RG rewind: When Noah and France became one

 - Chris Oddo

Yannick Noah took French tennis on his shoulders in 1983, creating an iconic Roland-Garros moment

Yannick Noah, Roland-Garros 2023©FFT

It wasn’t just anyone who hoisted the Coupe des Mousquetaires inside a packed Court Philippe-Chatrier on June 5, 1983 – it was Yannick Noah, and there’s a difference. 

Dreadlocked, wide-eyed and smiling from ear to ear, Noah was overflowing with a unique aura. In a country of millions, there could only be one Noah.

“Yannick had and still does have a great personality and a great charisma,” said Jose Higueras, a semi-finalist at Roland-Garros in 1983. “That’s something you either have or you don’t.” 

Noah’s way of transcending the ordinary and unifying the crowd is what makes his crowning achievement grow more legendary each year. It is why we feel emotional every time we watch the grainy video. If it was another champion that ended France’s run of 37 years without a men’s champion, it would have been amazing – even magical – but not the same. 

“He played to the crowd very well. It was a good combination, the crowd wanting him to win, and him feeding them what they wanted. Yannick actually grew with that. Some of the other guys might get a little bit shy but he actually grew with that,” Higueras told Rolandgarros.com.

Carrying French hopes

The underdog under pressure: we knew where Noah stood. It was the defending champion Wilander who was favoured. Many thought the Frenchman was in over his head, facing the tactically shrewd Swede, especially given the enormous expectations placed upon Noah by the French public. 

“He was a huge underdog against Mats, and he still overcame all of that,” said two-time champion Jim Courier. “Plus, the weight of pressure and expectation that have been a lot to handle for a lot of players over the years. 

“It was an awesome moment. It still is an awesome moment to relive on video.” 


Finale, Roland-Garros 1983, Yannick Noah, Mats Wilander©FFT

It is a rare athlete who can outperform his or her own talent on a given day. The very nature of the task suggests an impossibility, but Noah’s capacities swelled with the fervent energy of the fans, creating a temporary version of himself that could measure up to any player in the world. 

This version of Noah was a revelation for Wilander as well. He had already faced Noah four times, winning twice, but he had never seen this Noah.

“He could play five consecutive points and propose five different options,” Wilander said. “And in those days, no one played like that. It was new to me, especially on a clay court."

Yannick Noah, Mats Wilander, trophée, Roland-Garros 2023

Athletic wizardry

Noah’s magic show was well and truly in effect. 

“I couldn't understand when he was going deep, when he was going short, when he was going for the drop shot. It was very confusing,” Wilander said. 

“If you watch some of the footage of the final with Mats, it’s amazing,” Higueras says. “The gets that Yannick made at the net – it was unbelievable.”

Higueras points out that Noah had his share of deficiencies, both technically and tactically, but when it came to sheer athleticism, nobody compared. 

“If you look at his game, he didn’t really have anything big at all besides the serve,” Higueras said. “But boy he was quick as a cat. He would stretch and slide and recover. I’ve watched some of that footage and I couldn’t believe it – and good luck if you wanted to lob him, because he had a pretty good vertical, too.” 

More than a champion who ended a French run of futility, Noah was an apparition, a magic man and a saviour. 

Yannick Noah, finale, Roland-Garros 2023©FFT

For Wilander, the sting of the loss was remedied by the power of what he saw. 

“That day, I lost a final but more than anything, I won a friend,” he said. “That's for sure.”

Of Noah he says: “He's very humble. He's the greatest guy I have ever known.”

This year in Paris, Noah returned to the scene of his greatest triumph to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Now a more accomplished musician than he was a tennis player, he played, he sang, he danced, and the people were moved.


“I lived my best moment here," Noah recalled. "So it's always special whether I'm walking around the stadium or outside courts. I have memories everywhere here, including my first kiss. Everything happened here for me."

French tennis may have another men’s singles champion in the years to come, but there will never be another Yannick Noah. 

Yannick Noah, Yannick Noah Day, Roland-Garros 2023© Loïc Wacziak/FFT