MANSOUR THE MAN
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He´s back on centre stage on centre court – and Mersey sports fans are delighted.
This is the 14th staging of the Liverpool International tennis tournament – and Mansour Bahrami has appeared in nine.
But the last appearance of the celebrated Court Jester in Liverpool was back in 2012.
And for a player who always charms, entertains and excites the Liverpool crowd, that’s been far too long.
Ilie Nastase calls him a “maestro.” John McEnroe reckons he’s a genius. While Rod Laver believes him to be “the most naturally-gifted player ever to pick up a racket.”
To the Bahrami Army he’s a showman who can can serve while holding six tennis balls in his hand, a man who can catch tennis balls in his shorts pocket while playing an improbable winner – and somebody who can smash volleys which spin crazily back across the net.
And he’s looking forward to showing off all his irrepressible skills and more.
“Liverpool Hope University International Tennis Tournament is one of the best competitions in the UK,” he said. “It combines everything that tennis has to offer, pitting up and coming WTA and ATP players against true legends of the game.
“I am honoured to be a part of this year’s tournament and I will bring my full bag of tricks to the city to try and lift the title.”
Tournament Director Anders Borg is equally as delighted to have him here again.
“Mansour Bahrami is probably next to John McEnroe as one of the most popular legends on the circuit,” he said.
“He is one of the main reasons spectators enjoys legends tennis. He travels the world and plays in every Grand Slam, thrilling the crowds with his circus approach to tennis in front of packed stands.
“He plays the way we all wish we could and fans this year are going to get a real treat seeing him up close at Liverpool Cricket Club.”
Bahrami’s story has been told before, but is always worth repeating.
As a child in Iran he didn’t own a real racket until he was 13 – so he taught himself to play using a rusty old metal frying pan.
But he was barred from achieving tennis greatness because the Ayatollah Khomeini who rulled Iran saw tennis as a tool of Satan.
Way back in 1997, when Bahrami was still playing Davis Cup tennis at the age of 41, he said: “So you want to hear my life story? You think they will believe this?
“The frying pan, the poverty, the Ayatollah, the years of not being allowed to hit a tennis ball, sleeping rough in Paris, on the run from the police . . . yes, I suppose my tale is a little out of the ordinary.
“When I was seven I would play with anything that looked like a racket. A dustpan, frying-pan, broom-handle, a piece of wood. That’s how I learned, usually at night, barefoot, when they had drained the swimming-pool – hitting an old ball someone had thrown away against the wall of the pool with a saucepan or whatever.”
Bahrami was 13 when the Shah’s friends on the Iranian Tennis Federation recognised they had a teenage prodigy in their midst.
He was fastracked to greatness.
In 1975 he made his Davis Cup debut against Roger Taylor and lost 6-0, 6-0, 6-2, but being a quick learner, either on grass or with a frying pan, he won nine of his next 11 singles matches in the competition before the Ayatollah’s henchmen banned tennis in revolutionary Iran.
“For three years I was not allowed to hit a ball. I existed by playing backgammon all day,” he said.
Finally, a friend of a friend of a friend persuaded the new foreign minister to grant Bahrami a visa to visit France.
He arrived in France with his life savings, which he gambled in a casino and lost!
“I chose France because there are hundreds of small tournaments with prize money. But you have to win to collect the money,” he explained. “For weeks at a time I had nowhere to sleep so I would walk the streets of Paris. Often, I would make one baguette last three or four days.”
Having lost three years of his career because of the Islamic fundamentalists, Bahrami then spent the next six years as a virtual prisoner in France because he refused to become a political refugee.
“A political refugee is someone who risks being killed if they go home – I was only a tennis player, but I did not dare leave France in case they did not let me back in.
“When my French visa finally ran out I became an illegal immigrant. Every time I saw a policeman coming I changed direction. If they had asked me for my papers or ID they would have put me on the first plane back.”
In 1981, Bahrami reached the third round of the French Open as a qualifier, whereupon his cause was taken up by L’Equipe and Le Figaro, who demanded the renewal of his visa.
Bahrami was 30 before he could finally join the ATP as a full-time professional.
“I lost nine years of my life. All my best results (15 finals and five tournament victories) came after the age of 30. I was 33 when I reached the French Open doubles final. Am I angry? No, I’m not angry. I feel I am a very lucky man.
“How good would I have been? Who knows? Nastase says I would have been in the world’s top 10 for sure. Yes, I believe I could have been Wimbledon champion. But I am happy. I play 45 weeks a year and travel more than any other player. Anyway, it is good for the soul to go hungry at some time in your life.”
Bahrami no longer goes hungry.
As the most popular competitor on the seniors’ tour he is in demand and plays 40 weeks of the year.
“I love playing. I love to feel people are having fun watching me. I cannot tell you how many matches I lose that I should win because I am joking around. Often I win but I feel the people haven’t enjoyed it so I am upset. I love to make them laugh. When the crowd laughs, I am the happiest man in the whole world.”
He will be a happy man again this week.
And so will the tennis fans who flock to see him.