Tennis: No mistaking the capital life of Noah

Despite Ruud comparisons a French Davis Cup legend prefers anonymity in London to celebrity in Paris
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HAVING WHISTLED up a couple of glasses of red wine for us, Yannick Noah excused himself briefly while he went in search of a match for his cigarette. Then he settled back in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall, drew deeply on a Camel Light and pondered the joys of living in London.

Clearly, an appearance at the Honda Challenge seniors event this weekend does not intrude too seriously on what Noah regards as the good life, a life enriched by being based in Hampstead for the past nine months with his English wife, Heather, and their children, Elyjah, three, and Jenaya, two.

He relishes what he calls "my easy, beautiful, privileged life in London" and the opportunity to take his family to the park or to jog in near-anonymity, the exception being when people mistake him for Ruud Gullit.

This has much to do with both men being tall, black athletes with braided hair. "I think one of us has to change his hair," he smiles.The identity confusion peaked when Yannick went for a holiday in Thailand. "I thought I could get away with it there because they don't know tennis. But they love soccer. I hadn't even got off the plane when the people coming on board to clean it started shouting 'Ooooh, Gullit, Gullit'. Then the guy at passport control waved me through, saying 'I know who you are, Gullit'. Next the taxi driver said, 'Hey Gullit, would you sign this?'

"We were supposed to stay one week but after three days we had to leave. I was tired of trying to tell them I wasn't Gullit; it was impossible. I was telling all this to Ruud the other day and he said 'Please shut up. When I was walking in Paris they were all yelling Yannick, Yannick'."

Noah, you will gather, is a true hero of the French nation; the only Frenchman to capture Roland Garros in more than 50 years and the inspirational captain of the team who won the Davis Cup in 1991 and again in 1996. Is he torn, then, by the fact of competing at the Albert Hall while his country are playing another Davis Cup final, against Australia in Nice? A shake of the braids. "No, I wouldn't have gone to Nice anyway. I loved being captain and my heart is there with them, but I would attract too much attention."

After that French Open win in 1983, straight sets over Mats Wilander, a charmingly naive Noah (whose number was still in the Paris phone book) was so overwhelmed by adoration that he was reduced to thoughts of suicide before fleeing to set up home in New York. A man who played Davis Cup for 14 years, with a 39-22 record, who was seven years in the sport's top 10 and rose to No 3 in the world, has spent most of his subsequent life based outside France; eight years in New York, three in Switzerland, now London. He keeps a country home near Tours but has been there only six days this year.

"I love big cities but I can't live in Paris," he explained. "My job most of the time is to be the actor, being the centre of attention, so when this is finished I really love just to look at life and people. It is very dangerous trying to be the actor all day and I never felt comfortable with that. I didn't like the attention. I respect the fact that people treat me like a king, it helps me to do a lot of things. But sometimes I like to take my children to the park and get them an ice cream without feeling anybody is looking at me."

Noah makes frequent visits to Paris in connection with Zam Zam, the band that he writes and sings for, but is happy to get back to London, where he loves what he calls "the mixtures". The children of his first marriage, Joachim (14) and Yelenah (13), live with their Swedish mother, Cilla Rodhe, in New York, a place Yannick feels has the perfect mixture for them. "I don't want them to be in a rich place or a poor place, a white place or a black place. I want them to be with life, with people, and New York is that. The most important thing is that I can take them to school, or go to have a little slice of pizza, and nobody is going to bother us. I couldn't do that in France."

Noah, who will be 40 next May, has been in the spotlight's glare for much of his life. Born in Sedan to a French mother and a professional footballer father from Cameroon, Yannick grew up in Africa where he was famously "spotted" by the visiting Arthur Ashe and subsequently taken under the wing of the French Tennis Federation.

"I sacrificed my life for tennis, gave up everything, which a lot of people don't realise when they see a picture of me in a disco or smoking," he said, flourishing a second Camel Light. "I used to practise my serve at six in the morning before I went to school because I had my dream, my passion."

It all paid off at Roland Garros that June day in 1983, the only Grand Slam Noah would win. "But one Grand Slam was powerful enough for me. People said I could have won another three or four, but all my family and friends were there, it was a beautiful day, my moment of glory."

Other glory moments lay in store when Yannick, persuaded into the Davis Cup captaincy, inspired France to a 3-1 victory over the United States in 1991 and then, talked into taking over once more in 1996, led his side to an astonishing 3-2 win in Sweden. After both successes he quickly resigned a post that many would cherish. "I could have stayed there for 20, 30 years but I didn't want it to be a job like that," he said. "I put my heart and soul into it, I was their brother, their coach, we were together. That was enough for me."

Nowadays Yannick plays about eight senior tournaments a year. It is all he wants to fit into a busy schedule in which music is an ever more important element. "Tennis is always about me, me, me, but when you play music you give to someone, so it's a good balance for me. When you are introduced at senior tennis they don't say who you are now, they say what you did 20 years ago, and of course this is what people come to watch.

"But don't ask me what's better, a big concert or winning trophies. It's like asking do you like better the sunset or the sunrise? I like it all. I feel so lucky. But in music there is no such high as winning a match point, that 30-second rush of joy. In music it's a longer thing, more subtle. I always try to think of a surgeon who has just saved a child's life, goes back to his room and goes 'yes'. This little moment, yes I did something."

Yannick has done many things in his 39 years, including opening a restaurant in New York. He called it Guignol, after the clown, and the ability to amuse, as well as entertain, is never far from the surface.

Playing Henri Leconte on Thursday, Noah broke a string. He went to collect two spare rackets from his bag and bounced them against each other, the way players do, to test for preferred tension.

On and on went the racket bouncing until it reached a samba rhythm. Yannick's hips started to twitch and suddenly he was dancing wildly. And nobody in the audience was under the impression they were watching Ruud Gullit.