look at me and say, "God, you sacrificed so much. You sacrificed your youth to be a tennis player. You left home, you could have stayed in Africa." Yes, I know what I gave up to achieve what I did. And, yes, I could have done more. But everybody can do more.

Q. Tell me about your new album.
A. It’s going to be our sixth album. There are a lot of expectations for this album. I’m really happy with it. Three years ago, I decided [singing] is where I want to put my soul. We don’t know the name of the new album yet. We just finished it. Now we’re going to mix it, listen to it and then we’ll have a better idea of the whole spirit of it.

Q. What is the connection between tennis and popular music?
A. I do not know, a few guys have tried it. John McEnroe, Mats [Wilander], Jim Courier, well known guys.

Q. When you die, would you rather be known as a great tennis player, a talented musician or some combination of the two?
A. I hope people will see me as a decent guy.

Q. You ranked No. 18 in a 1997 French poll to determine the sexiest men in the world. What is it about you that women adore?
A. I think France is a small country.

Q. Please, don’t be so modest.
A. (Laughter) I don’t know. I’ve had a love relationship with the French public for 20 years. And this is something I really appreciate and really respect. It would be degrading for me to think the people just like me because of my appearance. I have a really good relationship with the people of France and in Cameroon, my country. And I’m really proud of it. And I really cherish it. It’s quite special to have this recognition from people so long after I stopped [my career].

Contributing Writer Paul Fein is the author of Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches and Controveries. He profiled Todd Woodbridge in the Feb. 11 issue of Tennis Week.
 

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Interesting interview! Thanks for posting it tennisIlove09! :D
 

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This is wonderful. Thanks for sharing. Ya gotta love Yannick!
 
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