What could have been for one of the sport's greatest
But for Ayatollah Khomeini, who regarded tennis as a tool of Satan, Mansour Bahrami might have been the only son of an Iranian hill tribesman to win Wimbledon. Ilie Nastase addresses him as "maestro", John McEnroe describes him as "a genius", and Rod Laver believes him to be "the most naturally gifted player ever to pick up a racket". Since he did not own a proper racket until he was 13 - he taught himself to play using a rusty old frying-pan - he is the greatest player to pick up a kitchen utensil.
Now 53, Bahrami and his trusty sidekick Henri Leconte reached the semi-finals of the men's over-45 event at Wimbledon last week, spreading laughter and wonderment around the outside courts; to watch Bahrami play tennis, is to watch Merlin at work. His trademark volley lands at an opponent's feet then spins crazily back across the net, his fearsome "backhand" serve - an impossibly acrobatic flight of fancy which defies the laws of physics and anatomy - hits the ground before bouncing off at a tangent like a Mexican jumping bean. He hits winning drop-shots from behind his back, conjures lobs from between his legs and, when not passing the time between points by hurling his racket high into the sky, will juggle three balls in one hand while curling his handle-bar moustache with t'other.
According to legend (his own version), Bahrami was nine-months-old when his father left the northern uplands of Iran in 1957 to settle in Teheran. "I am told we had cows and sheep and land. Then suddenly we had nothing. Maybe drought, I do not know. So my father became a gardener in the biggest sports club in the country - wrestling, volleyball, soccer, three swimming pools and 13 tennis courts. I was not allowed to play. Tennis was only for the wealthy families of Teheran and foreign diplomats. My father, mother, two brothers and myself lived in one small room which was our living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom."
At the age of five, Bahrami became a ball-boy, earning a few pennies an hour. Through studying others, however, he became infatuated with tennis and began playing when he was seven "with anything that looked like a racket. A dustpan, broom-handle, chunk 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 with a saucepan or whatever".
On his 10th birthday, Bahrami's idol, Iranian Davis Cup captain Sheezdad Akbari, presented his favourite ball-boy with a glistening Dunlop Maxply. His saucepan days were over. "I was only small yet I can remember the heat. I sneaked on to the court one afternoon and had been playing only two or three minutes when I was surrounded by guards. They beat me terribly, I was bleeding everywhere and, worst of all, they smashed my racket."
It took the Shah's friends on the Iranian Tennis Federation a further three years to accept they had a teenage prodigy in their midst. In 1973, the 17-year-old Bahrami was given a "minder" and dispatched to Wimbledon, where he was drawn against the American teenager Billy Martin in the first round of the boys' singles. "Two years in a row Martin won the junior event without conceding more than two games in any set. He beat me love-and-love, yet I knew I was a better player than him. How? Because my chaperone left me in the hotel room for three days and nights without food while he went off to shop. Finally he came back and said 'Mansour, you play in one hour'."
After winning nine of his 12 Davis Cup singles, Bahrami did not hit a ball for three years after tennis was banned in revolutionary Iran. "I existed by playing backgammon all day." Finally, a friend of a friend of a friend persuaded the new foreign minister to grant Bahrami a visa to visit France. And so he arrived in Paris with no money, no friends, no language and no possessions, save a suitcase of tennis clothes and his rackets.
"I chose France because there are hundreds of small tournaments with prize money. But you have to win to collect the money. 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, Bahrami then spent the next six years as a virtual prisoner in France. "I didn't dare leave France in case they did not let me back in. If you had an Iranian passport in the early 1980s, very few countries would accept you.
"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. Even so, having been prevented from even hitting a ball from the age of 21 to 24 by the Ayatollah, 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."
Just as it is good for the soul spending time in the company of Mansour Bahrami. @Email:email@example.com
Published: July 6, 2008 04:00 AM