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“Players are exposed to negativity from all angles” : Yannick Noah opens up about mental health on 40th anniversary of French Open victory
Former Roland-Garros champion Yannick Noah believes smaller margins and social media are increasing mental health pressure for today’s players
When Yannick Noah spoke with the media on Saturday ahead of the anniversary of his Roland-Garros victory, the former champion had little to say about French tennis (“I’m not watching anymore, I know the names but I couldn’t recognise the faces”). His concerns were more about the current state of the game, tennis’s impact on mental health, and what needs to shift in the future to keep fans engaged.
It’s been a while between drinks for French fans at Roland-Garros. Not since Yannick Noah won the French Open in 1983 has a there been a home champion in the men’s singles, with the drought now sitting at 40 years. This weekend, it was both this tennis celebration and his singing that brought Yannick Noah to Roland-Garros.
Mental health has always been a challenge in tennis, says Noah
After performing for the crowds on Saturday, the 63-year-old spoke freely with the press as he reflected on his victory 40 years ago, and how the game has changed since. One aspect that Noah believes has always been present, is mental health struggles in the game – he suffered from depression after his win and moved to New York to heal.
“In my time it wasn’t that exceptional. A lot of players really had a drop of pressure, so to say. For me it was here or not far from here. It happened. That’s it. You dream of playing, but a lot happens around the tennis player, things that are not visible.”
For Noah, after his French Open win, there were unsurprisingly additional expectations heaped on the young man’s shoulders. However, this was to be the only Grand Slam final the Frenchman would reach, with his career failing to kick on to greater heights.
Noah believes that an aspect of this, was the pressure put on him following his Roland-Garros victory.
Even when you’re not a tennis player, one person out of five suffers from mental issues.Yannick Noah
“Even when you’re not a tennis player, one person out of five suffers from mental issues. If you add pressure to this, the feeling I had when it happened, was that it really hit people hard. I wasn’t feeling good, and after this sort of hit hard, it became even worse. Then I felt a lot of solitude, and I found a solution at the time, which was to go and live elsewhere.”
Because of his own experience, the former champion is a big advocate of support for young players in today’s game who are facing this level of pressure.
Noah : Smaller margins and social media have increased pressure
While Yannick Noah believes mental health has always been a challenge to be navigated in tennis, he does acknowledge that today’s landscape has generated even more pressure on players.
“In the ’80s and even before, you had moments when you could relax a little bit. Now, whatever your ranking… If you don’t come to the first match 100% physically, then you’re out. Between the 10th, 15th player and the 80th player, the differences are very slim and subtle. There is a lot of pressure.”
These tighter margins have led to players feeling constantly under fire, Noah believes. Add in the impact of social media, and the environment begins to become toxic.
“The thing that surprised me most in a negative way after 20 years of not being a Davis Cup captain was the phones and the social media. This I felt very surprising, the fact that they were all intoxicated by that. I wasn’t prepared for that.”
In his era (1978-1991 as a pro player), Noah explained that players were able to directly resolve any issues with journalists through a human conversation. Now, however, players are exposed to negativity from all angles.
“If you react to comments from people you don’t even know, I believe it’s something that is toxic, and I was overcome by that. For the three years when I coached, I was totally taken aback by that aspect. I wasn’t prepared for it.”
Loosen the code of conduct, get some emotion back – Noah
Speaking more generally about the state of modern tennis, former Roland-Garros champion Yannick Noah is brutally honest. He doesn’t follow tennis much anymore.
When asked why, Noah explains that the lack connection with players is a big reason why he’s moved away from being such a lover of the sport.
“Tennis, as society, has changed. There is less proximity with players nowadays, according to me. Even if they have a million followers everywhere in the world, it doesn’t seem that we get close to tennis players.”
For Noah, he believes the repression of emotion is the main cause of this arm’s length feeling between fans and players.
“As a spectator, what has really struck me and what we could have avoided is the code of conduct, because it’s too rigid, in my opinion. The code of conduct has broken in a way the link that people had with the players. I would say to me it was the beginning of the end as a spectator.”
“I want something else. I want emotion. I want something else apart from the game to happen.”
I want emotion. I want something else apart from the game to happen.Yannick Noah
“I think the reason why our generation had a strong link with the public at a time when it was not so much covered by the media, it’s because of the fact that no one will say. At the time I used to love McEnroe because of the way he served or because of his game. People loved John because he used to break his racquet, because he used to shout and yell.”
While the hockey-style fights that Noah is so fond of are unlikely to be seen on the courts of Roland-Garros any time soon, the winds of change may be blowing in Yannick’s favour.
With the introduction of UTS and more on-court coaching, will fans see more of players’ personalities in the years to come?