When Yannick Noah steps onto center court at Roland Garros, a wave of energy seems to sweep the entire grounds. People come pouring into the 16,500-seat stadium, taking up every seat, filling up every corner and hanging from the concrete stanchions when necessary.
Today, for almost 4 1/2 hours, the stadium was transformed by Noah and his gallant opponent, Jose-Luis Clerc, from a tennis court into a theater. They staged a drama rarely seen in the third round of the French Open or any tournament.
They dueled in the sun through a match filled with brilliance, controversy and comedy before Noah, the 1983 champion here, finally turned the stadium into a carnival of celebration with a 6-1, 6-7 (7-4) 6-4, 4-6, 8-6 victory.
The match's level of intensity perhaps was best summed up by a drained Clerc. "If I had beaten Yannick in Roland Garros," he said, "it would have changed my whole life."
The emotion of that match dominated this entire day. Even the one-sided 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory by Noah's countryman, Henri Leconte, over fifth-seeded Andres Gomez, an upset that on any other day would have been the talk of Paris, could not equal what had gone before.
Victories by other seeded players were hardly noticed. No. 1 John McEnroe had a near-walkover 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 victory over Marcos Hocevar; No. 4 Mats Wilander won, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, over Emilio Sanchez; seventh-seeded Joakim Nystrom breezed past Simon Youl, 6-2, 6-0, 6-2, and 10th-seeded Henrik Sundstrom ousted Balazs Taroczy, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3.
A day of easy advances by seeded women also drew yawns. Chris Evert Lloyd, who does not like the noisy No. 1 court, had a bit of a struggle for the second straight round before beating Angeliki Kanellopoulou, 6-3, 7-5. Fourth-seeded Manuela Maleeva, eighth-seeded Carling Bassett, 10th-seeded Bonnie Gadusek and 14th seed Gabriela Sabatini all won in straight sets.
Those matches will be forgotten by next week. No one who was here is likely to forget Noah-Clerc soon.
The strangest moment came in the fourth set with Clerc serving at 3-all, deuce. After Clerc had hit a backhand winner, chair umpire Patrick Flodrops, one of the top officials in this tournament, informed Noah that the 30-second clock on the scoreboard (play must resume within 30 seconds of the end of a point) was not working. Therefore, Flodrops said, he would keep the time on his watch.
Noah objected strenuously. The two exchanged angry words in French, Flodrops speaking into his open microphone while the crowd buzzed. As Noah turned away, Flodrops, not aware his microphone was on, cursed clearly and forcefully for all in the stadium and all those watching live on national television to hear.
Many people laughed. Some gasped. Others booed and whistled. When Flodrops called for quiet, the crowd hooted. Noah and Clerc laughed.
"There is a code of conduct for umpires and this was clearly a deviation," Grand Prix Supervisor Ken Farrar said after the match. "I'm sure some action will be taken when the supervisors meet in the morning. He said he didn't know the microphone was on, but that's still unacceptable behavior."
Since umpires aren't paid and therefore can't be fined, Flodrops almost certainly will be suspended.
That was the comedy. Most of the drama came in the final set. Clerc, a semifinalist here twice, has struggled in the last year. He has dropped from a ranking of fifth on the computer to No. 22. But today, after a horrid first set, he was as good as he's ever been.
Noah, spurred on by the fans, was Clerc's equal. Through the second, third and fourth sets the men traded winners like boxers trading punches.
Noah plays to this crowd almost the same way a rock star plays to his audience. He often jumps for balls when he doesn't need to jump, dives after passing shots like a goalie. After an important point, he will pump his arm, kick his feet, lift his face to the heavens and, occasionally, blow kisses in all directions.
Noah also is one of the game's premier sportsmen. He will give an opponent a point if he thinks a call is wrong and often, as was the case today, an opponent will do the same. Today, with Flodrops and his linesmen having lost control of the match, Noah and Clerc more or less called their own lines in the fifth set.
In the face of all this, Clerc might never have been more courageous. During the fourth set, he saved seven break points, including a comeback from 0-40 in the third game with three winners.
In the first game of the fifth set, Clerc saved three more break points. Then, with tension building with each passing game, the two struggled to 6-5 Clerc, with Noah serving.
With Noah leading the game 40-30, one of the strangest scenes in tennis in recent memory unfolded. Noah came in behind a strong forehand and Clerc, off balance, put up a weak lob.
It should have been an easy putaway for Noah. But as he lined up the overhead, it appeared that he tried a more spectacular shot than was needed. Falling backward (Noah insisted he had slipped), he slammed an overhead off the frame of his racket. The ball appeared to land wide.
Clerc looked to line judge Lionel Laskar, who had made no call. Laskar indicated "out." Clerc nodded. But Flodrops announced, "Jeu (game), Noah." Clerc immediately argued, pointing to Laskar. When Flodrops asked for his call, Laskar, with more than 16,000 countrymen screaming at him, indicated the ball was good.
Clerc demanded that Laskar show the ball mark on the clay. Flodrops refused to order him to do so. Clerc and Noah then stood at the net discussing the matter for about two minutes, Clerc pointing repeatedly at the spot where he said the ball had landed. Finally, Noah said, "Let's play it over."
"Yannick is a good sportsman to do that," Clerc said afterward. "But the ball was out -- not close out, way out. There is a big difference playing again at 40-30 than playing at deuce.
"I think the match would have changed if it had been deuce. "After that happened, I lost my concentration completely."
When the whistling finally died, Noah won the replayed point when Clerc netted a backhand, hitting a ball that looked like it was going out. He then was broken at love before Noah served out the final game at love.
"I didn't see the shot because I had fallen down," Noah said of the controversial point. "Jose said it was out. I respect him. He is an honest player, so I said, 'Let us play it over.' When you have played for more than four hours already, you cannot let one point lose you the whole match."
Nevertheless, as he came off the court, Noah asked his coach, Patrice Hagelauer, if the ball was in or out. "He told me," Noah said softly, "that it was out."