France's coach Yannick Noah reacts during the Davis Cup world group quarter-final tennis match between France and Great Britain on April 7, 2017 at the Kindarena in Rouen. / AFP PHOTO / CHARLY TRIBALLEAU (Photo credit should read CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

Joel Drucker: Throwback Thursday - Happy Birthday, Yannick Noah

He is the last French man to win the men’s singles title at Roland Garros. He has captained both its Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams to victory. And even those achievements fail to fully capture the spirit and passion of Yannick Noah.

Noah turns 57 today. It’s hard to imagine him not celebrating, not finding an occasion to savor another year passing by, of the chance to engage with family and friends over a fine meal, of the opportunity to soak in life’s beauty and joy.

How best to describe Noah? As a player, his gift was the ability to be something greater than the sum of his parts. Outside of his superb service motion, no other Noah stroke was particularly forceful or technically exquisite. And yet, he somehow willed himself to his victories, asserting himself with tremendous energy and engagement.

Noah’s heart and soul was most vividly demonstrated during his 1983 Roland Garros title run. An underdog in the quarters that year versus the powerful Ivan Lendl, an inspired Noah won that match in four sets. In the finals, versus defending champion Mats Wilander, Noah went on the attack, earning a remarkable straight-sets victory. Seconds after match point, hundreds of fans – excited that a native son had won the singles for the first time in 37 years – rushed on to the court. Among the more notable: Noah’s father.

More recently, Noah has become an iconic French musician, popular to the point where several years ago he conceded – as always, kindly – that few were aware of his tennis achievements.

So what is the Noah legacy? As an individual sport, tennis struggles to create community. For reasons perhaps embedded deep in its DNA, the competitive nature of the spirit frequently triggers the spirit of exclusion. But then there come those occasional players – Roy Emerson, Vitas Gerulaitis, the Jensen brothers, the Bryan brothers, Yannick Noah – who dare let others in on the ride. Leave it to Noah, for example, to explain his relationship to his longstanding tennis rivals this way: “Of course we all love each other, but we just don’t say it.”

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