PARIS (AP) — Yannick Noah was back on the French Open stage Saturday for a celebration of his 1983 title there, once again earning roars from thousands in the stands at the tournament’s main stadium — except this time, he had a microphone in his hand instead of a racket. And Saturday’s stage was actually a stage.
Noah, a celebrity in his home country, was feted 40 years after he became the last man from France to win a Grand Slam singles trophy. He performed a dozen songs with his band atop a temporary gray structure installed behind a baseline in Court Philippe Chatrier — even joined for one number by the opponent in that long-ago final, Mats Wilander.
“It’s always an emotion for me to come here, just coming to the stadium ... but here was special, because it’s the first time I come here to sing. I feel more comfortable coming with my racket, really,” Noah said. “It seems that the older we get, the more emotional we get.”
He choked up talking about seeing his children in the stands, including Joakim, a former NBA player and March Madness champion. During a video played on the scoreboards before Noah’s entrance, showing highlights of him as a player and France's victorious Davis Cup captain, a clip was included of a young Joakim saying, “When Dad won Roland Garros, I wasn’t even born yet.”
A loud ovation reverberated when Noah emerged through the doorway used by players to enter the arena from the locker rooms. Amelie Mauresmo, a former No. 1-ranked player and two-time major champion for France who is now the French Open tournament director, stood near the entrance, capturing the scene with her phone. She later danced and jumped and sang right along during the concert.
Wearing a newsboy cap on his shorter and grayer hair, sunglasses, black pants and a white T-shirt — but no shoes — Noah strode barefoot along the rust-colored court, slapping palms with some front-row fans.
“The best clay court in the world. It’s incredible,” he said. “You walk on it like you were walking on velvet.”
He made his way to a staircase leading to the platform where he sang for more than an hour. On “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” he was joined on vocals and guitar by Wilander, the seven-time major champion from Sweden who was the foil in Paris on June 5, 1983.
Thinking back to that time, Noah said: “Apart from my children’s birth, it’s the most beautiful day of my life.”
On that day, he was a 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 (3) winner against Wilander, someone he called “a genuine friend.” That result delivered the lone Grand Slam title of Noah's career and the only one for a Frenchman at any major over the last 77 years (the last for a Frenchwoman was Marion Bartoli’s triumph at Wimbledon in 2013).
Asked Saturday if he can think of a reason there’s been such a gap for France’s men in tennis, Noah smiled and joked: “Why? Well, because I’m not coaching anymore.”