Noah idolized for more than winning French Open

Yannick Noah is enjoying yet another successful chapter in his life, 23 years after winning the French Open.

Updated: May 24, 2006, 2:00 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

PARIS -- Chestnut trees and flowerbeds aren't the only things blooming in the capital city. In the last few days, distinctive red, yellow and green wristbands have sprouted on the urban landscape -- a gift included with the weekend magazine published by the French sports daily L'Equipe, which dedicated a special issue to the only French man to win at Roland Garros in the last 60 years.

That gear was the trademark of Yannick Noah, whose portrait appears on the cover with no headline or caption because none is needed.

Noah, the 1983 French Open champion who turns 46 Thursday, is currently enjoying what is at least his fourth act in public life.

Born in France, Noah spent much of his childhood in Cameroon, his father's homeland, whose tricolor flag inspired the sweatband. His first incarnation as a celebrity began when he was discovered at age 11 by Arthur Ashe, who was then on a goodwill tour of Africa.

Yannick Noah
Steve Powell/Getty ImagesYannick Noah's only Grand Slam title came on the clay of Roland Garros back in 1983.
Noah's second career, as a musician known for African and reggae-influenced pop, shows no sign of flagging. Nor does his third, as a social activist who is not afraid to be outspoken but generally pursues his charitable work under radar.

He has made occasional forays back into sports, captaining two French Davis Cup-winning teams and one Fed Cup champion squad, playing on the senior circuit and serving as a motivational consultant for the Cameroon national soccer team. But his latest athletic identity is as the father of Joakim Noah, the charismatic leader of the University of Florida basketball team that won the national title last March.

Yannick Noah was a mega-celebrity in France well before the Final Four, but Joakim's success has increased his appeal even more here and renewed interest in him in the United States.

It's also a case of déjà vu for people old enough to remember Yannick Noah's father, Zacharie, who immigrated to France as a child and grew up to be a professional soccer player. His Sedan team won the 1961 Coupe de France (French Cup), earning bragging rights for the whole country. His then-wife, Marie-Claire, former captain of the French national basketball team, is the mother of Yannick and his two sisters.

The magazine plays heavily on the three-generation theme with extensive features on Zacharie and Joakim. One of the most poignant photos in the issue shows Yannick, then a pudgy, wide-eyed toddler, posing in the Coupe de France trophy with his doting dad and two other players looking on. History repeated itself 45 years later as Yannick exulted in the stands when Florida won.

"It's funny, Yannick made me a 'has-been,' and Yooks (Joakim's family nickname) is doing the same to him," Zacharie Noah, who lives in Cameroon, commented to L'Equipe.

Yannick seems very secure in his various roles.

Here are some translated excerpts from the magazine's lengthy Q & A:

On Joakim's sudden fame: "I always knew he was a very mature kid. He's had a lot of different experiences, assimilated them well and got the maximum out of them. He's a real little warrior, a great friend and has the soul of a leader."

On his own sporting image at the height of his career in the late 1970s and '80s: "I often felt I had to fight a mindset that didn't suit me. French sport at that time lacked a lot of imagination. It was very rigid and traditional. There were a lot of people who would have liked me to be like Ivan Lendl -- a monk-soldier of tennis, obsessed and sad. What's amusing now is that Lendl coaches his daughters (promising amateur golf players who were featured in last week's issue of The New Yorker magazine). I'd be curious to know what methods he's using."

On the athletic legacy in his family: "People often talk about how difficult it is to be the 'son of.' My goal with my (five) children was to have that situation not be a problem, but an experience. Maybe something unique, but nothing that would handicap them. … Today, Joakim is getting a lot of attention. That burden could be heavy to carry, but he's prepared."

His reaction when he heard Bjorn Borg was thinking of selling some of his trophies: "I called a few of our mutual friends and came to understand that this had nothing to do with 'the fall of a champion.' Borg is not in need... he's never needed much. I can see him living in a log cabin in the woods. He's been a reference point for me for a long time& We really got to know each other on the senior circuit. He's a typical Swede. He doesn't say much, but what he says is sincere. He was tired of having those trophies piled up in his house. He had so many that he just wanted to do a little cleaning out."

On whether sports can help racial relations: "For me, the most basic thing in sports is an image of a black embracing a white. Do you see that often on magazine covers? Or on television news? Yet that happens every weekend (in sports)! It's impossible to find a more powerful symbol."

On his public silence since last fall's destructive riots in the Paris suburbs, where many struggling African and North African immigrants live: "Ninety-nine percent of all French people discovered the situation in the suburbs at that point. The politicians and intellectuals were first in line. Everyone had something to say. It was pathetic. I had no desire to be in the middle of that. I've been to the suburbs before (the riots), I've been back since. I do my little bit of work in my corner."

Top of the charts
The magazine reprinted Noah's entire match-by-match singles record, and in a nod to his multiple personalities, also listed his top five albums. They are (in the order in which he discovered them):

• "We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper" -- The Beatles (a European 4-song EP)
• "Album 2" -- Les Poppys (a French boys' pop group of the early '70s)
• "Live at the Apollo" -- James Brown
• "Rumors" -- Fleetwood Mac
• "Babylon by Bus" -- Bob Marley & the Wailers

Ashe's widow remembers
In an essay in French in the same issue entitled "The Hand of Destiny,'' Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe reminisced about her relationship with Noah over the years, starting when she met him at the Orange Bowl junior tournament.

One of the highlights, she wrote, was seeing Ashe and Noah play doubles at Wimbledon in 1978 against white players from South Africa and the country then known as Rhodesia in the midst of rising opposition to apartheid. "What a symbol! It was just a tennis match, but no one present could forget the questions it reopened," she wrote.

Noah was very kind to her and her daughter Camera in the difficult aftermath of her husband's death in 1993, Moutoussamy-Ashe recalled to L'Equipe, and now, "Even though we don't see each other very often, I know he's there." She added that Noah has donated generously to the foundation she established to fight AIDS, the disease that killed Arthur Ashe.

"Arthur always felt that often a small thing is enough -- a gesture, a look, a word -- to change the course of a destiny," Moutoussamy-Ashe wrote. Noah benefited from Ashe singling him out, but "to (Noah's) credit, he wasn't contented with that. He took matters into his own hands and made his gifts bear fruit… From this point of view, Arthur and Yannick are alike. There's sports, but there's much more as well: the bigger context, neglect, injustice."

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelance writer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.