Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh
Is France’s Yannick Noah the most thoughtful and insightful man tennis has given us since Arthur Ashe?
What we know is that this interview is one of the most special Inside Tennis has done in its 42 years. After all, 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.
The Hall of Famer, who reached No. 3 in the world, was discovered by Arthur Ashe in Cameroon when he was just a skinny kid. He went on, in 1983, 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 who reflects on love, agony, imagination, war and harmony.
This year is the 40th anniversary of Noah’s landmark win and Saturday is Yannick Noah Day at Roland Garros. To celebrate, we post this compilation of the three wide-ranging interviews we did with Noah over the past 18 years.
What do you like best about tennis?
Sometimes I look at a racquet and say, “Where would I be without this thing?” It’s my life, my destiny. If I had stayed in Cameroon and grown up in Africa, I don’t know what I would have done. But I just followed this racquet. And a ball and a net.
And your happiest moment on a tennis court?
When people ask me, “Why did you play?” I say, “Because it was the only way I could meet girls.” I played football and there were no girls, basketball had no girls. At school, it was “boys here, girls there,” and then I’m playing tennis and there are girls around! I played the French under-14s, and all the kids were camping in tents at Roland Garros. My first kiss was under the center court…I run into her every once in a while. So my best memory of Roland Garros is my first kiss. Ten years later I had another kiss from my father [after winning the ’83 French Open]. So it’s all love. All I remember about Roland Garros is love.
You’ve traveled the world. What is your favorite place?
Rome. The beauty of the city, the atmosphere, the people – there’s always drama going on. After a long winter, Rome was spring. Milan is great, but it was February; Rome and the French were spring. For six months, we’ve been watching women with coats, and then all of the sudden they wear white dresses, and it’s like coming out of the dark.
I loved to play at the Foro Italico – people were so passionate, it was crazy. I loved the crowd. I stayed at my favorite hotel, Hotel de la Ville. I spent most of my prize money in Rome. When I’m in Rome, I am enjoying myself.
What’s the best part of being Yannick Noah?
I’m so free. I’m exactly where I want to be. It’s almost too much. Because I have a little bit of guilt as I’m traveling. But I don’t want to change anything. This second career brings so much to me, to my life. Singing has always been a therapy – when I’m happy, when I’m melancholy, it always makes me feel better. In my last album, for the first time, I have two love songs. I always had trouble expressing love and feeling that it comes from inside. I guess it’s that I’m shy. When I started taking singing classes 15 years ago, the only thing I worked on was being shy. Now singing brings me so much joy, because there’s this power in music and I want to project the positive part of myself through my music.
So few others have gone from tennis to a prominent career outside of the sport. What has that meant in terms of your growth?
I took all the lessons I learned through tennis and put them into what I’m doing now. People don’t realize the nature of pressure and the amount of pressure players have. We players are lucky, we are doing something we have a passion for, but we live under such pressure in such important years of our lives. This can be negative and have a bad effect, because you go from 15 to 30 – years that are so important in terms of growing, and getting ready for life. [But] it’s good because you learn the lessons of life while on the tour. If you take all this experience into what you do after, it’s so easy. People say, “All you do is hit balls five hours a day.” It’s not just hitting five hours a day, it’s doing that for 15 years.
In some way is it soul-deadening?
It is! Except you have to push yourself until eventually you get to a space within which you know your limits. I knew my limits. My trying as hard as I could got me to No. 3. I did everything I could, and that was the best I could do.
You’ve said that not having a dream was the worst thing?
My strength was that I really had this dream and that dream was very real, and deep inside myself. I wanted to show that a black-white kid can do it.
Do you remember when you first saw Arthur Ashe?
Of course, in 1972. My uncle [in the Cameroons] lent me a racket, and by the end of the clinic, Arthur gave me his racket – the Head Arthur Ashe Competition Racket. It was worth what my father made in a month.
At the 40th anniversary of his French Open win, Inside Tennis shares Yannick’s singular insights on love, loneliness, war and harmony.
Your grandfather played an important role in your life, and you wrote a song about him.
I’ve always felt that the reason why I am where I am was that my two cultures accept each other. I played for France with the Cameroon colors. I sing about my black African grandfather and the belief we have, that there’s something after death…I’ve read a lot of books about Buddhism, and I truly believe in karma and reincarnation.
Buddhism has many teachings: the middle way, non-judgment. What strikes you the most?
Have you met the Dalai Lama?
A couple of times. It was almost not real. I met him at a lecture in southern France. We were blessed, and that was already too much for me. It was so intense. Then he gave us this scarf, and then when he left, there was a storm. And three minutes later, there was a rainbow over all the people. You don’t make these things up. I love coming out of the bar at night and sitting down on some stairs to talk to someone.
Here in Australia, where we’re talking, the people are so wonderful, but there’s a backstory: What happened here years ago – I don’t believe in politics. I don’t believe in a good country compared to a bad country…Yes, there is a lot of injustice here, definitely, from what happened to the Aborigines. There are terrible things that happened in Africa with the colonies, there are terrible things that happened in America with the Indians, there are terrible things that happened everywhere. In the name of religion, in the name of democracy – so many wars, so much injustice, really. I look around me, and I believe in karma, so I am going to try and do good. Sometimes I’m not doing a great job, but that’s what I try to do. I have to start in my own garden.
Tennis brings together so many cultures. Here you have Sania Mirza, an Islamic woman from India, playing with Cara Black, the daughter of an avocado farmer in Zimbabwe. Is that what you want to do, bring people together?
This is the ultimate thing you do when you are a performer. This is my job, to bring people together, and it seems that because I have had such a big success, it’s what people expect. I make people understand that difference is not a weapon, that being different is a good thing, that being different is a power.
I’m actually going against the tide in Europe, where the politicians want to make a division between people, whether it’s religious or color, or whatever. We have this big wave going on in France where extreme riots are very powerful. They just want to make an Earth where we cannot live together, which is the opposite of what I believe.
When I do concerts, I love the people. I love to see families, to see the mix, the joy. I love to see kids happy, grandparents of every color. I like that, and my biggest success is when I go out after my concert and just live – playing tennis, doing my charity work, and living my life. Right now, after all these years, this is me, the sensitive me. It’s what touches me, making people around me love each other.
We always have a tendency to forget where we are coming from, and what people did for us, and how they sacrificed their lives for our freedom and did unbelievable things. We take so much for granted. And some people really work hard. The last one was Nelson Mandela.
Did you meet him?
Yeah, a couple of times. He was living compassion, living kindness. The way he was, the way he hugged us, the smile, the genuine kindness.
[Problem solving] energy comes from different directions, but it takes one person. He was a special man.
Mandela said that he had a good forehand and only came to the net when he had to. He got his prison authorities to build a tennis court in the courtyard of his Robben Island jail.
He told us that they wanted to hang out in their dirt garden because that was the only place where they could leave messages. A priest used to come see them play tennis, but he was not really watching the tennis – he was coming to take the messages, because the priest was the only one who did not get searched.
I heard that the jailers who liked him would hit tennis balls up into the cell with messages.
The third time I saw him was at 7:15 AM at his house with John [McEnroe] and Bjorn [Borg]. We were just waiting and looking at each other like, “I cannot believe we’re here!” We are like old [souls], sensitive, thinking how blessed we are, privileged. We wait, and look at the watch, and it says 7:18. By 7:20, he showed up, and he goes, “Sorry, sons. Sorry, my daughters. I’m a little late. I have to take care of these old knees.” We talked about many things, and very early in the conversation, he was talking about Bjorn’s and John’s Wimbledon final and all about the points. And John says, “Mr. President, did you see the match?” And he goes, “Of course not, son. I was listening to it on the radio.” It was so funny, because he knew precisely what happened. He’s a good fan.
You have all these feelings about sports, human justice and beauty. Which of these three is most important to you?
Justice. I always feel for the one who’s hurt. I always feel for the one who’s beaten. I come from Europe and Africa, so I’m half/half, but I feel black. I have endless conversations with my [white] mom. I say, “But mom, I can see one taking over the other one. I see one taking advantage of the other one. I see one who’s hungry. I see one who is suffering.”
I am there for suffering, so yes, there is a part of me that is sensitive to injustice. I’m really worried about the future of Africa. People from outside come and take over, and decide who’s going to be the next president, and in order to do that, kill anybody.
Is there anything that can be done?
The answer can only be spiritual, and we need to share. It’s not possible that we have people who own billions, and then people are starving. It’s not possible. We have to find a way to share.
You go to the Cameroons often. What can the world learn from the African experience?
My friends all have this same dream of making money and being successful, and we work for 11 months so we can have a month holiday. And the best holiday we can have is to go to a place where there’s nothing. Where there’s no electricity, only a river with clear water. This is the best experience you can have. Isn’t it crazy that we are working to have so many cars? How many bedrooms, how many TVs do you need compared to a simple life that would be so much richer?
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…”
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.