Hailed as one of the greatest entertainers in tennis history, Mansour Bahrami will bring his extensive bag of tricks to our neck of the woods in June when he takes to the court at the Liverpool Hope University International Tennis Tournament.
The French-Iranian veteran will share the spotlight with fellow legends including Barry Cowan and Peter McNamara, along with current ATP stars Damir Dzumhur and Wang Quang as the largest tennis event of its kind in Europe marks its 15 anniversary.
Your Move caught up with the man affectionately known as the Court Jester ahead of the tournament to discuss his formative years in Iran, his love for tennis, and the importance of the Liverpool exhibition.
How difficult was it for an aspiring tennis player growing up in Iran?
I couldn’t play tennis in my country of birth because the sport was banned in Iran, but I was very lucky to have a friend who knew a minister who took power and was able to help me out. He helped me leave the country and move to Nice in France. I didn’t know anybody there and couldn’t speak the language. It was a new world for me. I couldn’t believe that I was out of Iran.
There were difficult times after I arrived in France. One time I lost all of my money in a casino in Paris and spent the entire night walking the streets. But after two years, I got my papers and no longer had to hide from the police.
After that I was able to compete in tennis tournaments, but only in France because I couldn’t get a visa to foreign countries. The best years of any athlete are between 20 and 30, and during that time, I couldn’t compete.
Has Iran’s stance on tennis changed since then?
They didn’t show tennis in Iran back then. Every now and then I would hear updates on foreign radio stations about tournaments like Wimbledon or the US Open, but all of the clubs in my country were closed and nobody was allowed to play tennis. To play the sport was a crime as the authorities dubbed it an American capitalist game.
About four or five years later, the clubs reopened because there were so many people leaving the country to play tennis. Now they are open, but there is no programme or support.
You’re renowned for your trick shots and entertaining style of play. Has that always been a part of your game?
I never had a tennis lesson in my life. I started playing between the age six and 13, the years you learn all the basics. You develop a particular style, but I was playing all those years using a piece of wood or a dustpan and learned by watching others play tennis.
Nobody was there to tell me ‘don’t do this’, so I was trying every shot there is – back to the net, backspin dropshots and everything in between. I was doing this with a piece of wood or a broom because I couldn’t buy a racket as my father was only making £30 a month. A racket was £40.
I always played that way and when I eventually came to Europe people loved my game and kept asking me to play exhibitions. That’s why I continue to play. I’m very fortunate because I love to play tennis and I love to entertain people.
Winning matches is obviously vital, but how important is it to play entertaining tennis?
What is important to me is entertaining people. I feel like I’m an actor, a showman on the court. I feel like the star in a play on the theatre. I go there with no pressure, just play my game and see people laughing. I’m like ‘I haven’t even done anything’ and they laugh even more. It’s great to be able to make people laugh.
I was playing tournaments in France to survive and there was a time when I was the man to beat, but going out of France was another story. I wanted to enter the qualifying rounds of Wimbledon, but with an Iranian passport that was impossible.
Between 80 and 89 I just kept playing. I was competing in two or three tournaments a year and reached the final of the Paris Open in the doubles in 1989 and beat some of the top players along the way. In 1989 I became French and with the French passport everything became easy. I’m now French-Iranian and very proud to be both.
“The people of Liverpool are fantastic and I love entertaining them.”
How important are exhibition events like the Liverpool Hope University International Tennis Tournament to the sport?
I think it is very important. I want to show people that tennis is a great sport and you can have fun playing it. People come to me and say things like ‘my wife hates tennis, but since she saw you she loves it’. That’s the best thing people can say to me. I am trying to promote tennis as best as I can. All of the senior players are trying to do that.
When you go to the tournament in Liverpool, you can see that people are really into tennis. I love the crowd there. They are really unbelievable the way they sit there from first thing in the morning until late in the afternoon. If you don’t love tennis, you don’t sit there for six or seven hours.
They have the knowledge of tennis, they don’t talk between the points, they encourage you when you score a good point. We need tournaments like this to keep people talking about tennis and my mission is to promote the game as best as I can.
This isn’t your first time at the International Tennis Tournament. What are your impressions of Liverpool?
The people of Liverpool are fantastic and I love entertaining them. I haven’t really had much time to visit the city, but I’m aware of its heritage as the birthplace of The Beatles and a place of rich culture. I always look forward to coming back.
The Liverpool Hope University International Tennis Tournament takes place at the Liverpool Cricket Club between 16 and 19 June. For more information visit http://www.liverpooltennis.co.uk/
All images copyright Liverpool Tennis.