Paris — Until he held up the champion's silver cup, Yannick Noah didn't think he could win the French Open. ''My coach told me before the tournament started that I could win,'' the talented 23-year-old recounted after he overpowered Mats Wilander 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 in the finals. ''But I didn't believe him for a minute.''
Lack of confidence, not athletic ability, has always been Noah's shortcoming. He would often lose his concentration and fold in big matches.
Noah has now shed this reputation as a loser. By becoming the first Frenchman since 1946 to win at Roland Garros, he proved to himself that he had the spirit as well as the talent of a champion.
Mental toughness was also the story among the women. Chris Evert Lloyd has always epitomized the competitive, confident, and concentrating champion, and she regally displayed all of these qualities to take her fifth title here by dispatching Mima Jausovec 6-1, 6-2 in just 65 minutes. Coupled with victories in last year's US and Australian Opens, she now simultaneously holds three Grand Slam titles for the first time in her career.
Even so, her determination and machine-like ground strokes have often not been enough to stop Martina Navratilova in recent years. Navratilova won in Paris last year and over the winter she had used her aggressive, all-court game to overpower Chris twice, both times in straight sets. As a result, she came into the tournament heavily favored.
But Navratilova has always suffered from bouts of self-doubt and could not muster the needed concentration in a third-round loss to American teen-ager Kathy Horvath, who snapped Martina's 39-match winning streak.
In contrast, when Evert Lloyd struggled to find her rhythm during her first few matches, she survived on sheer courage. Down against Helena Sukova, also in the third round, she hit her few good ground strokes when it counted and pulled through in three sets.
Evert Lloyd's superior concentration continued to carry her past Hana Mandlikova, the tremendously talented Czech, and Andrea Jaeger to a berth in the finals.
The match against Jaeger was particularly revealing. Andrea is perhaps the best of a seemingly endless series of teen-age baseliners who have joined the tour. Yet even she sometimes lacks the maturity and concentration needed of a champion.
When she ran into difficulties against Evert Lloyd, Jaeger moaned about everything from a broken string to a heavy gust to a bad bounce on the rain-soaked clay.
Playing in the same wind and on the same clay, Evert Lloyd never had a complaint. She always looked the mature champion, and she credits her positive attitude for her mastery over her younger rivals in big events.
''I think the reason I win is that I am more confident,'' she explained. ''I think there's a mental block for the other players. That's why Andrea or Hana don't make it through.''
Until this tournament, Noah had the same sort of difficulty surmounting mental barriers. His athletic brilliance, however, was recognized 12 years ago by Arthur Ashe during a goodwill tour of Cameroon in Africa. Ashe arranged for him to be sent to Paris for training. In France, he blossomed, displaying as much speed and power as any other player in the world.
An easy-going attitude, though, seemed to prevent him from developing the instincts needed to beat less-talented rivals. In two tournaments this year, he had match point, before proceeding to crumble and lose.
The French Open was his big test. Besides having the advantage of an enthusiastic hometown crowd, the red clay at Roland Garros is his favorite surface.
The clay slows shots down much more than grass or asphalt. It means that the slam-bang, serve-and-volley tactics favored by Americans are out, and partly explains why no American male has won here since Tony Trabert in 1955. This year, the top two seeds were Americans John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, but neither showed enough patience for the clay to get past the quarterfinals.
The Europeans adore the surface. It favors their steady baseline games. Bjorn Borg won the French title six times, and last year, at 17, Borg's countryman Wilander used his steady strokes to become the tournament's youngest winner. Unlike Borg or Wilander, Noah uses an unorthodox attacking strategy on clay. The surface gives him time to hit his topspin strokes and to set up at net.
Still, many doubted whether an aggressive player without championship credentials could win the long, grueling matches customary in Paris.
He came through a confidence-building victory over Ivan Lendl in the quarterfinals, and followed with an easy victory over countryman Christophe Roger-Vasselin in the semis. His most severe test would come in the finals against Wilander, a master of baseline rallies who beat McEnroe in the quarterfinals and outlasted Jose Higueras in a five-hour semifinal match.
Attacking throughout the final, Noah never permitted the young Swede to lure him into long rallies. He hit his ground strokes deep enough to follow them to the net. There, he picked off most of Wilander's passing shots for winners.
For Noah, the moment was almost too good to be true. ''I came to France 11 years ago to become a tennis player,'' he said. ''Now its done. . .I know I am capable of winning again.''