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French Open: Yannick Noah - Tennis icon, rock star, celebrity dad

By Chris Murphy, CNN
updated 3:46 AM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
Yannick Noah was renowned for his happy-go-lucky attitude on the tennis court. He remains the last Frenchman to win a grand slam -- at the 1983 French Open. Yannick Noah was renowned for his happy-go-lucky attitude on the tennis court. He remains the last Frenchman to win a grand slam -- at the 1983 French Open.
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Noah's career arc
Another kind of racket
On top of his game
Pride of Paris
Singing the blues
On top of the world
In fine voice
Court date
Stage presence
NBA All Star
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frenchman Yannick Noah has gone from grand slam winner to rock star
  • Noah remains the last Frenchman to win a grand slam title back in 1983
  • After French Open success he also led France to Davis Cup glory
  • The 53-year-old now fronts a band that has sold millions of albums

Open Court is CNN's monthly tennis show. Click here for videos, news and features.

(CNN) -- He's regularly voted France's favorite famous person, but many of the nation's youth have "no idea" about his glorious sporting past.

For them, Yannick Noah is a rock star -- or simply "Joakim's dad."

Rock star because the 53-year-old is a multimillion-selling artist who has regularly played to packed arenas full of 80,000 screaming fans or more.

Joakim's dad because his 29-year-old son is a two-time NBA All Star playing for the Chicago Bulls in the United States.

Rarely do any youngsters know about his permanent place in tennis folklore, or that he remains the last Frenchman to win a grand slam title.

But so varied are his interests and so versatile his repertoire, he could also be known as coach, author, humanitarian campaigner or charity fundraiser.

"Most of them have no idea I was a tennis player," he tells CNN's Open Court show. "I stopped in 1990 which is 23 years ago -- a long time. So time flies."

The time that has flown since has yet to produce a Frenchman capable of assuming Noah's mantle, or bettering his highest world ranking of No. 3.

His trademark dreadlocks and ferocious forehand were melded to a happy-go-lucky attitude, and a genuine sense of fun on the court.

Perhaps that is why his 1983 French Open victory in front of a rapturous crowd at Roland Garros in Paris is still held in such reverence.

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That, and his stint as captain of his country's Davis Cup team in which he led France's men to their first title in the prestigious competition for 59 years.

A year after his second triumph as captain, he switched to the Fed Cup, skippering France's ladies to their first crown.

For tennis fans in France, he can do no wrong.

But now it is all about the music, after his impromptu jam sessions with fellow major winners John McEnroe and Jim Courier -- among others -- spawned a thriving second career path.

"I just loved it so much I kept doing it," Noah explains.

"The difference is that once I just wrote on a piece of paper some lyrics and then put some drums, and then this thing became No. 1 and that was an accident.

"I was not prepared for that. I started to do TV shows, write some more songs and the next thing I know I am doing little clubs with my own band.

"We started to play in tennis events and then one day we had an album that sold millions, so that was a big difference for all of us. After a few years preparing, playing clubs, we started to play big venues."

This is where Noah's prowess as a champion tennis player came to the fore.

Having performed in front of thousands of expectant fans -- no more so than on court at Roland Garros in 1983 -- he was used to the acute demands it would bring.

"The pressure before a game is so much stronger and intense than before you go on the stage; of course it is pressure, but I mean you are in a locker room playing this other guy," he says.

"I am prepared for the pressure as a professional athlete. I think you are really prepared for intense pressure because you are under pressure every game. You lose and it hurts -- physically, mentally, it hurts. You don't have that in music.

"Competition is not that healthy, I would say. While I will be in the same locker room as now when I am going to do the concert and there's 15,000 people and I hear 10 minutes before the concert people going 'Yannick, Yannick' -- they all came because they love me.

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"And nothing to do with ego, but I know they came because they like me so I'm going to do my best to make them happy. This is my family waiting for me not some other guys just waiting to criticize me and write something in a paper ... I'm not like this or I missed a backhand down the line.

"Music is supposed to be just fun -- that's it -- so yes I enjoy it. It's all about passion. That's who I am, if I don't have passion I am not delivering."

Passion was a defining characteristic of Noah's career on court.

It permeated his run to the French Open final 31 years ago, and was replicated on the streets of Paris as the capital rallied round its rising star.

Heading into the tournament seeded at six, Noah enjoyed a comfortable passage to the quarterfinals where Ivan Lendl lay in wait.

Like Noah, the Czech was yet to capture a major title -- he would go on to win eight, including the French the following year -- but was beaten in four sets.

By the time Noah had brushed aside fellow Frenchman Christophe Roger-Vasselin in a one-sided semifinal, the wave of national euphoria he was riding made defeat in the final seem inconceivable.

And when he duly beat Sweden's Mats Wilander, a posse of friends and family -- led by Noah's father -- rushed on court to celebrate with the champion, who was soon engulfed by a delirious public.

But despite the reverence in which this iconic moment is held -- he was the first Frenchman to win it since 1946 -- and the fact that Noah's defining career moment happened at Roland Garros, it isn't a place he relishes returning to.

I have my best moment on tape of my life. Every time I see it, I am complete. I don't need to go back to know the real thing
Yannick Noah

"I've had there the best moments of my life more than 30 years ago -- it's right here in my heart forever," he says of his sole grand slam triumph.

"I have my best moment on tape of my life. So every time I see it, every time I think about it I am complete.

"I don't need to go back to know the real thing -- I lived it, it's in my heart, it's in my memory forever, nobody can take that away from me.

"But I rather go to the U.S. Open or Wimbledon incognito, especially now with my short hair -- nobody knows who I am.

"In France if I go to Roland Garros there is just too much love, I cannot walk around so I cannot watch a game, I cannot watch, I like to walk around, have a beer, it's impossible.

"Even though I love my French Open, I don't have this luxury."

Noah's son knows a thing or two about adulation too.

Joakim was recently crowned Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA as his Chicago Bulls side were defeated in the first round of the playoffs.

He's been playing for the iconic basketball outfit since 2007 and is contracted on a multimillion-dollar deal until the end of 2017.

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"I am proud but I am the happiest father -- how happy can you be when your son is fulfilling and living his dream?" says Noah, whose father was a footballer from Cameroon who played for French clubs.

"Every time I see him getting introduced, I get emotional, I get tears in my eyes.

"I always go back to this little kid who said, 'One day I will play on the NBA.' I said 'Yeah kid' but then he kept trying, posters all over his bedroom, basketball players, watching tapes, playing all the time, not being so good but always this passion.

"When I see Joakim today -- All Star, Chicago center -- I see my baby with this same passion."

Passion is a word that proliferates Noah's vocabulary, even when talking about the current state of men's tennis in France.

There are four French players in the top 30 ahead of the 2014 French Open, which starts Sunday. So who does he think has the best chance to emulate his victory?

"I'm going to surprise you, I think (Gael) Monfils can do it," he says of the world No. 24.

"From what I know he's not working as hard as he should on a regular basis. He can work hard and then he gives up for a while. But I think he's the one who could have the opportunity to beat these beasts, (Rafael) Nadal and (Novak) Djokovic.

"To win the French Open you have to understand you have to beat not one of these guys but two of them. That's tough."

Read: The Hingis coaching academy

Read: Bencic ready to embrace greatness

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