PARIS -- He still can remember the mornings. Up and down the steps he would run, again and again, pushing himself to the point of exhaustion. And, when he thought he was too tired to run another step, Yannick Noah would pause and look around at the vast emptiness of Roland Garros Stadium and force himself to go a little farther.
"I would look all around me at the empty place and I would think, 'God, I want to play here one day when it's full. I want to be down there on the court and hear the cheers and know they are for me.' I would think that for inspiration. And then I could always run a little bit farther."
He was 16 then, a member of the French junior team that lived on the grounds of Roland Garros. Now, he is 27 and, each time he walks into the stadium here, he lives that teen-age fantasy. Any Frenchman who steps onto this court will hear cheers. But not like Noah.
"When you play Yannick at Roland Garros it is like nothing else you've ever experienced," Mats Wilander said once. "The crowd seems to give him strength when he needs it most."
Noah agrees. "When I walk onto the court here it is like nowhere else in the world," he said. "I can feel the power behind me. The French people waited years and years for a player. Not so much a player who would win, although that is part of it, but a player who would fight. Someone who would go on the court and fight and cry and die to win. I know I always do that, especially at Roland Garros."
As he talked, discussing a stadium that is made of stone and concrete, Noah had the kind of far-away look one normally gets when talking about first love. He was sitting on a patio in Queens, almost 5,000 miles away, yet, as he sipped a soda and took languorous drags on a postmatch cigarette, Noah seemed able to see the court and hear the crowd.
"The feeling I have when I walk out there now is one I'm sure I will remember well when I am an old man," he said. "I just feel stronger when I'm out there. Even now, just talking about it gives me a good feeling."
Noah first played on the center court here as a junior before a crowd of about 500. In 1979, when he played his first French Open match against Gene Mayer, he was so pumped up he won the first set by 6-0. "Then I started to think," he said, "and I lost."
But in 1983, he didn't lose. He became the first Frenchman in 37 years to win the men's singles title, beating Wilander in the final. There is no detail of that day Noah cannot recall vividly.
"When I woke up that morning," he said, "I knew I was going to win the match. All night I kept dreaming about the match, maybe 10 times. The last time, it was the fifth set and it was match point and I lost. But just then, my father came in and woke me up. After about 10 seconds I realized I had been dreaming. All of a sudden it felt like I had another chance, a second chance. After that, when I went to the stadium, I knew I would win."
Wilander was the defending champion and had never lost a match in Roland Garros. But in an atmosphere that was reminiscent of a bullfight -- with Wilander in the role of the bull -- Noah was not about to lose.
"I can still remember match point like it was happening right now," Noah said. "I served and came in and he hit a forehand long. Then it was like an explosion. Everything began to happen really fast. I saw my father jumping and it was just bedlam. It was as good as I've ever felt in my life."From Center Court to Center Stage
Noah's victory made him a national hero. It also ended any chance he might have had of leading a quiet personal life in France. Everywhere he went, people wanted to talk to him, take his picture, shake his hand, ask for his autograph. It is difficult for an American to imagine the adulation athletes receive in Europe. Boris Becker often feels smothered in West Germany. Noah felt the same way.
"The power that the people gave me on the court became a problem off of it," Noah said. "I know we are public figures, but I had no private life. The phone never stopped ringing. I couldn't go to a restaurant. It shouldn't matter to people where I eat or what my image is or who I am sleeping with. That's not part of my job. No one was ever negative but it was just too much for me. I like people. I like to be able to just walk around and look at people. I couldn't do that. I stopped liking people even when they were smiling at me. That wasn't good."
Two years ago, Noah fled. He moved to New York, where, even with his dreadlocks, he was just another face on the streets. He talks about riding the subway there and how much he enjoys the anonymity of Manhattan at night. Now, when he comes to France to visit -- he has a house about 20 minutes from Paris -- the attention doesn't bother him because he knows it is only temporary.
"I feel now," he said, "that I have the best of both worlds."
But there probably is no place in the world where he has it better than the center court of Roland Garros. When it is filled, there is no more raucous place in tennis. Wimbledon is too staid and U.S. Open crowds tend to root for the tennis rather than for Americans. The French root for the French. And they live for Noah.
To beat Noah here you must not only beat him, you must beat the crowd. Two years ago, when Jose-Luis Clerc -- once a top 10 player but then a fading star -- took Noah to the fifth set before losing, 8-6, he commented: "If I had beaten Yannick here it would have changed my whole life."
Thursday, Christian Bergstrom, a young Swede, had Noah down by 5-1 at one set all. Noah looked to be in trouble. But he hit a couple of winners and suddenly 17,000 were screeching at Bergstrom. Noah, who plays to the crowd always, was pumping and shaking and jiving and diving. Bergstrom all but swallowed his racket. He lost 11 straight games.
There are times, though, when the fans' maniacal devotion can backfire on Noah. Last year, on the night he won the Tournament of Champions in New York, Noah went home to pack for Europe. Carrying a trunk to his car, he dropped it on his ankle. In Italy, he took laser treatment for it. But the laser burned him, and he was limping when the French Open began a week later.
"If it had been any other tournament in the world, I wouldn't even have tried to play," he said. "I would have rested. But it was Roland Garros. I had to give it a try."
For three rounds, buoyed by the fans, he survived. He needed five sets to beat Tarik Benhabiles, four to beat Sammy Giammalva and five to get past Fernando Luna. Hardly luminous names, but Noah could hardly play. When he woke up on the morning of his fourth-round match with Johan Kriek, Noah got out of bed and almost fainted. He had to default.
"It was the toughest thing that has ever happened to me," he said. "To go out and not even be able to take the court. It was such a stupid thing, to get hurt that way. It was ridiculous. I had been training so I could play six or seven hours if I had to. Now, I was lying around in bed with all this pent-up energy. It almost killed me."
Lying in bed, he watched on television as his friend and countryman Henri Leconte moved into the semifinals. Noah and Leconte are friends, doubles partners, Davis Cup teammates. Yet, as Leconte closed in on the title that only Noah had held in his country for almost 40 years, Noah could not help but root against him.
"If you have a cake and it's been all yours, you don't want to give half of it to somebody," he said. "Here I am, not able to play, and suddenly somebody else can have something that I consider mine and I can't even fight for it. The year before, I lost to Henri. That was okay, because he beat me. If he had won then I would have felt different.
"But sitting there just watching, I have to be honest, I didn't want him to win."
Leconte didn't win. Noah remains the Sun King of French tennis and Roland Garros. It is a role he clearly cherishes. "I would like very much to win the French again. I would like to win all the Grand Slams, of course, but, naturally, the French is special for me.
"I think it is very hard to understand what it is like to play at Roland Garros. The matches are so long and so hard. You play and play and play. When I walk onto that court, I feel like a gladiator going into battle. I feel like I can play until I die if I have to do that to win.
"Nothing is ever easy there and I know what the people expect of me. But I want them to expect that. When you are in a great match, you almost feel like it is theater. You can feel the tension all around you."
Noah feels power, opponents feel pressure. There is nothing in tennis comparable to the atmosphere during a Noah match here. "I think a lot of it has to do with how long the matches take," Noah said. "The people appreciate the tennis but also the effort. They know you are exhausted, they know what you go through to win."
And what would happen should Noah win here again? He smiled and his voice -- as always -- was soft. "It would be a scene," he said, "that would be worth seeing."