Tennis: Noah's art of French inspiration

Simon O'Hagan says a Davis Cup talisman is hoping to restore glory days
In all French sporting history, the nation's Davis Cup final victory over the United States in Lyon in 1991 - their first since the Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet and Jean Borotra era 60 years previously - is up there with the football team's triumph in the 1984 European Championship or anything ever achieved by Jean-Claude Killy, Bernard Hinault or Alain Prost.

Sales figures for France's daily sports newspaper L'Equipe are a good indicator of the extent to which an event has gripped the public's imagination, and the 800,000-plus copies that were shifted the morning after Guy Forget and Henri Leconte, playing both singles and doubles, had overcome an American team that included Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras have been bettered only by the figures for the issue that covered Marseilles' European Cup win in 1993.

Forget and Leconte became national heroes, but almost eclipsing them on that extraordinary final day when the noise in the tricoleur-festooned Palais des Sports repeatedly brought play to a halt was the talismanic figure of the team captain, Yannick Noah. Having taken over for the first time only that year, it was Noah, the adored French Open champion of 1983, who was credited with inspiring the team to victory.

No wonder therefore that hope is running high again as France, once more under Noah, prepare for their first Davis Cup final since then - against Sweden in Malmo, starting on Friday. Home advantage makes the Swedes favourites, and with the match providing Stefan Edberg with a wonderfully appropriate stage on which to bid farewell to the game, the sentiments of many neutrals will be with them too. But the courtside presence of Noah, still only 36, means that Edberg will by no means have an exclusive claim on symbolic power in a final that, for emotional charge, promises to rank with Lyon five years ago.

Noah's latest achievement has only underlined his gift turning sport into drama. Nobody, least of all Noah, would have thought that events might one day turn out like this when he resigned the captaincy the year after his Davis Cup win. Feeling that the French federation were not giving him enough support, and that Leconte and Forget were resting on their laurels, he gave way to Georges Govern and, with his rock group in tow, went back to the seniors circuit and the life of a celebrity.

But the arrival of Govern, who had a modest career as a player in the 1970s, was followed by a decline in the French team's fortunes that reached its low point in 1993 when they lost 3-2 at home to India. With no sign of improvement the following year - they were beaten 4-1 at home by Sweden in what was the countries' most recent meeting - the conditions were right for Noah's return.

A rather different Noah it was too who came back last year. His exuberant style had mellowed. He was less critical of his players in public. Team spirit was restored, and in the semi-finals in Nantes in September he oversaw an astonishing comeback from 2-0 down against Italy, only the third time ever that France had recovered from such a position.

Last week Noah took the team - Cedric Pioline and Arnaud Boetsch, who will almost certainly play the singles, and the likely doubles partnership of Forget and Guillaume Raoux - to a training camp in Quiberon in Brittany where they practised on a specially built court identical to the one that will be used in Malmo, took mud baths, and lived on a strict diet of pasta and raw vegetables.

It's all part of Noah's more hard-headed approach. "It's very different this time," he said last week. "In 1991, the whole thing was like a dream. I knew the players very well. It was much more emotional. Now we are concentrating more on the mental side of it. But we believe we can do it." With Noah around, nothing seems impossible.