The boy from the Streets, the man with the moustache and the King of the Court jesters

11 Jul

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The security guard turned one of the corners within the complex and came upon an opened door. It was a door that he knew should have been closed.

Silently, he approached the door and investigated further, only to discover a small boy who was focused on hitting a ball. Just as the door should not have been open, so the boy should not have been there.

The boy was so fixed on what he was doing that he did not notice the guard approaching until it was too late. Suddenly the guard was upon him and his game had to stop.
For a brief second, the boy stood still, wide eyed with fear.

Then the guard started to beat him. He beat the boy relentlessly, cruelly, with considerable force knocking him down repeatedly. Finally, the beating stopped, and the boy, battered bruised and bloodied, was allowed to return to his family who stayed not far away.

The boy’s father, was a tribesman from the hills. He was a simple man who had gained a job as a gardener in the sports centre and as a result his son also became familiar with all of the ways in and out of the complex which was reserved solely for the country’s rich and elite.

The child son of a gardener was not allowed to play there, and the beating was designed to drive the point home. There would be no complaint from his father for fear of losing his job.

The boy was being told he was not to come back and that the game he was playing was not for the son of a tribesman from the hills.

This was the reality of living in Persia under the Shah of Iran. Tribesmen from the hills had their place, and the county’s elite tennis complex on the outskirts of Tehran was prepared to put up with such a tribesman working as a gardener, but those in charge would not put up with the son of a tribesman sneaking on to one of the courts and hitting a ball against a wall.

However, despite the beating, the boy did not stay away. The guard had broken the old tennis racquet he had been using and it would be several years before the child would get his hands on another. In the interim, the boy kept coming to the club and acted as ball boy when those who were allowed to play there did so.

When not acting as ball boy, the child could be seen knocking a tennis ball around – sometimes with his bare hands, sometimes with a stick, sometimes with an old rusted frying pan. He was a natural athlete, seemingly good at any sport, but it was with a tennis ball that he seemed to excel.

Eventually, at the age of 13, he was approached by one of the coaches at the complex, given two second hand racquets, and at long last he was allowed to play.

Very quickly, the coaches saw that he was a natural, a real talent, a prodigious find and something that perhaps came along only once in a lifetime.

Within 3 years, his talent was such that he found himself being asked to play in Persia’s Davis Cup team. His opening match was against Britain’s Roger Taylor and he was soundly beaten in straight sets winning only two games in the entire match.

However, the boy learned quickly and when he turned out for another Davis Cup match shortly thereafter he won. In fact he won 9 out of his next 11 matches.

He was a tennis professional at the age of just 16 – albeit he was still poor and the opportunities for a young tennis professional in Persia were not great.

However, he was recognised for his sheer natural talent and someone who the tennis world should look out for in the future.

Then, in 1979 the Shah was overthrown, Persia ceased to exist and suddenly, the country of Iran was under the control of the Ayatollah Khomeini who ruled that tennis was a western decadent pastime and so must be banned. All the tennis courts were closed as part of the Cultural Revolution.

And that was the end of a young tennis professional’s career at the tender age of 22.

Or so it seemed.

For a period, the young man in his twenties concentrated on something else entirely in the Ayatollah’s Iran. The first was staying out of trouble, and the second was playing backgammon for money.

That was how he earned an income and put bread on the table. By playing backgammon against anyone who would play him for money.

Then, in 1981 there came news of a one off solitary tennis tournament in Iran. The Revolution Cup.

The boy who had been beaten by the security guard all those years before decided to enter at the age of 24.

Perhaps it was the nature of the first prize that spurred him on to victory, as the winner did not receive a sum of money and a big trophy. No, instead the winner of the tournament was to be given…….. an air ticket to Athens or in other words an escape route away from the Ayatollah and his regime.

On winning, the 24 year old unselfishly gave the ticket to his then girlfriend and encouraged her to get out of Iran, but within 24 hours the same girl handed the ticket back to him and then threw in some additional advice. She told him to go, but instead of going to Athens, she suggested scraping together some extra money to extend the range of the ticket and she advised him to go to France.

In the end, he made a heart rending and difficult decision. He took the ticket, left his friends, family and girlfriend behind and flew to Nice in the south of France – away from Iran and away from the Ayatollah.

He was now 25 years old, poor, alone and in France.

He very quickly realised that the cost of living in France was much greater than it had been back home in Iran. He had brought his life savings with him but they were clearly never going to be enough to sustain him.

He made his way to Paris and in an attempt to boost his income he took to the casinos hoping to win additional funds.

Unfortunately, his luck did not hold and he lost his money. He was now even poorer, destitute and living rough on the streets in Paris.

Over the next months and years, the young man from Iran lived an existence that is hard to fathom. In part he played backgammon for money, gained some friends but also had to live below the radar because his visa had run out. He was now an illegal immigrant and any time he saw a policeman coming he simply turned on his heel and walked the other way as had he been stopped and asked for his papers he would surely have been deported as an illegal immigrant.

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Further, he dared not leave France. Had he left to go anywhere else he would have been fearful of discovery and deportation and who knew what would await him back in Iran? Prison? Or perhaps even worse!

Eventually, when it was clear that he needed to do something other than just play backgammon, he admitted to some friends that he could play a bit of tennis. Money was gathered to find the entrance fee to some small local tournaments and after a prolonged absence from a tennis court he began to play again and win.

These were not big tournaments with any kind of national news coverage; they were small local tournaments with small cheques which still did not sometimes cover his living expenses. There were times when he was still sleeping in doorways and making a single baguette last a few days. It was a regime which was far from comfortable, full of dangers and nothing like the right preparation for a competing athlete.

He could have claimed political asylum but deliberately chose not to. He still had family in Tehran and a claim for political asylum would not have been good for them. Further, if he claimed political asylum and somehow still ended up back in Iran then he knew for certain he would have been beheaded if forcibly returned to his homeland. Besides he swore that he was, and always would be, an Iranian or a Persian no matter what.

So, he kept to the streets, avoiding authority and trying to fashion a living from playing in mini tennis tournaments.

However, eventually he began to progress to bigger and better tournaments where the prize money was greater and the earnings would potentially move him off the streets and into some kind of normal existence.

Then the decision was taken to play the qualifying tournaments for the French open, and amazingly the tennis player from the streets won through and found himself playing with the big boys at Roland Garros.

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This was a big step up in class from those mini tournaments and surely a step to far?

However, the boy from Iran made it through to the second round losing in four sets to big hitting Mel Purcell of America…… which was both a good thing and a bad thing. Good in the sense that he had progressed and made some money, bad in the sense that his success made some of the sports journalists and others sit up and ask “who in the name of God is this?”.

As a result, newspapers like L’Equipe and Le Figaro started to ask questions about his identity and status and when the truth became known they started to press the French authorities to renew the young man’s visa and to make him at least legal in France.
Eventually he was granted an extended visa and several years after playing local mini tournaments with some success, he was admitted to the full ATP Tour. However, he was by now over 30 years old and had little chance of making any real impact in the world of international tennis.

He did make the top two hundred in the world at one time, and he was sufficiently talented to worry many players who ranked above him.

He was thirty two when he managed to reach the men’s doubles final at the French Open in 1989, although he and his partner did not take the title losing to Jim Grab and Patrick McEnroe in four sets. In fact he had more notable success in doubles than singles and eventually reached a total of twelve main tour doubles finals of which he won two – namely the Geneva open and the Toulouse Grand Prix. In the course of a relatively short pro career at this level he partnered guys like Thomas Smid, Yannick Noah and Guy Forget amongst others.

In 1989 he was granted dual citizenship of France and Iran and at long last he could travel back to Iran, and go elsewhere in safety as both a French and Iranian citizen.
He appeared in his last ATP final in 1991 at the age of 35.

It had been some journey for the small boy who had been beaten by the security guard for sneaking on to the tennis court in Tehran, yet it was a journey which had really yet not begun in so many ways.

Last week, that young boy was at Wimbledon at the tender age of 58. Crowds gathered to see him play as the Wimbledon authorities knew they would.

In fact, the organisers of every major tennis tournament in the world know that the crowds will come to see the French Iranian play as it is fair argument that he has been the major individual draw in men’s tennis for several years now.

He is, in short, a unique tennis player.

Unique because of all the players who participated at SW19 last week he is the only one who has lived on the streets, slept in doorways for weeks at a time, kept going on a baguette for days at a time, spent months and years constantly avoiding arrest and deportation and so on.

He is unique because John McEnroe has described him as “Simply a genius with a tennis racquet”. Bjorn Borg says he is a “Legend” and Rod Laver has said of him that he is undoubtedly the most gifted human being ever to have lifted a tennis racquet. Roger Federer has publicly urged every single tennis fan to go and see him play ……… in his 50’s.

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He is also unique because he is the only tennis professional from the country of Iran and because of all the tennis players in the world — Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Sharipova and everyone else you can think of — he is the only player to whom the organisers of any and all tennis tournaments in the world will pay a substantial sum to just to have him turn up and play with and against anyone!

If you are not familiar with the name of this phenomenon as yet, his name is Mansour Bahrami.

Bahrami’s own website asks the question “ Is he the greatest tennis player you have never heard of not to win Wimbledon?”

And the same website on another page more or less gives you the answer.

No – Mansour undoubtedly had the talent to win a major title but he was never going to, because he had one major flaw in his game that he has never been able to overcome and yet that same flaw that became his greatest asset.

You see there is no doubt that Mansour Bahrami can do things with a tennis ball and racquet which many of the top players could never do, but he was never going to be of the temperament to win a major singles title……. Because no matter what the event, occasion, or tournament, as soon as you put Mansour Bahrami in front of a crowd he is absolutely compelled to make them laugh!

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He openly admits that there were serious tournament games that he should have won had he not started to play shots between his legs or serve under arm or whatever. There were games where he did win, but felt unhappy because he sensed that those watching could simply have had a better tennis experience had they seen something amazing and had a laugh.

With a doubles partner, he had a duty to his partner not to clown around too much. Hence the success he achieved in doubles over a three year period.

But when it came to singles, as often as not Mansour the clown came out to play.

So when the seniors’ exhibition tour was started in 1993 with guys like Nastase, Connors and so on Mansour Bahrami decided to join – partly to play seriously but mostly to bring the house down with his astonishing play and, to be frank. comedic genius.
Over the years, Bahrami has now played with all the greats and impersonates many of them on court to great effect and hilarity. Borg, Becker, McEnroe, Nastasi, Lendl, Laver, Wilander, Navratilova – you name them – THEY – have wanted to play with Bahrami because Bahrami is just a sports and entertainment genius.

If you haven’t seen him play then do so. Check out the video clips on You Tube where he serves with Six Balls in his hands ( apparently he can hold 21 at a push ), deliberately misses the ball with his serve only to whip the racquet round so quickly he hits the ball on the second revolution, plays shots which bounce on one side of the net only to bounce back over to his side leaving his opponents and ball boys mesmerised as to where the ball has gone and so on.

 

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He has been known to catch tennis balls in the pocket of his shorts during play, play every point while sitting in a chair, play a shot only to jump over the net and play it back from the other side, and simply play every shot whilst talking, singing, clowning, wearing a hat, with the wrong end of the racquet and everything in between.

He has even perfected the technique of playing an entire point in slow motion with no ball, going through all of the actions, facial expressions and gesticulations involved in real time tennis — and amazingly over the years he has persuaded the McEnroes, Le Conte’s and others to join in the slow motion pantomime to the delight of the crowd.

Yet all the time he plays some absolutely top drawer tennis shots.

Most of all he will play fantastic passing drive shots from between his legs and execute serves and smashes which have to be seen to be believed while ensuring that his fellow players, the umpires and everyone watching does so with a huge grin on their faces.

It would be easy to dismiss Bahrami as an instantly recognisable mustachioed clown – but that would be missing the point entirely.

Bahrami, now lives in Paris with his wife and family. He enjoys a very comfortable living and spends 40 weeks of the year travelling throughout the world playing tennis and putting bums on seats and smiles on faces.

 

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He will tell you he is an Iranian and proud of it.

To perform the way he does and at his age takes complete dedication, gym work and a fitness regime that many younger tennis players clearly do not follow or adhere to. His skills have not diminished with age because he works on them – that would be his tennis skills and his comedic skills. His natural good nature, humour and bonhomie are God given.

He enjoys hitting a golf ball with some precision. He smokes more than the occasional torpedo cigar and he will stop and chat to most tennis fans in and around a tournament. His book signings and talks draw huge crowds.

However, Mansour Bahrami remembers the beating that was handed to him as a child. He recalls not being able to afford a racquet and has described himself as the greatest tennis player ever to wield a kitchen utensil (frying pan). He remembers living on the street, avoiding policemen, being afraid, being hungry, being homeless, being away from his family and his country, and simply not being able to play the sport he loved and so clearly had the ability to excel at.

No other professional tennis player comes from such a background or has experienced such a life – or anything close to it.

He remembers all of the dark days of his past yet he has not only endured and followed the dream of being a tennis professional, he has excelled as an athlete and as a man beyond all imagination so creating a remarkable story.

In the course of a three hour car journey he once told his life story to Bjorn Borg’s manager who, at the end, proclaimed “ That is not a life story – That is an adventure picture!”.

Accordingly for me the story of Mansour Bahrami is all about inspiration. Here is someone who makes the sport of tennis fun. He makes you want to pick up a racquet and hit a ball whether you are a child of 6 years old or a child of 60 years old. This is sport with a smile, sport triumphing over extreme adversity and an acknowledgement that you do not have to be a tournament winner or superstar to be able to feed yourself and your family by playing the sport you love.

 

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It is also a reminder that in the heavily sponsored multi billion dollar world of televised sport of any kind – there is always room for the clown, the entertainer and the guy or gal who makes you laugh and who provides entertainment and escapism away from the daily job and toil.

Most of all, the story of Mansour Bahrami is a testament to one man’s incredible will to be a tennis player and to follow a dream that someone tried to beat out of him and which his Government tried to ban.

In the end Bahrami beat them all………. By winning nothing whatsoever but by simply being himself, hitting a tennis ball like no one else on earth and by making other people smile and laugh uncontrollably in the process.

He is the king of the court jesters, the man with the moustache and someone everyone in tennis – and every other sport should look up to simply for being Mansour Bahrami.

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I had started writing this tale last week when a friend of mine, Siobhan Hewitt said on facebook that she had been crying with laughter at the antics of Henri Le Conte in the seniors doubles at Wimbledon.

When I later asked if he had been playing with Bahrami she replied that indeed he had been.

For a number of years now Bahrami and Le Conte have been the equivalent of Tennis’ Morcambe and Wise.

Bahrami is older yet far fitter — but here is why Mansour Bahrami is such a great attraction.

Enjoy

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