There were only two dozen courts in the entire West African nation of Cameroun when Yannick Noah started playing tennis there in the late 1960s.
There will be 10 more, uncharacteristically open to native youngsters, when Noah finishes building an as-yet unnamed club in his home city of Yaounde later this summer.
And there is no telling how much tennis interest would be generated in Cameroun if Noah -- now a promising 20-year-old pro who plays for France -- beats Guillermo Vilas Sunday to win the $200,000 Italian Open in his first major tournament final.
Noah is the Great Black Hope of tennis now that Arthur Ashe -- who "discovered" him as an 11-year-old during a goodwill tour through West Africa in 1971 -- has retired from competition.
He was born in France, the son of a Camerounian father who played professional soccer there and a French mother, and was enrolled in an intensive school-and-training program run by the French Tennis Federation in Nice in 1972 after Ashe alerted Federation officials to their "talented colonial."
At that time, Noah was 4 feet 11. He has grown to a lithe and graceful 6-4, and has gained patience to temper the aggressive game he learned on the four concrete courts of what was then the largest club in Yaounde.
Today, as rainclouds and chill gave way to brilliant sunshine worthy of a Roman spring, Noah combined solid clay court tactics with admirable zest for the net, touch with power, and strolled to the final of the second-most important tournament on the continent.
In the morning, he handily eliminated the last of the natives, Corrado Barazzutti, 6-4, 6-2, in the quarterfinal round that was postponed by rain on Friday. In the afternoon, he returned to the white marble Campo Centrale (center court) at Foro Italico and lost only five points on his serve in dispatching the tired, ailing, and ultimately indifferent Tomaz Smid of Czechoslovakia, 6-1, 6-0.
Vilas, 27, the runner-up here in 1976 and 1979, had little more trouble, walloping Mexican Raul Ramirez, 6-2, 6-4, for his morning constitutional, then flogging Californian Eliot Teltscher in the semifinals, 6-4, 6-1. Vilas has lost no sets and only 28 games in reaching the Italian singles final for the third time.
Telscher, 21, and Smid, 24, both seemed weary, physically and emotionally, after prevailing in tense, three-set quarterfinals that obviously sapped their energy and competitive resources.
Teltscher, a determined backcourt scrapper, trailed 2-5 in the first set and 2-3 in the third, but won both to overcome Ivan Lendl, the ascending 20-year-old Czech, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4. Lendl had two break points at 4-4 in the final set, but let Teltscher off the hook by failing to attack as forcefully as he had earlier, then played a sloppy service game to lose both the match and his temper.
Teltscher plays the same kind of game as Vilas -- hitting with heavy topspin off both wings, preferring to stay at the baseline on clay -- but he lacks the weight, variety of shot, and quickness of the muscular Agrentinian.
He drooped noticeably after a close first set, and was forced to try to come to the net to make things happen. Unfortunately, all the things that happened were bad for him. He netted volleys. Vilas passing shots whizzed by him, on both sides. Topspin lob winners floated over his head.
Smid -- bothered by a sore thumb and a pulled thigh muscle that was heavily taped -- served three times for the match, squandered a 5-2 lead and four match points, but finally pulled out a 6-3, 5-7, 7-5 victory over Spaniard Manuel Orantes, easily the best match of the day.
Smid is a grim, mustachioed competitor with a flying shirttail, a big topspin forehand and a rather defensive backhand that he hits with a truncated stroke, off his back foot. Orantes is an elegant shotmaker who had the Italians, kindred Latin spirits, cheering his comeback with chants of "Bravo" and "Manolo."
The dull and one-sided semifinals disappointed the crowd of 9,000 spectators, clad in bright spring colors and a marvelous variety of hats, who filled the majestic Campo Centrale -- soaking up the sunshine that has been conspicuously absent lately as well as consuming ice cream and drinks in vast quantity.
However, Vilas -- the Argentinian left-hander who has won the Australian Open twice, the French and U.S. Open and Grand Prix Masters once each, but never the Italian -- was content to have reached the final so handily. Last year he lost the title to Vitas Gerulaitis in a five-hour, five-set epic that drained him for weeks afterward.
"I gave everything I had in Rome, and then at Paris and Wimbledon I could not move," said Vilas, recalling that 12 months ago he was not his usual fit and tireless self because he had just come back after a difficult tonsilectomy. This year, the 5-11, 170-pound Vilas is in good shape, and was far too strong for the 5-11, 140-pound Teltscher.
Noah, meanwhile, wishes he had had a tougher road to the final. After shaky three-set victories over lightly regarded Jose-Luis Damiani and Jiri Hrebec in the first two rounds, he won seven games from injured Eddie Dibbs before Dibbs defaulted, then cruised past the glum and erring Barazzutti and the glum and erring Smid.
"This is a big moment in my career, because it is the first time that I am in the final of a big tournament, but I didn't have a very hard match and I don't feel like it is the final of a big tournament. I'm not really, really happy," he said.
He got his start in the game because his father, as a professional athlete, had enough money. ("We weren't rich, but we had some money.") When injuries ended Zac Noah's soccer career, he wanted to take up a sport he could play with his wife, two daughters and son, so he chose tennis.
Then Ashe came to Yaounde -- "I still remember it very well, of course.
He played an exhibition, and I got to play some with him," said Yannick. Ashe phoned Phillippe Chatrier, French Tennis Federation president, to tell of his discovery. Noah went to Nice, and has been the recipient of all the best coaching the Federation could muster.
Now he sees a chance to repay that investment, and to do something great for Cameroun as well. Rome, the Eternal City, could be the beginning of an eternal legacy for tennis' new Great Black Hope.