In 1983 Yannick Noah erased nearly four decades of futility on the red clay at Roland Garros by defeating defending champion Mats Wilander to become the first Frenchman to win the French Open in 37 years. On arrival into the stadium, goosebumps surely formed on Noah’s arms. He was treated to a hero’s welcome as he exited the entrance tunnel wearing a bright red warmup jacket, carrying a half dozen racquets and sporting his long, tightly curled hair. The capacity crowd, obviously pro-Noah, rose to full attention and chanted his name over and over again through introductions and warmups.
Noah traded stroke for stroke with Wilander, hitting his looping topspin forehand with depth and pace and displayed remarkable patience for a player who normally moved around the court like a cobra. Noah won his only major singles title by taking over the match from the net, displaying a variety of acrobatic volleys and overheads. He dove, lunged, and rolled, the court nothing more to him than a backyard playground. When the match was over and Noah had defeated Wilander surprisingly in straight sets, 6-2, 7-5, 7-6, the back of his Le Coq Sportif polo shirt was no longer its pristine white, but covered in red clay from his frequent tumbles to the surface. Noah won the match with a serve from the ad side, made sure there would be no return, and then raised his arms in triumph. He cupped his hands around his head in disbelief and after shaking Wilander’s hand at net, jumped and skipped to his seat by the umpires chair, sat, lowered his head and then covered his face in an emotional display, obviously sobbing in euphoria. He was later engulfed by joyous fans.
“I had there [Roland Garros] the best moments of my life more than 30 years ago,” Noah told CNN in 2014. “It’s right here in my heart forever. I have my best moment on tape of my life, so every time I see it, every time I think about it I am complete.”
Since turning professional in 1977 at age 17 Noah had never advanced past the quarterfinals (1981, 1982) before capturing the crown, and only made one quarterfinals appearance thereafter (1987) before retiring in 1990. But none of that mattered in 1983 as the No. 6 seeded Noah, placed in No. 1 seeded Jimmy Connors’s half of the draw, got a break when Connors was upset in the first round by Frenchman Christophe Roger-Vasselin. Noah won each of his first four rounds in straight sets, and then played a spectacular match in the quarters against No. 3 Ivan Lendl, winning 7-6, 6-2, 5-7, 6-0. He defeated Roger-Vasselin in the semifinals to ultimately face Wilander (who had upset No. 2 John McEnroe in the quarterfinals), with a chance to end the 37-year drought – the last Frenchman victory came in 1946 when Marcel Bernard defeated Jaroslav Drobny 3-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3 – in the finals.
Noah had an engaging, happy-go-lucky presence on court, a wide smile, and exuberance for the game. He was flamboyant, artistic, athletic, graceful, and full of life on court. He was discovered by Arthur Ashe at a tennis clinic in Yaounde, Cameroon, West Africa, playing tennis with a board instead of a racquet. The 11-year-old Noah impressed Ashe, who reached out to Philippe Chatrier, the head of the French Tennis Federation, to get him the training and nurturing he needed to become a world class player. Noah was sent to the FFT training center in Nice in 1971 and six years later joined the pro tour.
His 19-year playing career, which included 476 singles wins, 23 tour championships in singles and 16 in doubles, and saw him rise to a world Top 10 for five straight years – debuting at No. 9 in 1983 and rising to a career-best No. 5 the following year. Noah was a quarterfinalist at the US Open three times (1983, 1985, 1989) and in 1990, his last year playing full time on tour, he advanced to the semifinals of the Australian Open. He only played the Australian Open and Wimbledon six times. One of his biggest non-major victories came at the 1982 ATP Palm Springs Tournament, where he defeated Lendl 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, snapping Lendl's 44 match win streak.
Both of Noah’s major championships were won at the French Open, as he teamed with compatriot Henri Leconte to win the 1984 title over Czech’s Pavel Siozil and Tomas Smid in a marathon five-setter, 6-4, 2-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2. Noah and Leconte were finalists at the 1985 US Open and Noah was a finalist at the 1987 French Open alongside Guy Forget.
True to his French roots, Noah played on the French Davis Cup team for 11 years (1978-1985 and 1988-1990). He captained the Davis Cup team in 1991-1992 and 1995-1998. In 1991, he captained the French team that won the Davis Cup for the first time in 59 years (since 1932), defeating a heavily favored U.S. team 3–1 in the final. In 1996, he once again led the French team to a Davis Cup championship, defeating Sweden, 3–2, in the final held in Malmö, Sweden. In 1997, Noah captained France's Fed Cup team to its first championship, 4-1 over the Netherlands. He also served as Fed Cup Captain in 1998.
Source: Tennis Hall of Fame