French Open: The Passion of Yannick Noah—An Interview

Yannick Noah achieved a historic victory at the French Open in 1983—he was the first Frenchman to win the tournament in 37 years. Photo by Art Seitz.
By Bill Simons 

Yannick Noah is a dreamer, traveler, pop icon, provocative critic, romantic visionary, and coach extraordinaire. (He led France’s Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams to unlikely victories), Noah was discovered by Arthur Ashe in Cameroon when he was just a skinny kid. Improbably, he went on83, to become the first Frenchman to win Roland Garros in 37 years. No Frenchman has done it since. And no one in tennis speaks with such an idealistic, heartfelt voice as this man, a connoisseur of life’s ample pleasures and curious quandaries. Today is the 30th anniversary of Noah’s landmark win.

To celebrate it, we are posting the wide-ranging in-depth piece Inside Tennis Publisher Bill Simons did with the provocative thinker in 2005.

INSIDE TENNIS: If you could play or see any tennis match, or jam with Bob Marley or any other musician, or meet with Nelson Mandela when he was in his Robben Island jail cell, which would you choose?

YANNICK NOAH: It’s impossible, yet these are so connected. All this is what has inspired me. And, of course, it was Arthur [Ashe] who had the most impact. So, I’d love to have Arthur around and listen to what he thinks these days.

IT: Like Arthur, you’re so interested in the world, and ideas. He was a great thinker, but his personality was so controlled, while you—

YN: We’re very different, Arthur was all about the control of emotions, control of everything in a good way. I’m more, how do you say, extroverted. But his advice was so right. We players after all our traveling, all our emotion, our adrenaline .We worry so much about what to do after we retire. So one day I told Arthur I was going to make a record. I was sure he’d tell me, “Instead, you better make sure you invest your money well.” But he said, “Do whatever you feel like, do what you love, which at that point no one was telling me. But he also told me, Whatever you do, do it well.”

IT: You learned English from Beatles lyrics, and of course John Lennon wrote, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” What does that?—

YN: That tells me that it’s all possible. You can’t change the world, but you can change things within your family and things around you. You can make a difference, we can make things better together. If you change one person, one mind, an idea, it changes the whole universe. This is how we have to start.

IT: Today, a little girl is hitting a backhand in a Chinese village, an eager boy tries to improve his forehand in a L.A. park. The four-year-old Amelie Mauresmo once was inspired when she saw you win, in ‘83. Does this silly game that’s just played on a rectangle help in any way? Does it draw people together, or is it merely a nice diversion for us all?

YN: Well, when a person wins a really big match, what is the first thing they do? They look around to share their emotion with people. You look at the people and feel the joy that’s deep inside. Maybe it’s subconscious. This is what you are looking for, it isn’t, “Wow, aren’t you happy, too?” This is such a good moment to tell people, “You might not know me, but I love you. Thank you for being here.” That’s what it’s all about. You’re thinking about your family, your friends back home, and all the people on the other side of the world in front of their TVs.

IT: There once was this perception that a man with long hair and chocolate skin won a great tournament not so much because of his forehand or backhand or fierce concentration, but because of his spirit. Did that perception somehow touch people or send a message?

YN: I never functioned against someone else, but when I was doing well other people were happy. It brought a lot of joy because of the spirit, because of the difference. A lot of people saw me as a black player and enjoyed that I could represent them in this world, where there’re not many black players. But then I’m half white, and French, so there were people who were for me from both sides.

IT: Your ‘83 French Open triumph was like an Olympian at last grasping the gold, or the exhausted mountain climber reaching the summit. You’ve called it a Nirvana of the spirit.

YN: It was more than that. Hugging in the arms of your father on that court at that moment, crying with joy, it’s quite unusual. Tennis gave me that, a moment that touched a lot of people. People were crying and being happy.

IT: One of your songs says, “Go ahead and dare, this is the hour, we must all change,  so dare.”

YN: I believe it’s possible, especially for the young generation. I want to tell them it’s possible, just go for it, you’re good. Don’t believe what they say. You can do it. When I was Davis Cup captain, that’s what I was saying. “You can do it, why not? If you lose, it doesn’t matter, but give your best.”

IT: What was it like to give your fellow Frenchman Henri Leconte a dream by coaching him to the Davis Cup title? He was 150 in the world and a little lost psychologically. And Guy Forget, too.

YN: That’s what I was dreaming. I was blessed because I got my two good friends to cry and hug. How many times do you cry with joy in front of people? People got emotional because they saw it. It wasn’t fake. It was the real emotion of friends fighting for the same dream, achieving it, and looking at each other and saying, “God.”

IT: On the other hand, E.M. Cioran, a thinker you studied, suggested that this world of ours is an intriguing nothingness, a passionate emptiness.

YN: There was a time when I was a bit down and needed to step beyond all the attention. Being cynical helped for a while. I remember then reading something very funny Cioran wrote: “Why should I stop now, while there are so many I can still disappoint?” I was actually riding on those words. Okay, it’s not over. I’m still going to disappoint you.

IT: How does a man who is so celebrated, the Frenchman who finally triumphed at Roland Garros, end up, just seven months later, so depressed that he’s aimlessly wandering the streets late at night, standing on the Alma Bridge above the Seine, thinking of jumping?

YN: It was an instinct, a right, normal, human, genuine instinct that was saying, “This is not real. I dont deserve this. This is too much.” It was an instinct that was telling me that one day this thing is going to go. But what am I going to do? Who am I going to be? Do I need this in order to go through life? And my answer was, “No, I don’t need this.” I love to share certain moments. I love it. It’s important for me. But this is not something I want to live with every minute of my life. I didn’t like it.

IT: Celebrity is a mixed bag. People dream through celebrities, but sometimes perhaps they live their lives too much through them.

YN: I didn’t dream of celebrity. Yes, I wanted to play well. I wanted to do good. I wanted to share this moment. I wanted to be loved. But I was never into the celebrity thing. But, with time, you get organized and find a way to use celebrity for positive reasons. [Noah has a children’s charity.] But I always felt very uncomfortable with celebrity. It bothered me and the people around me because it wasn’t real.

IT: You were one of France’s great celebrities and you had your profound moment of doubt, your brush with suicide, on the Alma Bridge, which is right by the Alma Tunnel, where Britain’s great celebrity, Princess Di, suffered her fatal accident. Did that ever cross your—?

YN: No. I mean, every time I pass through the tunnel, I think about it. But, my situation was at one of those down moments where you’re sensitive and need time alone. And I’m wandering and thinking, “God, all this is, like, so worthless. Did I really work for this? Did I sacrifice my childhood for this?” And I didn’t have an answer.  I was just wondering, “Is this really what I want inside?” And it took me time. I didn’t want to listen to people. So I was walking about and I was really on the edge and not feeling good about life, like, “This is so unfair. I’m so lonely. All these people are around me, but I feel so lonely.” And then I see this old homeless lady and I’m ready to give her whatever I have, everything I have in my pocket. And as I came to her she got scared. It was night. She was like, “Get the f— out of here.” And I was like, I can’t even—

IT: Connect?

YN: So this is when I really get those thoughts [of suicide]. It wasn’t the only time. I think about death all the time and that’s why I love life so much.

IT: So why did Arthur [Ashe,] our game’s greatest man, leave us so early?

YN: There are some people out there sending us messages that you can’t take people or health or love for granted. Arthur leaves us all the things he did and now that he’s gone, we have to think about it. Just like people you love, you realize how much you love them the day you lose them, which is why you need an accident to realize all the great things you have.

IT: You are one of the world citizens of sport. Africa, where you were reared, has so many gifts. What can we Americans learn from African culture?

YN: We don’t have much. We don’t have much money. We’re very poor. You go there to charge your mind. Sometimes you need to charge yourself spiritually and go to a place where there’s no electricity or even water. Yet you have such a good time, the people are so real. This is what you can find in Africa, real people. They have nothing. The only thing they have is themselves and truth, you know?

IT: Truth, meaning—?

YN: Themselves, being honest. I’m not talking about the big corrupted cities and countries and governments. I’m talking about the people. You can meet these people, the people are just simply true.

IT: You lived in America. What did you like most about our country?

YN: I love the nature of America. So much space, [and] beautiful, different, nature: Colorado, Maine, Vermont, California, Montana. As soon as you get out of the city, all of a sudden you see something so big, so clean, so fresh. I love that. The sky, the ocean, riding bikes, and I love New York, where you get this feeling that everything is possible. You can talk to anybody.

IT: Many in tennis—McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis, Jim Courier, Steffi Graf —have hung out there. There’s a pulse, a power?

YN: Definitely, yes. My town, my city. You travel the city and you’re in Africa or Europe, yet you’re in America. But after 9/11. it was gone for a while and I couldn’t handle it, so I left. But it’s back. I think it’s back.

IT: Many Americans have had some pretty negative thoughts about your country. But what is wonderful about French culture?

YN: Regardless of what our politicians say, which doesn’t really matter, we believe in reading history books. And it’s not like we feel superior because we have a longer history. Not at all. But I’m very happy with the stance France took [during the Iraq war], saying, like, “Enough. Okay, enough wars. Whether it’s economic or whatever, there’s no reason to go out and kill people.” It’s probably the only thing that [former President Jacques] Chirac did that I’m proud of. I don’t like this guy. But whatever the motivation, he was right to say, “We shouldn’t go to these countries and kill people.” I mean, what are we left with? Is the problem resolved? No. As we’re talking now, it’s not. The problem’s still there. What did we really learn from this? What lessons did we learn from World War I, from World War II, from religion’s wars? Did we learn? Did we really learn? What’s wrong with humans, that they don’t learn? It’s crazy, it’s really crazy. We go into other countries and decide, “Okay, this is the way you should live, this is the way you should be, this is the government you should have.” Who are we to say that and impose upon people? How can we be so sure that we’re right?

IT: One of your songs says, “When love is no more than a duty, when my glance is diverted, when I prefer not to know and my heart becomes deaf, I hear the way of the wise ones and I sing with them, no more fighting, no more killing.”

YN: Where I grew up, in Africa, there’s no such thing as history books. We just listen to old people talking, grandfathers, great-grandfathers telling us about the past and history. Young people don’t listen now to old people any more.

IT: Yet, there is a tremendous energy within today’s youth culture. It’s vibrant and—

YN: I’ve a feeling that a lot of youth are manipulated. I don’t believe that any young kid is born to be aggressive, or actually thrives on or enjoys violence. But then sometimes that’s the only choice they have, to be heard. You’re talking about rap music, you’re talking about inner-city life, you’re talking about poor people in these democratic countries. I believe they’re put aside from the society. Now, the only choice they have is actually to be aggressive. On the other hand, you have a lot of privileged people. A lot of us think we also have to be aggressive. We don’t. But who’s saying, “Let’s make all this a little bit quieter?” Who’s there to lead us and say, “Okay, let’s just have a little peace. How about listening to someone else? How about enjoying each other’s differences?” What leaders are saying this? All I hear is how different we are.

IT: On one of your CDs, there’s a wonderful photo of you in Asia, with a small child, as you’re traveling the Himalayas. What is special about that culture?

YN: You always feel kind of strange when you see poor people. They have nothing, but they give you a smile. They are so generous. There is this unconditional love. I don’t know where it comes from, whether it’s from culture, religion, or philosophies. But these kids have nothing. Sometimes I need to go places like this to put things in perspective. Life is very easy here, you lose perspective. Just to be as human as possible, I need to go back to these places and spend time where there is no electricity. You can eat rice for two weeks. They teach you about who you are and what you do with your life, and then you feel guilty to be so privileged. It’s very humbling. I try to, like, learn from every culture I touch. There’s always a good side. The second tournament I won was in Calcutta. We’re staying in the Grand Hotel in the middle of the city. It’s this little oasis, with bodyguards all around. When I got there late one night I noticed this guy. And I noticed him the next morning. Then on the second day, he asked, “Can I take you to the tennis in my rickshaw?” Eventually, I went to his place and met his wife and kids. Then, when I won, I gave him half of my $6,000 prize. I left and said, “Geez, that makes sense. That makes sense.”

IT: Let me ask you about someone who’s made a lot of sense in tennis recently—Roger Federer.

YN: I’m amazed by the way he’s playing and the way he is. He’s just this great champion. I knew my generation, and I see the players now, but Roger’s the best. What he does is amazing because there are so many players and the competition is so rough.

IT: Fierce.

YN: Much tougher than 10 or 20 years ago. You just can’t relax. And he’s so relaxed. And he seems to be generous. I don’t see him talking or playing the mind games with anybody.

IT: Let me throw out some names and just tell me a word or thought that comes to mind. James Brown.

YN: James Brown. Dancing, joy. My childhood.

IT: Amelie Mauresmo.

YN: Athlete, friend. Wine. She knows a lot.

IT: Florida Gators.

YN: My son [Joachim, who’s on Florida’s basketball team] He’s in a beautiful environment.

IT: Richard Williams, Venus and Serena’s father.

YN: Passion. Extreme passion.

IT: John McEnroe.

YN: Winner. Competitiveness.

IT: There’s this Grateful Dead song lyric, “What a long, strange trip It’s been.” Do you ever step back and think, “I was born here in France, then I went to Africa, then my mother leaves, then I come back and have my days with the French Federation?” Do you ever reflect on your journey and say, “This has been interesting or odd”?

YN: Strange, yes. I’ve been looking at a racket lately. I’ve been looking at this object, and thinking, where would I be without this thing? It’s so strange. Where would I be?

IT: Just a yellow ball.

YN: And the ball.

IT: And the net.

YN: Just the word tennis, it’s like…

IT: Love.

YN: Huge love in my life, you know. What a strange ride.

IT: And if Arthur doesn’t notice you as a kid in Cameroon?

YN: It would have been so different. I don’t know how. I got my first racket from Arthur. I won my first Super Series in his hometown, Richmond. It’s connected. There was this Life magazine article from when he won the ‘68 U.S. Open, which claimed Arthur was acting too white, and his girlfriends are always white. White, white, white. But life goes on.

IT: He changed, evolved if you will, so much. And that’s what I love so much about Agassi, because as a kid he was a bit of a twerp, saying we should crush the Paraguayans like the insects they are. But he eventually looked within. He thought, he reflected, he grew.

YN: I’m amazed by him. At the Bollettieri Academy he was an out of control kid, a brat.

IT: With whiskey in his room.

YN: And now I see him being such a gentleman. I see how great he is. I’m amazed by the way he is and what he says these days. He’s had such a beautiful career. He gets a lot from whatever he does. When he left Roland Garros, people were crying.

IT: What would you advise him about retirement?

YN: I did something I loved. For 10 years we had to do little gigs here and there. I loved it. You don’t need to prove or show people anything. Do something you like. I don’t see myself as a singer. I see myself as someone who loves what he does, and that shows.

IT: You’ve had great success as an athlete, as a coach, and now as a singer. Can you compare—?

YN: The atmosphere before a concert is different, it’s like a bottle of wine, family, kids playing around. But, the most important thing is to give the gift, like when you give a gift to your child. When you do a concert, what matters is how others feel. If they feel good, you’re doing good. I’m thankful to the tennis crowd. They always made me feel special. I didn’t give that much. But they gave a lot.

IT: You gave a lot.

YN: But they gave me back a lot. On court today they gave me this unconditional love just because something happened 20 years ago. And at a concert people give unconditional love. I’m very sensitive to that. So I’m trying to be up to the stuff I receive.

IT: You’ve said that people come to see you play for your humanity and joy, not your backhand.

YN: It’s true. I never had a backhand. I don’t think I had a forehand, either.

IT: Is there a single song that particularly touches you?

YN: “Imagine” has to be the one. It’s the one I wish I could’ve written.

IT: Are we moving in that direction, living together in peace?

YN: Sometimes I think so, sometimes I don’t. But the only thing I know is ther’;s no other option. It might take time. We’re human beings. We’re very strange sometimes.

IT: And if you could sit down and have a beer or a burgundy and a conversation with someone—?

YN: I’d love to have a few bottles of burgundy with [then] President Bush and make him change his mind about a few topics.

IT: And the first thing you’d say?

YN: I would offer the wine.

IT: And then?

YN: Why? Why? You know, Why? Why? Don’t you have enough? I mean, why? These kids, these women. Why this waste?



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