Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh
The Interview Part 2
Here is Inside Tennis’s final installment of our interview with France’s charismatic Yannick Noah, who won Roland Garros 40 years ago and is one of the most provacative thinkers in the game.
So you think tennis draws people together, or is it merely a nice diversion for us all?
When a player wins a really big match the first thing they do is look around to share their emotion with people. They look at the people and feel the joy that’s deep inside. Maybe it’s subconscious. This is what you are looking for, isn’t it, “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’s said that you won not because of your forehand or backhand or fierce concentration, but because of your spirit. Did that touch people or send a message?
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 are not many black players. But then I’m half white, and French, so there were people who were for me from both sides.
Your 1983 French Open win was like an Olympian at last grasping the gold, or a mountain climber reaching the summit. You’ve called it a Nirvana of the spirit.
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 a moment that touched a lot of people.
One of your songs says, “Go ahead and dare, this is the hour, we must all change, so dare.”
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 said: “You can do it, why not?”
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!”
On the other hand, a thinker you studied, E.M. Cioran, suggested that this world of ours is an intriguing nothingness, a passionate emptiness.
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.
Just seven months after you won the French Open you were so depressed. You were aimlessly wandering the streets late at night and thinking of jumping into the Seine.
I was very depressed and lonely at 23… People told me that winning would bring me happiness. They said, “You’re going to be rich and have glory. You’re going to be happy, my son.” But that’s not how I found it…. People tried to tell me who I was, what I was supposed to do.
It was a normal, human, genuine instinct that was saying, “This is not real. This is too much.” It was an instinct that was telling me that one day this thing is going to go away. 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 love to share certain moments. I love it. It’s important. But this is not something I want to live with every minute of my life. I didn’t like it…I was so happy when I stopped playing…. Thinking about winning is a disease that I don’t want to have anymore.”
Celebrity is a mixed bag. People dream through celebrities, but sometimes perhaps they live their lives too much through them.
I didn’t dream of being a celebrity. Yes, I wanted to play well. I wanted to share this moment. I wanted to be loved. But I was never into the celebrity thing. But, with time, you find a way to use celebrity for positive reasons. [Noah has a children’s charity.] But I always felt very uncomfortable with celebrity because it wasn’t real.
I was wondering and thinking, “God, all this is so worthless. Did I really work for this? Did I sacrifice my childhood for this? Is this really what I want inside?” And it took me time. I didn’t want to listen to people. I was on the edge and not feeling good about life, like, “This is so unfair. I’m so lonely.”
This is when I really get those thoughts [of suicide]. I think about death all the time and that’s why I love life so much.
So why did such a good man, Arthur Ashe, leave us so early?
There are some people out there sending us messages that you can’t take people or health or love for granted. 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. I’d love to have Arthur around and listen to what he thinks.
What can we Americans learn from African culture?
We don’t have much. 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? Being honest – the people are just simply true.
You always feel kind of strange when you see poor people. They have nothing, but they give you a smile. They are so generous. This is unconditional love. I don’t know where it comes from, whether it’s from culture, religion, or philosophies.
I need to go to these places 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 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.
And you also lived in America for a good while. What did you like?
I love the nature. So much space and beautiful, different, nature: Colorado, Maine, Vermont, California, Montana. As soon as you get out of the city, 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. My town, my city. You travel the city and you’re in Africa or Europe, yet you’re in America.
And what’s wonderful about French culture?
We believe in reading history books. It’s not like we feel superior because we have a longer history. Not at all.
You’ve spoken out against war.
Enough, okay – enough wars. Whether it’s economic or whatever, there’s no reason to go out and kill people. We shouldn’t go to these countries and kill. What are we left with? Is the problem resolved?
What lessons did we learn from World War I, from World War II, from religion’s wars? What’s wrong with humans, that they don’t learn? 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?
One of your songs says, “I hear the way of the wise ones and I sing with them, no more fighting, no more killing.”
Where I grew up, in Africa, there was no such thing as history books. We just listened to old people talking, telling us about the past and history. Young people now don’t listen to old people any more.
Yet, there is a tremendous energy in today’s youth culture. It’s vibrant and –
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 sometimes that’s the only choice they have, to be heard. You’re talking about rap music, about inner-city life, about poor people. I believe they’re put aside by society. The only choice they have is to be aggressive.
On the other hand, you have a lot of privileged people who think they have to be aggressive. 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.
Do you ever reflect on your long journey and say, “This has been interesting or odd”?
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? Just the word tennis, it’s like a huge love in my life. What a strange ride trying to live up to the stuff I received.