They have said it before. Now, they will begin saying it again: Yannick Noah can be the best tennis player in the world. "Let me get there first," Noah said today. "Then we can talk about it."
This afternoon, Noah flashed that potential for all in the tennis world to see once again. He beat down a hungry but overmatched Guillermo Vilas, 7-6 (7-3), 6-0, to win the Shearson Lehman Brothers Tournament of Champions before 12,788 at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills.
Vilas played a resolute first set. He saved a break point in the second game of the match, saved a set point in the ninth and consistently produced the kind of ground strokes that made him champion the last time the U.S. Open was played in this stadium, nine years ago.
But it was not enough. Like Ivan Lendl in Saturday's semifinals, Vilas could not handle Noah's serve. He was aced nine times in the match, and his only break points came with Noah serving for the match at 5-0 in the second set.
"He was just serving huge," said Vilas, who played his first tournament final in almost three years. "I was lucky to stay in the match in the first set. I couldn't make any mistakes on passing shots. He's so big 6 feet 4 that you have to hit perfect shots to pass him. I couldn't hit enough."
That combination of size, speed, reflexes and instinct have made Noah one of those players targeted for greatness for many years. But his story is one of those now-familiar tennis soap operas: French Open champion in 1983 at age 23. A national hero. But it was all too much for him. He fled Paris and settled in New York. He says he is happy and relaxed here. But if he becomes a local hero here, where will he move next, Indianapolis?
In fact, Noah, who will be 26 in a week, seems far better equipped to deal with the pressures at the top now than he was three years ago. At that time, after an emotional victory like the one over Lendl Saturday, he might not have been able to come back and play well 24 hours later.
"I was kind of nervous and tight starting out," he said. "After a win like Saturday, it's tough to come back and play a match where you have everything to lose."
Vilas had nothing to lose. This has been a week of vindication for him. He was written off at age 33 with a ranking of 41st in the world, and his march to this final has been one of the better stories in tennis in recent months.
Of course that isn't saying much. If not for Boris Becker's Wimbledon miracle, men's tennis would be an awfully dull world these days: John McEnroe is waiting for Tatum O'Neal's baby to arrive; Jimmy Connors is under suspension, and most finals seem to be played between Ivan Lendl and a Swede of the Week.
That is why the rebirth of Vilas and the revival of Noah are so intriguing. Noah is wearing about half the dreadlocks he wore when he was the French champion, but playing with at least as much confidence. "Last year, I was just working on my body when I practiced," he said. "I wanted to be healthy. I didn't really have time to work on technique. Now I have time to work on the details that make the difference at this level."
Today, the difference was his power. Vilas hugs the base line most of the time anyway, but Noah gave him no choice. After he had saved that set point with a crushed forehand pass that left Noah tapping his racket strings in salute, Vilas served his way into the tie breaker.
Noah jumped to a 3-0 lead. Then he made two errors and it was 3-2 with Vilas serving.
"You can't pick one point and say it made the difference," Vilas said. "But the court was loose today, and when I went to hit my forehand on that point, I slipped."
Vilas was moving in on an approach when his back foot gave way and his shot smacked the net tape. That was the only break Noah needed. After a Vilas service winner closed him to 4-3, Noah slammed an ace and a service winner and Vilas punched a forehand deep to end the set.
In truth, that ended the match. Noah slapped a forehand winner to break Vilas in the first game of the second set and Vilas faded fast. It was over in a brisk 92 minutes. Noah, winning for the first time this year on the Nabisco Grand Prix tour, walked off with a crisp $80,000. Vilas won half that much.
But prize money is not really an issue in tennis anymore. Noah and Vilas can make as much or more than they made here today with a week of exhibitions. For Noah, this victory was a major steppingstone toward the French Open, which begins in two weeks. For Vilas, proving he could reach a final at 33 was more important than cash.
"It's a nice start. This is good for me," Vilas said. "I'm disappointed I didn't play a better final, but he was very tough. He's volleying with confidence, going for shots. He's almost overconfident. In the second set, I just lost my touch. He never lost his."
"It's nice to be playing like this with the big ones coming up," Noah said. "I hope I can take my game a notch higher by the time we get to Paris."
Noah has always been one of the game's crowd-pleasers with his all-out style. He dives and rolls and makes circus shots and pumps people up. But other than that one shining moment in 1983, he has always been somehow lacking against McEnroe, Lendl and Connors. He has always shied away from questions about being No. 1.
Today, he seemed ready to deal with it. "I beat Mats Wilander at Monte Carlo last week and he is No. 2," he said. "I beat Lendl here and he is No. 1. When I play them now, I know I can win. That's different than before."