Occasionally an athlete emerges who can set the sports world on fire. Yannick Simon Noah, the best tennis player in France, is such an athlete.
Noah is half-black, half-white (his father is Cameroonian and his mother is French). He has an ideal build: 6-foot-4, 187 pounds, and the face of a matinee idol.
As the first French player to break into the top 20 (he is ranked 12th in the world), he is viewed as the savior of French tennis. He is just a major title away from superstardom, and this year will make more than $1 million from tournaments, exhibitions and endorsements. "I realize that i make much more money than the average man in the street. But I don't feel guilty about it. I did not make things the way they are," he told me shortly before the French Open.
Noah faces the typical problems of a young player. Although he is only 21 years old and has yet to win a major title (Wimbleton, French Open, U.S. Open or Australian Open), he shoulders considerable responsibility.
"I think there is too much money in France for the players," Noah said. "Maybe life becomes too easy and the French players don't try so hard. And the press is always writing about what we do -- on and off the court. The press makes me crazy sometimes."
Noah's goal this year is to make the top 10 in the ATP rankings. Although only two places away, he realizes how difficult it is move up. Wojtek Fibak, for instance, has hovered between 12 and 15 for four years, but has yet to crack the coveted first 10. In the world of professional tennis, getting a top 10 ranking is a marketable achievement.
One of Noah's distinctions is that he could become one of the world's best known black athletes. He said he has never thought about it that way.
"In America, the press talks too much about racial things. Here in France, they don't talk enough about it. In Europe, there are problems for black people, but you don't read too much about it in the press. The problem is ignored," he said.
Recently, Noah was criticized in the African press for not mentioning his African heritage often enough. Although born in France, he spent his early childhood in Cameroon, where he was a tennis and soccer star, like his father. c
Like many tennis players on the pro circuit, he never finished school, which he regrets. Yet he reads a lot now, "because I don't have to." Five years ago, he didn't want to go to school at all.
He is passionate about tennis. Watching him play is like watching a hungry man eat a steak. His ground strokes show more strength than form. He throws himself at his top-spin forehand. He can slice or hit his backhand, and his serve could be the best in the game in a few years.
Said Ivan Lendl, 6-2, after his loss to Noah in a tournament in Richmond last February: "It looked like he was serving from a tree."
The only thing keeping Noah from his goal is his inability to control his emotions. On good days, his shot-making is inspired. On less passionate days, he can lose to player No. 90.
He will begin U.S. summer tournament play in Washington in July. But he will stay in this country only three weeks. "I get homesick very quickly," he admits.
He should be favorably received here. Black Americans will applaud him because he is black. Tournament sponsors will applaud him because he will be a top seed. Tennis fans will applaud him because he does things with a racket they can only dream of doing.
I will applaud him because he has the potential to be better than I ever was.