It is,” admits Yannick Noah, “a peculiar coincidence.” One day in 1971 a 10-year-old boy in the former West African French protectorate of Cameroon happened to trade strokes with Arthur Ashe at a tennis clinic in Yaoundé. Shortly thereafter Ashe was on the phone to the French Tennis Federation, raving about this little phenomenon called Noah who had aced him, passed him, and generally attacked the ball with no sense of mercy. “Believe me,” said Ashe, encouraging the federation to whisk Noah to France for further grooming, “one day he will pay dividends.”
That day is now at hand—and, ironically, the federation’s dividend may be at Ashe’s expense. This week in Grenoble, Yannick Noah, the pride of all Gaul, will lead an otherwise undistinguished French team into the Davis Cup finals against the incumbent Yanks, captained by none other than the altruist Ashe. “Now he’s my adversary,” says Noah. “There’s bound to be a lot of emotions for both of us.” Indeed, Ashe has already imagined his ideal Davis Cup scenario: The teams are tied going into the last tête-à-tête, pitting Yannick against John McEnroe—and John the Brat wins 10-8 in the fifth set. Noah doesn’t take it personally. “Arthur is obliged to root for the American team,” he says with a laugh.
An agile 6’4″, Noah reminds tennis cognoscenti of Pancho Gonzalez. But despite his ranking of 10th in the world, what chance does he have against McEnroe? “It depends on the surface,” says Donald Dell, the former U.S. Davis Cup captain whose management firm now represents Yannick. “If you put Noah on a carpet or board court, McEnroe has the edge. But on the slow clay court they’re building in Grenoble, and in front of 14,000 screaming Frenchmen, you’d have to say his chances are very good.” Observes Yannick: “I’m happy for the opportunity. I have nothing to lose.”
Noah’s sangfroid is a recent acquisition, a matter of maturity. “I used to be a lot more nervous,” he says. “Often people expect more of me than I can give. Now, if I win, great. If I lose, it’s not so bad. I keep playing.” No longer the naive colonial, Yannick is less likely to comment in the press, as he once did, about drug taking or his own (hetero) sexual adventures in a coatroom just prior to a match. “When you have responsibility young,” he says, “you make mistakes.”
Born in Sedan, France to a French mother and an African father, he settled with his family in Cameroon, where his paternal grandfather was a wealthy landowner. His father, Zacharie, was a former professional soccer player who loved tennis and infected his son with his enthusiasm. Leaving Cameroon for tennis school on the Riviera in 1972, Yannick became acutely homesick. By 1975 his parents had divorced, and his mother and two younger sisters came to live in Nice just as Noah’s upscale career took him to Paris. Ranked 49th in the world only five years ago, he has earned over $150,000 in prize money in 1982 and snapped Ivan Lendl’s 44-match winning streak in a tournament in La Quinta, Calif. last winter.
If there is anything that Noah finds nettlesome, it is the constant coupling of his name with Ashe’s. “Arthur has helped me a lot,” he says. “He’s a friend. But what bothers me is that everyone forgets my other trainers. I know his story is more romantic, but it’s not the whole truth.” Noah also dislikes the notion, forwarded by Ashe, that Yannick is some sort of Great Black Hope. Growing up in Africa and France, he says, “I’ve never had the same problems [with being black] that Arthur has.” Noah is moving into a five-bedroom apartment in an elite Paris arrondissement and enjoys nothing more than speeding along the boulevards in his Ferrari or discoing with Jill Goodacre, 18, his girlfriend from Colorado. He has no compunction, as Ashe does, about playing in South Africa. “I think playing and carrying myself well around the world speaks better than saying anything [about my race].”
Increasingly impervious to pressure, Noah regards himself as an optimist. “When I was 14, I said, ‘I want to be the 10th player in the world.’ And I asked myself, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Now I’m there and I’m happy. Today I can say I want to be fifth, and if I get there I’ll be happy. I can’t say if I’m at the beginning or the end. Maybe in 10 years people will say the Davis Cup was the most important moment of my life, but I like to think there’ll be others.”