Ever since Arthur Ashe plucked him out of Africa, everything good and exceptional that has happened in French tennis has been touched by the Noah factor.
When his father Zac – a Camerounian soccer international – fell out of the stands in his excitement at Roland Garros in 1983, he was trying to celebrate the fact that his son had become the first Frenchman to win the French Open since Marcel Bernard 37 years before. No Frenchman has won it since.
When the United States, led by Pete Sampras, lost the 1992 Davis Cup final in Lyon, Yannick Noah was not only in the captain’s chair but he changed the course of the tie by inspiring Guy Forget to turn himself into a winner right in the middle of a match. “Allez! Get out there and fight,” Yannick yelled at his talented but timid player. In that moment Forget became a champion who discovered how to win.
In 1996, Noah led France to another Davis Cup triumph against Sweden in Malmo and, the following year, added the captaincy of the Fed Cup to his duties. With Mary Pierce and Nathalie Tauziat in his squad, Noah was able to help the team secure France’s first ever Fed Cup success that year.
Noah drifted out of tennis for several years after that, consumed by his Afro-reggae music that turned him into a super star of a different kind. A few years ago, Noah, on his own, drew a crowd of 84,000 at the Stade de France for a concert. Kids didn’t even know he had played tennis.
But, after some political upheavals in French tennis that saw Arnaud Clement stripped of the captaincy, the Federation turned to Noah and persuaded him to become Davis Cup captain for a second time. Earlier this year, he took the team to Guadaloupe, a Caribbean island which is part of France, and, riding his luck when Milos Raonic pulled out of playing for Canada, grabbed a first round the win.
It was much the same in the Czech Republic in July. Tomas Berdych didn’t play and France moved on to the semi-final which will be played in Croatia the week after the US Open. Will the injured Borna Coric be fit to play or will Noah get lucky again?
Luck, of course, is only part of the story. Noah is an inspirational figure with that priceless gift for raising players to new heights. He wasn’t the reason Lucas Pouille came back from a break down in the fifth to beat Rafa Nadal in the fourth round at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center but it seemed highly appropriate that he was there in the players’ box, cheering on his country’s new star and enjoying another special moment for French tennis.
For the first time since Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Rene Lacoste achieved it in 1927, France has three men in the quarter finals in New York this year and, as they are all bunched in the same half, at least one has to reach the semi-final.
Jo Wilfried Tsonga will have his work cut out against Novak Djokovic but either Pouille or Gael Monfils must go through. For years Grand Slam draws have been packed with French players because the Federation’s development program is so solid and so broadly based with tournaments all over the country all year.
The system has produced a whole host of fine players with Tsonga, Monfils and Richard Gasquet leading the way in recent years but that elusive Grand Slam singles winner has eluded them. Is the newly serious Monfils, who has re-dedicated himself to his career this year without reducing his crowd appeal, ready to grab the crown? Maybe not and one would doubt whether Pouille, at 21, is experienced enough to do so right now.
But the manner in which he fought back to beat Nadal impressed many seasoned observers. Alex Corretja, a former Roland Garros finalist, loves the way Pouille plays. “He is able to maintain a high level for long periods,” says the Spaniard. “I love his backhand and the way he fights. In two or three years, when spaces will open up at the top he should definitely be in with a chance of winning a Grand Slam.”
It will be the job of the experienced French coach, Manuel Planque, who looked after Fabrice Santoro and Michael Llodra, to develop Pouille’s exciting game further but during Davis Cup weeks, the young man will have the benefit of Noah’s special tutoring.
There is no one quite like Yannick Noah in international sport. No one who has produced a basketball star for a son, left his own sport to carve out a hugely successful career in a completely different field and then return to pick up where he left off.
There will be lots of hard work ahead for The French Davis Cup squad but there will be music and laughter, too, and if French tennis ends up with more trophies in the cabinet in the coming years, don’t be surprised. The Noah Factor will have struck again.