On 5 June 1983, Yannick Noah made French sporting history. The 23-year-old defeated defending French Open champion Mats Wilander to become the first Frenchman to take home the title in nearly 40 years. Thirty years on, some of Noah’s compatriots look back on the event.
Mats Wilander: “I lost to a really nice guy”
"There were some defeats where I wasn’t too distraught afterwards – most notably (Stefan) Edberg in Australia in 1985 and then Yannick in Paris. That was a different kind of match. I’ve never seen a player so in sync with the crowd. At the time I was No.1 on clay. I’d only lost one match in the past year, and that was also against Yannick, in Hamburg just before the French. I still thought I could win the final though. And then one hour in I’d lost the first set 6-2 and the second wasn’t looking any more promising… I didn’t realise just what it entailed, playing against Yannick in France (…)
When I finally got into the match, it was too late – it was getting tighter and tighter and I felt like I was up to the challenge but I just couldn’t get my nose in front. He was simply better on the day.
But no, I wasn’t too sad. Yannick was just… different. Everything he did, he did it with passion. He was always a nice guy in the locker room, full of fun and always an entertainer whenever there was a players’ party. He really stood out on the circuit. So when he won, I just thought that I’d lost to a great guy. We weren’t close friends at the time but then I ended up bumping into him that night at the Duplex night club! And if someone’s played better than me on the day, I’ve got no problem with that. He deserved to win."
Mats Wilander (48), world No.1 in 1988, three-time winner (1982, 1985 and 1988) and twice a finalist (1983 and 1987) at Roland Garros.
Patrice Hagelauer: "He felt strong"
"On the day of the final, we made sure that we didn’t change any part of the routine that we’d got into at the start of the tournament. Yannick had already spent a lot of time on court so he just had a 20-minute hit at the Racing Club which is a private club, where everyone treated him really well. We had our own training court, then there was a restaurant where Yannick could have lunch with two or three friends… It meant that he could take things really easily and keep himself to himself, just the way we wanted. He could eat with his friends in a relaxed atmosphere without any pressure and then get into Roland Garros just in time for the final. When he got in, he went to see Dr Cousteau and then Robert Laurent who was the FFT’s physio. He just needed to be told that everything was fine.
Before the warm-up, we had a quick chat. I just needed to reassure him one last time and remind him that he had always performed well in finals and that this was going to be an important match and one that he would remember every second of for the rest of his life. And that the crowd would be there to cheer him on, as always.
He needed to be himself and to stick right to his game plan, maintaining his usual attitude – impose his game on his opponent, show that he could be a real steam-roller out on the court, powerful and aggressive… He felt strong, he felt ready. He’d recently beaten Wilander in Hamburg as well, and that was in his thoughts. ‘I’m the kind of player who can cause Wilander problems, and I’m on home soil here, in front of my people. Everything is in place.’ And then out he came, onto the court…”
Patrice Hagelauer (65), FFT national technical director, former coach of Yannick Noah.
Guy Forget: “I only saw it five days later”
“I was in Venice, playing in a small ATP tournament because I had been knocked out of the French Open early on – it was only my second time participating there. Afterwards, my mother and I went to Italy. It wasn’t until I got to the club in Venice on Sunday evening – I was scheduled to play the next day – that I found out that Yannick had won. At the time, no-one had mobiles or Internet. I think it wasn’t until five days later when I was home from Venice that I was finally able to see it! Yannick was already like a big brother to all of us. He was five years older than me and was always looking out for us. He was really accessible and didn’t act like your typical holier-than-thou celebrity. I had always looked up to him as a tennis role model, and later he became a mentor and a close friend – well before 1983.”
Guy Forget (48), world No.4 in 1991
Henri Leconte: “David bringing down Goliath”
“The day Yannick won, I’d been invited to the Circuit de la Châtre for a motor race where Paul Belmondo was taking part. He and I were very close and I was really into racing. But I watched the match on TV and we were all glued to the screen for the last two games. It was a really incredible moment – like David bringing down Goliath. He battled the best clay tennis player of the time, and he won. I was happy that Yannick won, but to be honest I have very few memories of the match itself until it was well under way and getting more and more exciting. It would have been better if he had taken that third set. However, I do remember everything that happened afterwards – it was crazy. The parties, Yan’s friends – we were all there. His victory was like an explosion. It was huge, the first Frenchman to win the French Open since Marcel Bernard in 1946. We weren’t even born when the last Frenchman had won a Grand Slam. Since we had no-one to follow, we all carried this hope that he could do it but didn’t really believe he could.”
Henri Leconte, French Open runner-up in 1988, world No.5 in September 1986
Christophe Roger-Vasselin: “A key turning point”
“I was there, watching the final from the players’ box, involved in history being made, because Yannick is the last Frenchman to win the tournament. In the third set, I had this feeling that if he lost the tie-break, he’d lose the match. I thought that it was a key turning point. I remember that all-important match point as if it were yesterday. I was disappointed at having lost against Yannick two days before in the semi-finals, but happy that he won.”
Christophe Roger-Vasselin (55), French Open semi-finalist in 1983 (defeated by Noah), world No.29 in June 1983
Patrice Dominguez: “When you haven’t won in so long, the emotion builds up”
“During the 1983 French Open, I was working as a commentator for the Europe 1 radio network – and was doing the final with Yannick and Mats Wilander. What I remember most about the match was the third-set tie-break. Yannick’s hands were cramping up and Wilander was coming back strong. Everyone felt that he needed to win in three sets or it would all fall apart. We all knew that Yannick winning would be an important moment in French tennis – we hadn’t won a French Open since Marcel Bernard in 1946, nearly 40 years before. When you haven’t won in so long, the emotion builds up and the event takes on larger-than-life proportions – just like it would be if a Frenchman won today.”
Patrice Dominguez (63), former French No.1, world No. 36 in 1973