Other than my father, I'd never seen a black man playing tennis - and certainly not a black man like Yannick Noah. At 6'4", wiry muscle, and legs that looked taller than me, I couldn't believe how perfect he looked. His waist was small, but his shoulders broad. His thighs scarcely contained the quadriceps that would launch him into the air on his infamous overhead, and the racquet looked more like a ping pong paddle in his hands, such was the efficacy with which he wielded his weapon of choice. His forehand was contrived, but he seemed to be able to put limitless amounts of spin and height on the ball, and still keep it in the court. His slice backhand, stayed low even on the green clay, and when he came over it, he seemed to launch the ball with every inch of himself - from his calves to his fingertips - a kind of full bodied heave up and over the top of the ball.
But for all the potential in that sinewy frame of his, his kinetic energy was disarming. As a serve and volleyer, he sort of ambled casually into the court, with his right foot landing first, but in absolutely no particular hurry. And regardless of how he hit it - whether slice or top, or flat up the "T", there was a kind of tele-transportation quality to his net approaches. From the side, you would watch the serve, and his initial step, almost falling in to the court, the return would come, and as you followed the ball presumably back to the baseline, your eyeline was interrupted by the sudden appearance of this praying mantis of a man at the net.
How in the world did he get there so fast?
And lobbing him, desperate measure that it was, rarely worked, no matter how well it was hit - with two elegant paces in reverse, he would go from within touching distance of the net to the service line, and leaning backwards, with his right foot raised above his waist, and a violent flick of the wrist, the ball disappeared in the other direction. Noah's greatest quality was his guile - he knew that making the tennis match a test of consistency and repetition would play right into his opponents' hands. And since nobody on tour could match him for movement and improvisation, his game was a myriad of slices, drop volleys, heavy topspin and monstrous overheads. Try as they may to disrupt him, his opponents were forced to play the game on his terms, and in this domain, his arsenal was superior to almost all others.
In 1985, Jimmy Connors came back to the DC National Bank Tennis Classic, and with his boorish, ball bashing branding of tennis, despite the clay surface, few players could contain the dynamism of his strokes. No other player on tour could match his ability to almost arbitrarily inject pace into a rally. While most had better volleys, some hit with more topspin, and almost all had a bigger serve, the boldness of Connors game belied his diminutive stature, which almost by optical illusion, disappeared the minute he started launching himself into his strokes. Inevitably most players would shrink at the prospect of resisting the weight of his pedigree, personality and (most of all) his strokes.
But when he played his semi-final against Yannick Noah, the first thing I noticed at the coin toss, was that Noah stood at least 6-8 inches taller than Jimmy Connors - it was a bit like realizing that Cassius Clay was much bigger and stronger than Sonny Liston as they took instructions from the referee for their title bout in Miami in 1964. And as such, the power and penetration I normally expected with Connors, just melted away in a never ending deluge of slicing and dicing from the first point to the very last. Noah would bomb a serve out wide, which Connors would stretch into the doubles alley and return with interest. From there Noah approached, and a drop shot would ensue, and Jimbo would desperately make his way to the net for a meek reply, which Noah would calmly lob into the very corner from whence Connors had just come. It was like a man toying with a boy, and Connors was none too pleased.
The match was exhilarating and tense, with one winner following another, and both players demonstrating the full arsenal of weapons at their disposal, but Noah never appeared to physically extend himself beyond what his body could potentially muster, whereas Connors leapt and stretched on nearly every shot. I wondered how long he could go on doing it, but it wasn't until match point that he finally conceded - physically or otherwise. The court appeared smaller than normal, with shots from Connors T-2000 screaming across the net, and replies from Noah's finding angles and locations I had never witnessed. It was one of the best tennis matches I'd ever seen, full of drama and humor and desperately competitive men striving to force the other into submission - but only one could prevail, and that day belonged to Noah. He won in three sets and proceeded to obliterate Martin Jaite in the final for the title.
But of all things Yannick Noah did on that court that blistering hot afternoon, it was his serve that was the pinnacle of his aesthetic appeal. I remember noticing how easy and loose his hand held the racquet as his body formed the trophy position - I could literally see the lines on his fingers as they spread languidly at the top of the toss, then closed as the racquet disappeared into a blur of wood and fiberglass and he launched himself into the serve. It was a picture in my mind that I took, and tried desperately to emulate on the court...but alas I am no Yannick Noah.
Years later, I was a ball boy at the then Sovran Bank Tennis Classic, and Noah had come to play doubles primarily, but I didn't care - I just wanted to see him play, so I snuck over to the last practice court near the main entrance and watched him float through a practice session like he didn't have a care in the world. He had grown his dreadlocks out again (in 1985 he sported a very African tight 'fro) so the now familiar look had returned, but something about him was amiss. He wasn't disinterested, but he wasn't fully committed, and while he had that same easy gait about him, as he strode across the court, the snap of the wrist, the leaping backhand, were gone. A childhood hero is a childhood hero, and being six-inches from him was like being close enough to reach out and touch the sun, but I must admit, I was less impressed than I expected to be. And as his practice session came to an end, just as I thought I would go home with nothing particularly interesting to tell my parents, he did something that I'll never forget.
He took a tennis ball out from under the net, rolled it with the sole of his foot up to the bridge it, and began juggling it (in the soccer sense) on that foot, repeatedly. The ball, rotating furiously backwards appeared to be tied to a rubber band, the way it willfully returned to the exact same spot in the middle of his laces, over and over again, and by the time I stopped counting he had done it at least 30 times - then he switched feet, and did the same with his left, all the while skipping around the service court until he'd done it another 20 times, and just when I thought he was finished, he propped the ball up to his thighs, alternating them, cradling it just adjacent to his stomach, then further out in front of him as though he wanted everyone to see the ball from all angles, then up to his head, like a seal, bouncing it on his forehead, until it came back down to the first foot that started the whole this circus act.
I was floored - I mean, it wasn't enough that he looked so comfortable on the court that a practice looked like a stroll in the garden - he just had to let us know that he could have been a professional in another sport altogether too. I went home and told my family about it until they begged me to stop talking.
He didn't play the Citi Open very often, but each time he did, he had a lasting impact on this young tennis player in a way that has left an impression on me to this day. I hadn't really known how athletic and majestic a tennis player could look until I saw Yannick Noah play at the William H. Fitzgerald tennis center in 1985, and again in 1989. It informs my current appreciation for the jocks that now play the modern game.
For that, I say, once again - thank you Citi Open.