Zac Noah begat Yannick, and on the night of the first round of the Washington Star International tennis tournament, Yannick Noah dug a great hole and prepared to climb in it.
On the precipice, "I was scared," said Noah. For a moment, a cool breeze rattled the loose canvas around Rock Creek Stadium and the crowd seemed to shudder and stifle a breath.
"It would be very bad for this tournament if Noah lost tonight," whispered a journalist veteran of past Stars.
Noah did not.
He had already lost the first set to Chilean Belus Prajoux. The second was tied, 3-3. Noah had been easily holding serve in the seventh game, leading, 40-0, when the Chilean roared back to break point.
Noah dug down and tightened his scrambling game. He did not lose another point in the set and went on to win the match handily. A sigh seemed to emanate from the assemblage of 3,500.
Why all this concern about one modest tennis player? Partly because if Noah loses, the Star International loses a big chunk of international in one swift sweep.
By his account, Noah is "not really black, not really white, not really African, not really French." At the same time, he is all these things, and terribly attractive, as well.
Noah is the son of Zac Noah, a former Cameroonian soccer player, and the Frenchwoman his father married while playing in Europe. Yannick Noah was born in France, grew up in Youande, the capital of Cameroon, and returned to France after he was discovered at age 11 by Arthur Ashe.
Ashe saw the young Noah during a 1971 Africa tour. He notified the French of a potential talent and Noah soon left home to begin intensive training in Nice. In the most imporbable fashion, he turned out to be every bit as good as Ashe suspected. Today, at 21, Noah is ranked 15th in the world.
The French, who have no other world-class player at the moment and who are extremely fond of this sport, have made him something of a national hero.
He is also the only black player anywheree near the top of professional tennis and has the potential to inherit Ashe's huge following.
There are pressures aplenty. Yet Noah is philosophical.
After the Prajoux match, he changed to ratty jeans and soft velour sweater and chatted in near-perfect English as the crowd departed.
"It is supposed to put pressure on me but I don't care. They talk a lot about me in France. I'm not a star, but almost. At first, it scared me. I was young. Everybody talked about me.
"I know that now, if I quit tennis, nobody would recognize me. But I don't care."
In 1979, Noah won tournaments in Madrid, Nancy, Bordeaux. Last year, he pulled a leg muscle at the French Open and was months mending.
The French were crestfallen, their hopes dashed. As for Noah, "I was a little disappointed. I was playing well and I thought I could get into the top 10.
"But I wasn't really very disappointed. When I was injured, it's the only time I can go out hand have fun. And I had a really good time, the best moments of my life. As a player, it was bad. As a guy, it was great."
Noah is no drudge.What selfrespecting Frenchman is?
"That's the reason I think there is no great player from France, or even Western Europe," he said. "They don't have to win matches to have a good living. It's pleasant, and it is, how you say, understandable? They have all they want. They can play in France and they don't have to go everywhere. a
"Me? I think 'm lucky. I left home at 11. I have my own goals."
The goal that so far has eluded Noah is victory in a major tournament.
But he isn't developing a complex over it. "All I do is try to do my best." He shrugs, "If I win, okay. If I lose, I shake his hand and forget it. The main thing is not to regret."
Off the court, Noah is a charming, modest, soft-spoken, elegant fellow. On court, he is different. Ashe has likened his style of play to a hungry man devouring a steak.
Against Prajoux, he hit the clay twice, once rolling and coming up with gray gunk over the back of his tennis whites; once hurling himself forward for a winner at the net, then hanging like a kite, horizontal to the ground, while he watched the winner touch down. He landed with an unguarded, full frontal smack.
Which characterizes his style -- unguarded.
"If he could learn to pace himself, he'd be a better player," said a veteran tennis watcher.
Better, perhaps, but not half as exciting.
Noah is an unvarnished, raw slasher on court, stabbing backhand volleys, smashing top-spins down the line, flinging himself at everything that comes his way. It makes him even more popular with the crowds, and was the cause of those startled gasps when he threatened to eliminate himself in the first round here.
He's young, skillful, lean and ambitious, in a totally Parisian way.
"If I can make No. 1," he says, "then I have to make it. But everyone doesn't have the same skill. I try to play and be happy and that's it.
"The difference between us (French) and the other guys is off the court. They're more professional. Maybe they are happy that way, but 'm not. Going to bed at a special time, all that. . ."
But Noah does agree he has one mission that becomes particularly evident in Washington, where many black fans support him.
"I don't think of myself as black, particularly. But when you are young, you have to dream about being a champion. When I was young, I know my favorite player was Arthur (Ashe).
"Maybe it's because I thought I looked like him. I don't know, but maybe I am this guy for the black kids today -- the champion they want to play like. And it so, that makes me very happy."