The Ayatollah Khomeini was blamed for many things in 1970s Iran. But never for stopping the son of an Iranian hill tribesman from becoming Wimbledon champion – even though that is exactly what happened.
It’s an astonishing story – and tennis fans the world over will know Mansour Bahrami as the magical maverick who 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 winning shot – and as someone who can smash volleys which then spin crazily back across the net…
But Bahrami is not just an entertainer, not only a lightweight juggler who makes the fans smile – he is the greatest Wimbledon champion we never applauded.
Sometime playing partner, Ilie Nastase, called 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 racquet.
Since he didn’t own a real tennis racquet until he was thirteen – he taught himself to play using a rusty old metal frying pan, and other implements – he is indisputably the greatest player ever to wield a kitchen utensil.
But Bahrami was barred from achieving tennis greatness because the then rulers of Iran viewed tennis as a decadent Western activity definitely not to be encouraged.
Way back in 1997, when Mansour was still playing Davis Cup tennis at the age of forty-one, he said: “So you want to hear my life story? You think they will believe this? The frying-pan, the poverty, 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."
Bahrami was thirteen when the Shah’s friends on the Iranian Tennis Federation recognised they had a teenage prodigy in their midst and, for quite a few years, he was finally allowed to play tennis and compete.
In 1975, Mansour made his Davis Cup debut against Britain’s Roger Taylor and lost 6-0, 6-0, 6-2. Being a quick learner, however, he won nine out of his next eleven singles matches, which was incredibly impressive.
Then, after the Shah was deposed, he had to stop playing entirely or chose to leave his family and friends behind and surrender his Iranian identity, a choice Bahrami felt he should never have to make. So, he stayed in Iran and “for three years I was not allowed to hit a ball. I existed by playing backgammon all day.”
Then his luck changed and a single tennis tournament was organised in Tehran. In Mansour’s own words “I won the tournament and the prize was a ticket to Athens, which I gave to my girlfriend at the time. The next day she came back to me and said that I should take it and pay an extra $200 to change the ticket to get to Nice, so I would have a chance to play tennis. It was very selfless of her to send me away and it changed my life for ever.”
The cost of living in France was so much higher than in Iran that Bahrami soon realised that what he had brought with him wasn’t going to last very long, so he reckoned he’d better try and do something about it. Unfortunately, he gambled in a casino on his first night 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 fundamentalist regime in Iran, Mansour 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 eventually 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 to Iran.” His status also of course made working and earning money even more difficult.
In 1981, at the age of twenty-four, Bahrami reached the third round of the French Open as a qualifier, whereupon his cause was taken up by influential French newspapers such as L’Equipe and Le Figaro, who demanded the renewal of his visa.
Mansour was thirty years old before he was allowed finally to join the ATP as a full-time professional player.
I lost nine years of my life. All my best results (fifteen finals and five tournament victories) came after the age of thirty. I was thirty-three when I reached the French Open doubles final. Am I angry? No, I’m not angry, I feel I am a very lucky man.
“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 probably win because I am joking around. Often I do win, but I feel the crowd haven’t enjoyed it so much, so I am upset. I love to make them laugh. When the audience laughs, I am the happiest man in the whole world.”
Whenever you get the chance, go and watch Mansour Bahrami in action: laugh out loud at his antics and toast the greatest Wimbledon Champion who never was.