Yannick Noah will have a chance to show that an aggressive, all-court game can win the French Open tennis championship when he attacks the patient, base line game of defending champion Mats Wilander in the men's final Sunday.
Noah played acrobatic, overpowering tennis today to outclass Christophe Roger-Vasselin, 6-3, 6-0, 6-0, in 1 hour 22 minutes in an all-French semifinal. Wilander used superior ground strokes to defeat Jose Higueras in a 3-hour 44-minute match, 7-5, 6-7 (7-3), 6-3, 6-0.
Despite the first bright, blue skies of the tournament and a sellout crowd of 14,000 excited by the prospect of the first all-French semifinal in 37 years, the day's tennis proved disappointing. The match between Noah and Roger-Vasselin was one-sided; the Wilander-Higueras match was dominated by long base line rallies.
Noah is the first Frenchman to reach the final since his brother-in-law Patrick Proisy got there 11 years ago. On a 16-match winning streak, he is one victory away from becoming the first men's champion for the host nation since Marcel Bernard in 1946.
Wilander's style of endless topspin ground strokes seems ideal for the slow, red-clay center court of Roland Garros. Wilander, 18, has never lost a match here, and before he won here last year, his Swedish countryman, Bjorn Borg, used a similar style to capture the championship the four previous years and also in 1974-75.
Higueras, 30, is also a clay-court specialist who has reached the semifinals here two years in a row thanks to his determination and steadiness. His movements around the court are slow and regular, and with his face set in a constant stare of unemotional concentration, he never gives up.
Virtuous as those qualities are, when pitted against the similarly emotionless and serious Wilander, the result is unexciting tennis. Back and forth the ball went, and the first two sets took 2 hours 45 minutes.
In the third set, Wilander took the advantage. His speed enabled him to run down more balls than the tiring Higueras, who had played an exhausting five-set match against Guillermo Vilas spread over the past two days and was suffering from a bad case of tennis elbow that slowed his serve.
"I played a very good clay-court player and it takes time to beat him," Wilander said. "I was tired also, but I won the games at the beginning of the third set and that fired me up."
For his part, Higueras said he was so tired after all the running he has done on clay this spring that he was going home to Barcelona to rest on the beach. "I will watch Wimbledon on television," he said.
He praised Wilander's Borg-like determination and concentration. Although he said the two have similar two-hand backhands, Higueras said Borg's big topspin forehand remained a stronger attacking weapon than anything of Wilander's.
Because Wilander does not have a knockout shot, Noah, 23, should have a good chance Sunday. Against Roger-Vasselin, he looked unbeatable, his topspin ground strokes landing deep in the court with good pace and his vollies angled and crisply hit. But it is hard to say whether Noah won more than Roger-Vasselin lost.
Since his victory over No. 1 seed Jimmy Connors Wednesday, Roger-Vasselin has been hounded at all hours of the day by the French press. Combined with the natural decompression that follows a big upset, Roger-Vasselin never had his mind in this match.
"The last few days have been absolutely exhausting," he said. "My mental attitude on the court was terrible."
He tried to attack against Noah, but his shots did not have the pace, depth or consistency to bother his opponent. In the second and third sets, as Noah hit winner after winner, Roger-Vasselin straggled around the court like a wandering man lost in the desert. At one point, he kneeled and stared at his outstretched racket in prayer-like disbelief.
"I made a lot of unforced errors," Roger-Vasselin said. "I was hitting the ball short. I was making double faults. I was able to concentrate for one or two points. And then I would lose my concentration again."
For his part, Noah seems to have the confidence and the strokes to become to win. He admits that he is a nervous person, and in pressure situations he has been known to fold. But in this tournament, he showed staying power in beating Ivan Lendl after squandering some match points and losing the third set.
Along with his mental attitude, his game has come together. He is steady at the base line, and at the net his 6-foot-4 frame is tough to pass. His game matches up well against Wilander, who will be forced to take chances, not just make softball returns.
"I am impatient to start the final," Noah said. "I am ready to put all my cards on the table. I couldn't be fitter."
So with players of contrasting styles and the electricity of a Parisian throng rooting for a hometown hero against the imperturbable backboard of a Swede, the men's final should provide an exciting finish for a tournament mostly filled with uninspiring tennis.
The only men's matches with real excitement have been Noah's four-set win over Lendl and Wilander's victory over No. 2 John McEnroe, both in the quarterfinals. On the women's side, only the upset of No. 1 Martina Navratilova by 17-year-old Kathy Horvath and Jo Durie's refreshing serve and volleys have livened up things.
Saturday's women's final between second-seeded Chris Evert Lloyd and unseeded Mima Jausovec, the 1977 winner, seems to hold little promise to change this trend. The steady Evert should easily be able to keep the inevitable base line rallies going longer to win her fifth French Open.