Yannick Noah, Roland Garros 1983

Roland Garros 1983: Yannick Noah defeats Mats Wilander

From Game, set and deadline by Rex Bellamy:

The men’s singles champion of France is a Frenchman – for the first time since 1946. Yannick Noah, aged 23, subdued Mats Wilander, last year’s winner, by 6-2 7-5 7-6 in two hours and 24 minutes here yesterday. We could only guess what was going on inside the inscrutable Wilander – a lad of 18 who was trying to resist not only Noah and most of the sell-out crowd of 17,000, but also the will of a nation.

Wilander’s gamee told us all we needed to know: he was far more erratic than he could afford to be. He could not keep enough rallies going, nor had the attacking resources to finish enough of them in his own favour.

This was a triumph not only for Noah and France and Africa (while playing professional football in France, Noah’s father married a Frenchwoman), but also for clay-court tennis. For almost a decade – what might be called the Borg era – this tournament has been dominated by baseliners specializing in top-spin. They were mostly two-fisted on the backhand and their aim was to wear down their opponents and induce indiscretions.

This was a joylessly negative way to play tennis. By contrast, Noah is a throwback to the days when good athletes with the spirit of adventure in them could win here: as long as they had sound ground strokes, a reasonably sure touch, and the sense to know when to attack. Tennis the Noah way is exciting.

Noah was born in France, brought up in Cameroun, which was formerly under French administration, but returned to France in 1973 after Arthur Ashe had spotted him during a goodwill tour of Africa. Noah sports a mop-headed, braided hair-style. What matters most is that there is 6ft4 in and almost 13st of him, all of it arranged to produce maximum spring and strength and reach, plus a quivering energy that never seems to be totally in repose.

Noah is rather like Jimmy Connors in the Tarzan act he puts on when an important point has been won. At times there is a wild look about him, not least when he is pacing restlessly about the back of the court between points like a tiger impatient for dinner.

What extraordinary scenes there were when Wilander hit the last shot of the match, a wayward service return. The crowd had been simmering with excitement in bright, sultry heat, voicing thunderous roars of approval or collectively shushing themselves with a noise like the sea creeping up a shingle beach. At the end they boiled over – most spectacularly, Noah’s father, who leapt from a high wall at one end of the court and fell on his bottom with a thud.

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