MIKE DICKSON: Charismatic Yannick Noah reminds us of France’s years out in the tennis wilderness

new balance


Yannick Noah, still cool as anything at 63, was back at Roland Garros last weekend and delighting the crowds again.

He was on the same Court Philippe Chatrier where, 40 years ago, he caused a sensation by becoming the first men’s singles champion from the host nation since 1946.

This time Noah was singing, not playing, because it turned out that becoming a tennis hero was the pathway to a second career in the music business.

He is alive and well, but at the same time there is the sense that he is the ghost that haunts the French Open. He is a living reminder of glory days that his male successors have failed to rekindle, and his legend casts a long shadow.

Aside from anything Noah, who also became a winning Davis Cup captain, had a remarkable back story. Born in the Ardennes to a Cameroon footballer father, he moved to Africa as an infant before being spotted by Arthur Ashe and taken back to France to train as a tennis player.

Yannick Noah was back at Roland Garros last weekend and delighting the crowds again

Yannick Noah was back at Roland Garros last weekend and delighting the crowds again

No Frenchman has matched his feat of winning Roland Garros since 1983, and it is an odd phenomenon that this seems further from happening than has been the case for years.

Indeed the French game is further evidence of the fact — brought into focus last week by the fortunes of British players — that there is little correlation between a national federation having bountiful financial resources and creating elite players. It could even be argued that it is counter-productive.

Sometimes it looks that way with the three Grand Slam nations aside from the United States, which is different with its vast population and infrastructure. There were 35 Americans starting out in the Roland Garros singles draws, a contrasting number to those in on merit from Britain, France and Australia.

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The UK has been hopeless for decades when it comes to finding any volume of players. Australia has increasingly struggled, and on the women’s side has only one player in the top 100, the Croatian-born, Florida-based Ajla Tomljanovic. They do, however, have the lesser-seen Nick Kyrgios, plus Alex de Minaur in the top 30.

France has one top-10 woman in Caroline Garcia, but she has spent most of this season with only veteran Alize Cornet for company in the top 100. For much of 2023 their highest ranked male has been Richard Gasquet floating around the 40-mark, and he is about to turn 37.

No Frenchman has matched the 63-year-old's feat of winning Roland Garros since 1983

No Frenchman has matched the 63-year-old’s feat of winning Roland Garros since 1983

Theirs is a particularly strange case, because there is probably no other country where tennis is more popular, or more deeply woven into the sporting culture.

The French love the game in a way that far fewer people in the UK do. They have around one million officially licensed players and it is a very accessible sport, about which people care a lot.

Noah’s triumph all those years ago is a contributor to that, but the bottom-up growth of the game was facilitated by the man the main court at Roland Garros is named after. 

A former journalist, Chatrier became one of the most far-sighted and effective administrators tennis, or most other sports, has ever seen. His vision was to promote the building of accessible facilities all over France which is why, if you visit even further-flung parts of the country, you will often find a local indoor centre which plays a part in the community.

Former French tennis star Marion Bartoli (pictured) triumphed at Wimbledon back in 2013

Former French tennis star Marion Bartoli (pictured) triumphed at Wimbledon back in 2013

That has helped create women’s champions like Marion Bartoli and Amelie Mauresmo, but the impressive volume of high class players in the men’s game still cannot translate into winners of Grand Slams. It has probably not helped that a particularly strong generation in their mid to late thirties — Gasquet, Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils for example — were caught up in the era of the Big Three.

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One thing that can be said with certainty is that the French have always produced interesting players with distinct, often unorthodox methods. Their styles have often been matched by quirky, but brittle personalities.

At present there are high hopes invested in 18 year-olds Luca Van Aasche and Arthur Fils. The current men’s No 1, Ugo Humbert, has always struck as an unusual natural talent. On the female side Garcia is another with outstanding natural ability, and there are plenty less equipped than her who have a Major to their name.

Yet in some ways they look enviously at British game which, despite its shortcomings, has produced champions in Andy Murray and Emma Raducanu. 

America’s last male Grand Slam winner was Andy Roddick in 2003. All of which goes to support the old cliche that champions are born and not products of a system, however well-funded.

LTA must find feet on clay

Much gnashing of teeth in the past week over the latest failures of British players to master clay. It is regarded as the best terrain to learn on while not the easiest surface to cultivate in a northern European climate (although that seems much less of a problem for the likes of the Dutch and the Germans).

It has long been my contention that if the Lawn Tennis Association wants to spend money on academies then the best course of action would be to think outside the box and partner with one of those in a country like Spain. A recent visit to the David Ferrer set-up outside Benidorm, where there is also access to an international school, only reinforced that view.

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The benefits are manifest. There are clay courts galore, the sun is out almost year-round and on hand is an excellent domestic competitive structure to draw on. Adding this dimension to the stronger aspects of what happens in the UK would help ensure that in future there are no more singles wipeouts like that seen in the French Open qualifying event.

Clay is widely regarded as the best terrain to learn on while not the easiest surface to cultivate

Clay is widely regarded as the best terrain to learn on while not the easiest surface to cultivate 

Coleman’s death leaves a big void

Many within the parish were desperately sorry to learn that Mel Coleman had died after a short illness. Mel, who was married to our colleague Annabel Croft, enjoyed a successful career as an international yachtsman, but latterly became a regular presence in the tennis business. 

He was the most generous of spirits, and time spent in his company always left you feeling better about life. Thoughts are with Annabel and her family at this sad time.

Postcard from a life on tour

There are always new discoveries to be found in Paris, and one made on a Bank Holiday evening — courtesy of a local — was the riverside Scilicet bar. Situated directly across the Seine from the magnificent Palais de Justice, it affords some of the best views of the city you can find. 

This naturally comes at a price, with beers nearly 10 euros per throw. In fact, you soon learn that food and drink inflation is not solely a British phenomenon. The French have a far more sensible energy policy than we do, but they are still being hit with big input hikes of fuel and labour costs, passed on to thirsty visitors.

new balance



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