The Lyon tournament could be back on the ATP calendar ? A good opportunity to remember that 28 years ago, it was the scene of a fantastic feat : Yahiya Doumbia’s victory, who had put his hands on a trophy later won by Pete Sampras, Kafelnikov or Andy Roddick.
In February 1988, the Lyon tournament is all nice and new, and is ready to welcome players for its second edition. The meeting hasn’t yet entered the schedules of the best players of the circuit, but some of the big guns of the tennis world still did the trip, probably inspired by Yannick Noah’s victory in the first edition. The ex-Roland-Garros winner is there again, ready to defend his title against Todd Nelson, Andreï Chesnokov, Jérôme Potier, or Eduardo Masso who have all landed in the capital of Gaul for the week. Among this group of players, the Senegalese Yahiya Doumbia is an anonymous who has to go through the qualifying rounds, hoping to get a ticket for his first big tournament on the circuit : « It was my first ATP tournament. Before, I was playing satellite tournaments, a bit like Futures today. » Born in Mali in 1963 and brought up in Senegal, Doumbia left his continent at 17 after having won the African championships : « I was looking for competition so I came to France for a year, and landed in the Roland-Garros training center. » The experience ended quickly, as Doumbia decided to go back to his studies, going to the USA for four years, before deciding to come back to turn professional. When he arrived in Lyon, he was already 24, but still had the innocence of a beginner.
An exam passed without revising
Because during his American exile, Yahiya Doumbia didn’t forget to play tennis : « At university, I played against the best american players, who were about to join the professional circuit. For instance Mikael Pernfors, who played a Roland-Garros final. There was a very high level, so when I arrived on the circuit, I had no apprehension, or fear. I didn’t even know what « stage fright » meant. » His first balls during the Lyon tournament were however far from announcing a future feat, as just like a high-jumper touching the bar, he qualified after saving a match point. After that, Doumbia didn’t think too much, and he still laughs at the memory of having defeated players who didn’t know him, knowing that he hadn’t prepared anything : « At the time, it wasn’t my main focus. I was a little carefree, I walked onto the court to have fun, and I was fighting like a lion. I was going well and it worked, I didn’t have to overthink it ! » After his first round match against Andreï Chesnokov, who was the seed number 2 and just about to enter the world Top 10, Doumbia understood that this week in Lyon could be his, « I won 7-6, and then I told myself that I had a chance. Only Noah was remaining, and I could meet him in the final. I had a great feeling with the ball, had no troubles, and I knew then that I could go all the way. »
Handover with Lleyton Hewitt
Yahiya Doumbia handled the next rounds like a boss, first defeating Jérôme Poitier in a franco-french heartbreaking duel, before rapidly defeating the English Jeremy Bates, and the Argentine Eduardo Masso in two sets. On the day of the final, a bad surprise, it wasn’t Yannick Noah who was waiting for him but the player who defeated him in the semis, the American Todd Nelson. Doumbia lost the second set but finally won the match (6/4, 3/6, 6/3), breaking a surprising record along the way : he became the player with the worst rank to ever win a tournament, as he had arrived in Lyon being ranked 453rd at the ATP. « I didn’t know about the record. I hadn’t even thought about it, I found out later ! », he laughs. The performance, which didn’t go unnoticed, was based on his game which was mainly based on a solid serve/forehand/volley trio. But after that, Doumbia didn’t manage to shift into second gear : « Even I was surprised not to be able to play as well as I did in Lyon. But I had a lot of injuries, especially to the arm, with no doctor or medical structure to help me. That’s what held me back. » Seven years later, in 1995, he won another title in Bordeaux, again after going through the qualifying rounds, and being ranked in the depths of the ATP ranking. « I broke my Lyon record in Bordeaux ! » A record since broke by Lleyton Hewitt, who won the Adelaïde tournament in 1998, aged 16, when he was ranked 550th at the ATP. Doumbia could have found worst heir.