PARIS—The faithful stood, chanting Laurent Lokoli’s name, stamping their feet, shaking the flag of Lokoli’s native Corsica, the Bandera Testa Mora (Flag with Head of Maure), before their hero even walked out onto the court for the warm-up. The white flag bears the profile of a black man, hair girded in a headband, and if you never ate your corn flakes off one of those “flags of the world” placemats, you might have surmised that some loyal fans had invented this banner purely to pay tribute to Lokoli.
As his opponent, Steve Johnson of the United States, walked over to his own chair, he could have been forgiven for thinking less of getting his own profile on a banner than avoiding getting his head impaled on a stake. The French crowd was going nuts for the energetic, 6’2” 18-year-old nicknamed “El Loco,” and that’s a dangerous combination.
Lokoli was ranked just No. 402, but he received a wild card into the qualifying event. Johnson knew that Lokoli had survived a match point as he made his way into the big show. He had also, along with about 1.6 million other YouTube viewers, watched the dance-off between El Loco and Gael Monfils during a charity event at Roland Garros the day before the tournament started.