For most French tennis fans, there is nothing quite as stirring as watching Yannick Noah perform on the center court at Stade Roland Garros. This is his stage, his theater. And, most importantly, his crowd.
For almost four hours this afternoon and on into the evening, nearly 17,000 French fans were caught in an impossible dilemma. Their national hero was in trouble, in danger of suffering a shocking first-round upset in the French Open. But the man who placed Noah in such peril was someone the crowd could not perceive as an enemy.
This was Tarik Benhabiles, a 5-foot-9, 132-pound native of Algeria, a 21-year-old one-time French junior champion. Ranked No. 164 in the world, he was supposed to be first-round fodder for the tournament's No. 4 seed. And, for 2 1/2 sets, he was just that, trailing by two sets and two service breaks in the third.
Then, suddenly, it all changed. Suddenly, with the wind starting to swirl, Noah's serve became less dominant. Suddenly, Benhabiles, all herky-jerky motion and topspin, began spraying winners. Suddenly, Noah, who lost a five-set match here one year ago to countryman Henri Leconte in the round of 16, was in danger of a repeat performance.
But Noah survived, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (3-7), 6-7 (8-10), 6-4. It took three hours 48 minutes and by the time the two players left the court shortly before 9 p.m., dusk was approaching and many in the crowd could not decide if they loved the winner or the loser more.
"When I won the fourth-set tie breaker I thought, 'One break and you beat Yannick,' " Benhabiles said. "It was that close for me."
"I was upset," Noah said. "I wasn't playing that well early, but it looked like I was going to win quickly. Then, he started playing so much better and I needed everything I had just to win. I had to stop thinking about tomorrow and worry about surviving today."
Benhabiles' brush with the upset of his life overshadowed a second day that had been hectic before it turned dramatic. The biggest upset of the tournament came early in the day, when the sun was still high overhead. The victim was sixth-seeded Joakim Nystrom, perhaps the tour's hottest player this year with five tournament victories. But Nystrom's busy playing schedule took its toll and he faded quickly against Australian Paul McNamee, who won, 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-0, by running off the last 10 games.
Nystrom became the first male seed to fall, although he was joined later by No. 16 Heinz Gunthardt, a quarterfinalist here last year, who was defeated by West German Damir Keretic. Other seeds struggled but, like Noah, survived: Mats Wilander (2) dropped a set to Ricardo Acuna before winning; Andres Gomez (9) also needed four sets before finishing off Canadian Glenn Michibata. They had easy days compared to Thierry Tulasne (10), Martin Jaite (11) and Emilio Sanchez (14), who all needed five sets before winning. Only Anders Jarryd (7) and Leconte (8) had easy matches, each losing only five games in straight-set victories.
All of them were luckier than No. 15 Jimmy Arias, who never made it to the court. Arias, one of two seeded Americans, sprained an ankle Sunday playing an exhibition against Benhabiles. Arias had hoped the swelling would go down in time for him to play Francisco Maciel today. But early in the afternoon, he realized there was no chance. "Maybe if it rained for a week, I could play," he said. "It's still black and blue and the doctor said there might be torn ligaments. I'm really disappointed because I was playing real well and I had pointed to this tournament for three months."
His departure meant that the only U.S. winner today was Arias' buddy Aaron Krickstein, who played well in defeating Frenchman Thierry Champion, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4. Unfortunately for Krickstein, he plays Wilander next.
The women had a very quiet day. The only upset was mild, No. 15 Anne White losing to clay-court specialist Laura Gildemeister, 6-1, 6-3. Martina Navratilova (1), Claudia Kohde-Kilsch (4), Hana Mandlikova (5), Kathy Rinaldi (7), Zina Garrison (10), Andrea Temesvari (14) and Terry Phelps (16) all won.
Mandlikova gave the center court crowd a few restless moments with her high wire act. Playing Sabrina Goles of Yugoslavia, she fell behind by 5-1 in the first set and came back to 5-5. She saved eight set points, then lost the set in a tie breaker. She won the second set and led, 1-0, in the third. She fell behind, 2-1, and came back finally for a 6-7 (4-7), 6-3, 6-3 victory.
The crowd cheered lustily because the end of the women's match meant the entrance of Noah.
It was still warm and bright when the two Frenchmen took the court. Noah was firmly in control until he served with a 3-0 lead in the third set. "I think I thought it was over," he said. "I played a loose game to let him break and then he got going."
And how. With the crowd behind him, Benhabiles began going for winners on every shot. He came back to tie, then won the third-set tie breaker easily, jumping to a 3-0 lead. "He missed two easy volleys and gave me control," Benhabiles said. Noah agreed. "I played a lazy tie breaker," he said.
There were no signs of laziness in the fourth set tie breaker, which Benhabiles won, 10-8, after Noah drew the crowd's jeers when a close call went in his favor to close him to 8-8. Angrily, Noah waved his arms toward the crowd. "I'm not used to hearing words like that here," he said. "Maybe in the streets, not here. It was a funny feeling."
A moment later, he felt worse. Benhabiles smacked a forehand cross court for a third set point. This time, he came in behind a forehand and punched a volley toward the corner. Noah dove. The ball skidded past. It was two sets all and Noah was filthy and exhausted.
"All I thought was, 'Work on every point, you can get out of this,' " he said. "I didn't expect a first round like this."
Neither did anyone else. It was cool now, the sun setting, the crowd not sure whom to cheer for. Noah broke to lead, 2-1. Cheers. Benhabiles broke back for 2-2. More cheers. Noah broke again -- on his sixth break point -- and shook his fists in the air. Some cheered. Others hooted. Benhabiles was, at last, finished. Noah served out the match, ending it -- appropriately -- with an ace on his third match point.
He climbed the net and he and Benhabiles embraced. They had played from day into night and the star had endured. But there was no shame for the loser. The crowd cheered both men as they left the court.