Yannick Noah, 18, played on Centre Court at Wimbledon for the first time yesterday, partnering Arthur Ashe to a gripping 4-6, 9-8, 6-2, 4-6, 14-12 first-round doubles victory over Bernie Mitton and Andrew Pattison.
The play was of such high standard that 10,000 spectators stayed riveted to their seats until dusk, and gave a two-minute standing ovation when Noah drilled home the final forehand volley.
It is an astounding longshot that Noah ever came to be a pro tennis player. He did not know that there was professional tennis, had never even heard of Wimbledon, when Ashe "discovered" him seven years ago during a goodwill tour through Africa.
"It was my second trip, a private, non-State Department tour with Charlie Pasarell. Tom Okker and Marty Riessen." Ashe explained. "In Yaounde, Cameroun, we had just come into the tennis complex and I saw this diminutive, brown little figure playing tennis, and just hitting the hell out of the ball.
"Two things struck me immediately. I was amazed that any kid, especially one so small, could be playing so well there in the middle of Western Africa. Second, I could see immediately that he was not all African. On these trips, you get used to seeing just black, black people. He was lighter. As it turned out, his mother was a white Frenchwoman."
Noah, who now stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 180 pounds, is the son of a Cameroundi who played professional soccer for seven years in France, married a French woman, and then moved back to Cameroun after suffering knee injuries that ended his career.
"My father wanted to stay active after he gave up soccer, so he started playing tennis. I used to follow him to the courts, and my whole family started playing," Noah said. "I loved it from the beginning."
When Ashe arrived in Yaounde, Yannick stood under 5-feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds. But he was obviously a competitor, and Ashe recognized his rich gifts as an athlete. He also knew there was no hope of a young player developing his pontential in Cameroun, where there was neither coaching nor competition.
Cameroun was French territory, so Ashe immediately decided to call his friend, Philippe Chatrier, now the president of the French Tennis Federation, and tell him about his "find."
"As soon as we got back to Europe, I alled Philippe and told him, tongue in cheek. "One of your colonial subjects in Yaounde is doing exceptionally well, and you ought to do the neo-colonialist thing and bring him to France, get him assimilated immediately into the French junior program." Ashe recalled.
Noah spoke no English at that time, and Ashe very little French, so they did not speak. But Ashe talked to Noah's parents, recommending that they send their son to France if they wanted him to develop as a tennis player.
Chatrier knew of Noah's father from his soccer days.
"He won the French Cup in 1961, and I remember very well a picture of him with his little son sitting in the cup." Chatrier said yesterday. Young Noah remembers the photograph, too. He has a copy of it hanging in his room in Nice, on the Riviera, where Chatrier arranged for him to attend a school-and-coaching program set up by the French federation for promising juniors.
"I didn't know anything about it until it was all arranged for me to go," said Noah. "At first I was very excited, very enthusiastic. I went to Nice for three months, but when I came back home for the Christmas holidays I wanted to stay.
"I was only 12. I missed my family and my friends. There were many tears, but finally I went back. After that, I got used to it and wanted to stay.
"There is no way I could have become a good player if I had stayed in Cameroun. I didn't know anything about the tennis world. We had no television there, no magazines that I could see what it is like. There are no players, one tournament a year, only four courts at the biggest club. If I had stayed there, I might have been champion of Cameroun and nothing more."
Noah has improved as a tennis player almost as rapidly as he has grown. Last winter he was runner-up in the Orange Bowl, the most important international junior championship, and won the Sunshine Cup junior team competition for France with his best friend in tennis, 19-year-old Pascal Portes.
Two years ago he quit school to concentrate on a tennis career. "It was a difficult decision, but I had to choose. My father, because he was a professional sportsman, knew what was going through my mind.He knew I would make the sacrifices, so he approved," Noah said in English that has become flawless.
Noah's mother and two younger sisters now live in Nice, where the girls can get a better education than they could in Yaounde. His father is still in Cameroun, working for Renault. Yannick is ranked No. 16 in France, but has had enough good results in the last year to crack into the top 100 in the computer rankings of the Association of Tennis Professionals.
Ashe has kept tabs on him throughout the past seven years, noting his progress, encouraging him when possible. Four weeks ago, during the French Open, he invited Noah to practice with him and other American players on grass at Eastbourne the week before Wimbledon, and to play doubles with him here.
"It was a great thrill," Noah said. "When I was young, I was trying to play like Arthur. He was my idol. It is very good for me to practice and play doubles with him, because I can learn so much."
They became the first black pair ever to compete at Wimbledon, and won a match both will remember the rest of their lives."
"I'm obviously interested in seeing that he does well, just purely in racial terms," Ashe said. "I would like to see him do even better than I did." Ashe has been singles champion of the U.S. (1968), Australia (1970) and Wimbledon (1975) and the only black superstar ever in the predominantly white world of tennis.
"I am not interested in seeing him become 'another Arthur Ashe.' He'll be a Yannick Noah, and I hope that means he'll be the No. 1 player in the world.
"I think the fact that he is not American is good, because there is much less racial pressure in France. He'll be able to devote more of his time to tennis instead of being a crusader.
"He's a nice kid, too, which helps. Everybody likes him. They want to help him, in spite all the publicity he's getting - which is considerable.
"The last issue of 'Tennis de France' had him on the cover. The headline was, 'Yannick: Is He the French Champion We've Been Waiting For?' That kind of expectation puts a lot of pressure on a kid, but I think he can handle it. He's got an awful lot of potential."
John Saffer of Falls Church outlasted Norman Fitz of Silver Spring, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (5-3) and captured the senior (45 and over) men's singles championship of the D.C. Public Parks Tennis Tournament yesterday at the 16th and Kennedy streets stadium. The match lasted three hours.