There are 26 radio and television commentary booths atop the center court at Stade Roland Garros, home of the French Open Tennis Championships. On Thursday afternoon, after he beat favored Jose Luis Clerc of Argentina in a five-set, second-round match that had been suspended overnight, Yannick Noah made a joyous grand tour of 20 of them.
The 20-year-old Frenchman, discovered by Arthur Ashe during an exhibition tour through West Africa in 1971, is perhaps the most exciting young player to come out of Europe since Bjorn Borg, and is therefore much in demand.
Noah has been interviewed in so many languages the past few days that he can't keep them all straight. Italian televsion wants to talk to him. Spanish radio. A German magazine. An American newspaper. The French media appears insatiable.
Noah handles the onslaught remarkably well. He is soft-spoken, personable, unfailingly gracious, possessed of the charm of the French, and little of their equally famous arrogance.
Strikingly handsome, with delicate features, as appealing gap between his front teeth, and a 6-foot-4 body that looks as if it belongs in the National Basketball Association, Noah has become something of a matinee idol in France, as well as its top-ranked tennis player.
The first papal visit to France in 176 years has pushed him briefly off the front pages of newspapers here, but he is having a splendid run in the sports pages. After his victory over the seeded Clerc, an accomplished clay court player who beat John McEnroe to help Argentian eliminate the United States from the Davis Cup earlier this year, the banner headline in the respected daily Le Figaro proclaimed. "Noah parmi les grands" ("Noah among the greats").
Slight exaggeration, since Noah reached his first major tournament final only a week ago, losing the Italian Open to Guillermo Vilas. But who's to quibble about a little premature boasting among Frenchmen?
The LeFigaro correspondent's rationale for making Noah great by acclamation was that his coumputer world ranking should climb high enough with the victory over Clere to earn him a seeeding AT wimbledon next month.
There was rapture among the French publich and media when Noah subsequently walloped Californian Eliot Teltscher in straight sets to reach the last 16 here in the world's foremost clay court test. Noah undoubtedly will be back on Page One, sharing the headline with Pope John Paul II, if he can beat Jimmy Connors Sunday in a match all France will be watching.
Noah has emerged at a time when tennis is booming in France and Europe. The world is his oyster.
"Every French company wants him, from cosmetics to dress clothing and all sorts of nontennis-related products, because he is No. 1 in France," says Noah's business adviser, Washington attorney Donald Dell. "France is a big market starving for a great native champion, so Yannick's timing is absolutely perfect, if he can perform. The only problem is the pressure of everyone swamping and spoiling him."
Noah recognized the dangers. He has been warned about getting too much too fast by Phillippe Chatrier, president of the French and the International Tennis Federation, the man Ashe called nine years ago to suggest bringing Noah to France for development.
"If there are no players in France, it is not the federations' fault, because they are providing good facilifis and coaching," Noah says. "But I think the French players, in general, don't try enough. They don't like to travel. Life is very easy here. There is easy money playing in small French tournaments. They have very good contracts for clothing and equipment.
"I think the problem is from the society. Players ranked 10 or 15 in France may be 160 or 180 in the world, but they have enough money. They don't have to win matches if they want to eat."
Noah recognizes the need for self-discipline. He has given up two of his great loves, soccer and motorcycling, because he realizes they could endanger his tennis. He seems to have the ambition, the hunger, that so many young French players lack.
"He has the strokes, the desire, the passion to do it all," Ashe says. "He's got amazing reflexes and agility, and a great physique. He's sexy. It's all there, and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy."
Noah's father is a Camerounian who played professional soccer in France. In fact, a photo of Zac Noah, posing proudly with his young son in the giant cup that symbolizes the championship of France, still adorns Yannick's apartment.
While playing in France, Zac Noah married a white Frenchwoman, and they had three children. Yannick is the oldest, the only son. Yannick is a French name from Brittany, meaning John. Noah is a common surname in Cameroun.
Noah's parents are separated, but he remains close to each.
His father lives in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroun, and will be the director of the sports club (10 tennis courts, swimming pool, squash, gymnasium) that Yannick is building there. It will open this summer and he has vowed that the facilities will be open to young Camerounians who otherwise could not have access to money and his mother was European.
His mother, May Claire, and sisters Nathalie, 18, and Isabelle, 15, live now in Nice, in a house Yannick rents there. He lives in an appartment that is only a five-minute walk from Roland Garros, but plans to build a house outside Paris.
"My father and mother are not together anymore, and my mother has a lot of problems getting a job in France," Noah says." She is a French teacher, but it is very difficult when you come from Africa, and my sisters are still in school and want to go to a university. So I have a lot of responsibility.
"I have my own ambition, but when I win a match I am happy for myself, and more happy for my family, my friends, the federation and the coaches, who like me a lot, I think," he says earnestly, not at all immodestly. "When we work together, it is not only business. We are good friends. I think that is very important."
It is well-known how Noah was discovered in 1971 by Ashe, but the tale is so improbable -- the odds so great against a champion emerging this way -- that it bears repeating.
Ashe and fellow pros Tom Okker, Charlie Pasarell and Marty Riessen played an exhibition and gave a clinic at the Tennis Club Yauounde during a private tour.
Noah, then 11 years old and less than five feet tall, was one of the youngsters selected to hit with the distinguished visitors.
Ashe by his account, "amazed that any kid, especially one that small, could be playing so well there on the middle of western Africa" called Chatrier when he returned to Paris and offered to pay part of the expenses to bring Noah to France and enroll him in the federation's junior program in Nice. The federation called Noah's parents, made arrangements and financed him.
Before Ashe and friends went to Yaounde, Noah had no idea there were such things as professional tennis, Roland Garros and Wimbledon. "We don't have television there (in Cameroun)," he says. "We had a few magazines, that's all, but no real way to follow the game in Cameroun. It was a big discovery for me."
The local newspaper began publicizing the pro quartet about three weeks before they arrived in Cameroun. That was the first Noah ever heard of them.
"They were writing about Arthur Ashe, so I learned who he was. I didn't know of him before that," says Noah, who didn't realize that Ashe was black, and the only noteworthy black player in his sport.
Noah recalls that after three weeks of anticipation, he was so nervous about playing with the pros that he forgot to take his rackets to the four-court club, the biggest tennis facility in a country that still has only about two dozen courts.
"It was like a dream, you know. I was dreaming of champions, but I was just 11 years old. I wasn't thinking about playing tennis or being a professional. I played with Ashe for 10 minutes, and he gave me a racket. I played with it for three hours that afternoon," Noah recalls, sitting at Roland Garros, impeccably dressed, playing with a thin gold chin around his neck.
He didn't speak any English then (he is fluent now) only French and Ewondo, one of 60 dialects spoken in Cameroun. Ashe spoke no French (his fluency is improving). They communicated chiefly through Zac Noah's brother, Jean, who now lives in Paris and runs an exporting business.
"I was just happy about having the racket, that's all," says Noah, who didn't expect to see Ashe again, and never imagined that this day would change his life forever.
When the federation's call came from France, Noah's parents had an agonizing decision.
"At that age, I didn't realize what it meant, but it was very difficult for them, because really I had to leave forever," Noah says. "I would only be home 10 or 15 days a year. I was lucky because my father had been a professional sportsman. He understood. We decided I would try it for one year."
The first year in Nice was trying. In Yaounde, where Zac Noah had taken his soccer earnings and gone to work selling Renault automobiles after injuries ended his first career, the Noahs had a comfortable life: spacious house with swimming pool, large gardens, horses. The climate was agreeable all year since Yaounde, the capital city of 500,000, is cooler than much of Cameroun because of its altitude.
In Nice, Noah shared a dormitory with 10 other boys. He experienced cold weather for the first time, and didn't like it. He was lonely and homesick. He went home to Yaounde for Christmas the first year. And didn't want to come back.
"There was a lot of tears," he remembers, "but I went back to Nice because I wanted to play tennis, and I knew it was the only way. After one or two years, I was used to living by myself, I made some good friends and the federation was helping me a lot, so it was okay."
The only major disagreement came over school. At 16, Noah wanted to drop out and concentrate on tennis. The federation, Ashe and his father all tried to change his mind.
"I wasn't so bad at school, but I knew I had to make a decision, I didn't like playing tennis 50 percent, studying 50 percent, so finally I decided for myself," he says.
He left school in 1977, at 17, a year short of graduation. His mother and sisters joined him that year in Nice, but in 1978 he moved to Paris to have easier access to tennis facilities and practice partners.
In 1978, after growing junior successes, he began making an impact on the pro tour, winning two small Grand Prix tournaments in the autumn. Last year he won three minor tournaments, reached the last 16 of the U.S. Open and finished the year ranked No. 25 in the world.
Noah is ascending again after what the French refer to ruefully as his "blank winter": two first-round losses in the U.S., a disappointing loss to Vadim Borisov in France's Davis Cup victory over the U.S.S.R.; an ankle severely sprained playing soceer that sidelined him five weeks and made him give up the game he loves second best, then a bad case of the flu that kept him out of two more tournaments.
Noah spent a week at former Australian Davis Cup caption Harry Hopman's camp in Florida, and modestresults in florida, had modest results in tournaments at Los Angeles and Las Vegas, then enjoyed his best major tournaments at Los Angeles and Las Vegas, then enjoyed his best major tournament to date in Rome. His victory over Clerc here gave him great satisfaction.
"It made me happy to beat players like (Harold) Solomon in the finals of $50,000 tournaments," he says, "but I think it is much more important to beat good players in big tournaments."
Vilas, who won the first eight games from a nervous Noah in Rome and never let him into the match, predicted that "he will be a very good player, a champion."
Noah contrasts 1978, when he took a set off Vilas in his first appearance on the center court at Roland Garros, with the great expectations of his countrymen now.
"Then it was much easier," he says. "I had nothing to lose. When you are a young player, everyone wants you to win and the crowd is behind you. Now it is different. The people know me and expect me to win even against players better than me.If not, they start booing. If you win, they are very happy, but if you lose they don't want to know you anymore."
He thinks the Frfench press is unfair, impatient in its yearning for a champion.
"The problem is, when I was ranked No. 50 and I was beating guys who were ranked 20 or 25, they said this was normal, these players were no bodies," Noah says. "They were judging me badly because they were thinking I was better than I was. Last year, I lost to Gene Mayer (now ranked No. 6 in the world) in five sets and they wrote that I played vert bad, that it was not possible to lose to a player such as this. That is a very difficult attitude."
At least Noah has no racial pressures on him in France. He is not expected to be "the next Arthur Ashe," and does not aspire to be.
"It is different for me, because I'm not American. I don't feel like I have a lot of responsibilities about this. I never had problems because of my color, so it is hard for me to relate to this," Noach says. "I feel like I am a French player, that's all."
Ashe and Noah will be able to concentrate more on his tennis in France, but that he will be asked questions and will be expected to be a balck spokesman in the U.S. Noah is planning to play the U.S. summer circuit this year "because if you want to become good, you have to get where to best players are, and they play the big tournaments in the States in the summer."
Still, Noah hopes to make a reputation on his skill, not his color. As he said last year at the U.S. Open, "Now they come to see me here because I am black. Maybe some day they will com to see me because I am Noah."