Monday, September 19, 2005

Mansour Bahrami

The tales about Mansour Bahrami could make a great movie; political chaos, romance, exotic international locales, a sober central character, as well as some spectacular tennis.Bahrami is probably the best known player that no one has ever heard of, for a multitude of reasons.

Bahrami's story begins in Arak, Iran, where Bahrami was raised in a small house. His father was a gardener, making minimal wages, at the royal tennis courts in Tehran's sports centre, enabling Bahrami to grow up around tennis.At the age of five, Bahrami became a 10 cents an hour ball boy at the courts, but he was strictly forbidden to play tennis. Since buying his own racquet was also out of the question, Bahrami learned to play tennis using a dustpan, or a piece of wood, or the palm of his hand. He had no coach, or lessons."To have a coach, you had to pay, and I couldn't afford it," said Bahrami. "I learned everything myself from watching people play."When he was 13, someone gave him their used racquet. But it didn't last long. For not only was equipment expensive and hard to find, but court time itself was a dangerous commodity.Bahrami and some of his friends decided to play on the royal courts one day when no one was around - it was over 40 C degrees during the hottest time of the year."I started to play and within one minute, I saw these guards come out and they took me and beat me up very badly," Bahrami said. "They slammed me to the ground five or six times until I was bleeding from the head and ears. Then they took my racquet and stepped on it until it was in splinters."So it was back to the dustpans and walls for Bahrami, at least for a while. Somehow, a few months later, the Iranian Tennis Foundation took notice of the young Bahrami. At 16, he was selected to take part in a junior Wimbledon tournament."I stayed at the King George Hotel, but I had no money," he said. "I didn't eat anything for three days, and after that, I had to play on the first grass court I ever saw in my life."Not surprisingly, he lost to Billy Martin, 6-0, 6-0. But it gave him a glimpse of what tennis could be.
And then, just as he was becoming a Davis Cup hopeful, his world faced a big gap when the revolution was placed in 1978."We were told tennis was an imperialist, capitalist game and we weren't allowed to play," said Bahrami. "It was terrible for me. I had no job. I had no work. I couldn't play tennis. I could convince no one to play with me. We were afraid we would be shot."Bahrami talked with a friend who knew the Foreign Minister and lobbied to get a visa to France. The tennis courts were open there; unfortunately, so were the casinos. He landed in Nice in August, 1980 with about $2,000 in pocket money."I figured I could live on that maybe 10 days or so. Then I thought, if I win at the casinos I can get maybe $8,000 or $9,000 and stay three, four months. In 20 minutes, I lost all my money."Bahrami slept under bridges and ate chestnuts, until a chance meeting with an Iranian tennis acquaintance led him to playing in several small tournaments. He found part-time employment giving lessons at a Tennis Club near Paris."There were days in Paris when I had nothing to eat," Bahrami recalled. "I walked the streets because I had nowhere to go. But I tried to think positive. I always believed that if you want something and pay the price, you can do it."He was able to renew his visa, but French officials told him he had to declare himself a political refugee or leave the country."I don't do politics, I play tennis," said Bahrami.Refusing to label himself politically, Bahrami hid himself for two months until he, surprisingly, qualified for the 1981 French Open. There, Bahrami beat one of the top French players, Davis Cup veteran Jean-Louis Haillet in straight sets, and gained the attention of the French press."They wrote how wrong it was for a great sportsman not to be a citizen of the world.
And I got my green card."Five years later, Bahrami gained a visa to travel abroad, and joined the ATP Tour at the age of 30. His proudest moment may have come at the 1989 French Open, when Bahrami teamed with Eric Winogradsky to reach the doubles final. (He reached his highest ranking in singles, #192, in 1988, and was ranked #31 in doubles in 1987.)Off the court, life in Paris led, as one would expect, to romance. He met his wife, Frederique, in a traffic jam on the Champs Elysee, three minutes before midnight on New Year's Eve 1981.As Bahrami tells the tale, "I started talking to this woman in another car. I thought she was nice. And I said, is it true that on New Year's Eve people hug each other and say Happy New Year. And she said, yes. So by this time it was midnight, and I just got out of my car and said Happy New Year and gave her a hug. And two years later, we got married."Together Bahrami and Frederique have two boys, Sam and Antoine.
"I am a showman," said Bahrami of his unusual court presence. "Maybe this is not right to say, but I like to perform. I like to see the people laugh, I like to entertain them. Winning is not the main thing. For me, the main thing is that people enjoy what I did. That is very, very important to me."Bahrami's tricks on court, whether a lethal topspin, catching a lobbed ball in his pants pocket or holding a dozen balls in one hand while serving, are crowd-pleasers, but can unnerve opponents."Whenever my friends and I got a chance to play, we'd undercut the ball just to see how it would go," the court joker explained. "I never had a coach, so nobody ever taught me to stop it.""Sometimes the players get mad at me because the people are happy, sometimes they think I am disrespecting them, but it has nothing to do with the players. The people are paying me. It is the people who are making this work. If the people don't come out, there's no sports to worry about," said Bahrami.One of Bahrami's opponents on the Nuveen Tour is Eddie Dibbs."He's amazing," Dibbs said. "He undercuts the ball and it comes back over the net. He's a pretty good athlete, and puts on a good show, but he's a pain in the butt to play."John Lloyd, another Nuveen Tour stalwart, agreed. "His drop shots are very frustrating," said Lloyd. "I beat him once, but I did so much running I was cramping after the match.""Who knows what I could have done if I had been able to play when I was in my 20s," Bahrami said. "The years these players were in the highest ranks of professional tennis, I was not allowed to play. I lost 10 of my best years. I never won a title, I never had the chance. But it does no good to think about that. I never thought I couldn't compete with these guys (Connors, Borg, McEnroe and company). I'm much honored to be playing with these guys now."Tennis is something very special in my life," continued Bahrami. "I don't think I can live without playing tennis."I also think I'm a very lucky man," Bahrami concluded. "I'm very lucky to have a family, I'm very lucky to be over 40 and playing with the legends of tennis."Bahrami, recently captured the doubles title at May's Corel Champions tournament in Washington, DC alongside Tim Wilkison. The best player you never heard of continues to create his own tennis legend.

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