His likeness is spread across magazine covers, posters and the walls of Parisian girls' boudoirs. He attends lectures on philosophy at the Sorbonne, plays guitar in a reggae band, dates a model from Boulder, Colo., shares a TV variety-show stage with actress Annie Girardot and peers off the box of a popular biscuit. The only product Yannick Noah, he of the demi dreadlocks, may be incapable of selling in the Republic of France is hair spray. And now he's the first Frenchman in nearly four decades to win the Championnats Internationaux de France. Vive le Cameroun.
It was 11 long summers ago that the frightened little black child left home and family in the tiny village of Yaoundé, Cameroon in central Africa to come to Paris to learn tennis. He undoubtedly hadn't heard of Rastafarian 'dos back then. But on Sunday, on the sweltering terre battue of Stade Roland Garros, a gloriously skilled and Rasta-coiffed Noah, now 23, finally fulfilled his dream with a 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 victory over the young Swedish defending champion, Mats Wilander. When Noah received his trophy from the last native titlist, Marcel Bernard, who won in 1946, it was obvious how much French tennis had evolved. Bernard is almost bald.
Unlike Noah's results over the previous two weeks, in which he lost only one set—that in the quarterfinals to Ivan Lendl, whom Noah now seems to own in big matches—the final was closer than it may have appeared. Noah had an especially easy time in the semis, where he crushed his compatriot, the Jimmy Connors assassin, Christophe Roger-Vasselin, 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 and exhibited his gentle nature. "C'mon Chris, you can do better," Noah mumbled to himself as his poor rival foundered in the dirt.
Against Wilander, however, Noah had no time for sentiment. He revels in the grand occasion, the entertainment of tennis, the show. The 6'4" Noah is the game's most gifted athlete, and fully aware of his great talent, he often struts about and macho-intimidates the fellow across the tape. Wilander, who won the French last year at the age of—what was it, 12?—was hardly scared. He had won love sets in three of his own matches, including a semifinal defeat of Jose Higueras, who bravely battled throughout the tournament with a painful tennis elbow. But Noah imposed his mighty presence on the final from the beginning. Time and again he followed his backhand scroogy to net for put-away volleys. Up there Noah constantly cheated to the forehand side to intercept Wilander's dangerous down-the-line backhand. A lunging forehand volley at 2-2 of the opening set gave Noah the first break of the match. In the fifth game of the next set, another diving volley got him to break point, which Noah converted. Wilander broke back for five-all with an artistic offensive lob, but in the next game Noah countered with a game-winning lob of his own. He then served out the set by picking off a Wilander backhand.
"It was very strange playing this great final at home," Noah would say later. "I wanted to win so bad it didn't matter how I played, just so I won. But Mats let me play my game. I could stay on the baseline and come in when I wanted."
Noah opened the third set by breaking serve, but then nerves and cramps set in. He looked the weaker player after Wilander immediately broke back and then-held his own serve on three Noah errors to take a 2-1 lead. Wilander had two more break points for 3-1, and Noah was moving slowly between points, favoring his right leg. Was he exhausted or just Jimmy Brown getting up from the gang-tackle? Wilander quickly found out. An ace and a service winner saved the fourth game. Another ace closed out the sixth. A double-pump slam-dunk overhead helped Noah win the 10th at love.
After Noah broke once more with three tough approach shots, the home-court crowd stomped and bellowed for blood as their countryman served for the match at 6-5. Wilander responded with his best game, absolutely coldcocking two returns that seemed to sail through Noah's legs. But in the tie-breaker Noah kept pinning Wilander in the corners, where he was helpless against the Frenchman's headlong dashes to the net.
Speaking of which, Noah's immediate concern following his victory was for his father, Zacharie, who nearly upstaged Noah fils with a 15-foot header out of a box seat and onto the copper dirt. "My first thought was 'Who is that guy?' " said Noah. "Every time he comes here he goes back to Cameroon with more white hair. But now I finally win for my family. Leaving was so very hard. I am happy to show them it paid off."
In certain respects the earlier hours of the French belonged to the American male contingent as much as they did to Wilander and Noah. Arriving in Paris fresh from his triumph at the Italian Open, 18-year-old Jimmy Arias looked like a contender until he was rudely dispatched by Willie Vilas in the round of 16. Still, Arias' European spring remained the most impressive tour of foreign soil by an athlete from the mangy outskirts of Niagara Falls, N.Y. since Sal Maglie was tearing up the Mexican League.
Then, of course, there were our goodwill ambassadors to the world, Jheemee Konorzzz and Jhonn Maceeenreau. The Album Programme at Roland Garros, a beautiful hard-cover book chock-full of stories, stats and pictures that sells for 25 francs (about $3.50) and should be required, reading for promoters of every sporting event in the U.S., contained a terrific color spread of Connors embracing his estranged wife, Patti, and of Patti gazing soulfully alone. To acknowledge current events, the accompanying caption read, "Jimmy l'Incertain...un roman d'amour est mort." But if Connors was uncertain it didn't show on court. Playing with his old energy and desire, Jimbo had what appeared to be an easy draw to the semifinals. Then here came a most improbable stranger on the scene, Roger-Vasselin, a man in possession of three names, two passports—his father being a Frenchman; his mother is from Putney outside London, where Roger-Vasselin was born—and one puffball backhand, which he undoubtedly copied out of a 1930s instructional guide.