Book Review: The Court Jester by Mansour Bahrami

A fascinating read. I had absolutely no idea who Mr Bahrami was before I read the book. I knew he was a famous face on the circuit but I didn’t even know he was Iranian or what tournaments he won or the style he played.

Now I’ve read the book I still can’t tell you much about the style he played and what went into his preparation for tournaments because this autobiography is like no other tennis biography I have read. Though I am really excited to see him play because I now know so much more about him. He is a true tennis fan. Not just some one trying to make money out of it. Instead he just wants to promote it.

It is fair to say that Mansour had as exciting a life off court as he did on court. Most of the book is dedicated to events early in Mansours life before and after the Iranian revolution. That’s probably what makes it so fascinating.

It becomes easy to see why Mansour was destined to see tennis as a pass time and escape instead of a serious vocation. His professionalism is not something I would question, merely that he admits that winning was never his main aim. Enjoying the moment on court was more important.

The story is told in a similar way to that of a similar, surprisingly Iranian descendant Andre Agassi (I know, I had no idea until I read his book Open that he was also an Iranian immigrant!!!). They both seem to enjoy entertaining a crowd and so have developed their skills in story telling.

Laver, Rafa and others wrote great books but they are more technically minded, focussing on specifics of tennis and the tour. Mansour and Agassi focus a lot on life outside tennis.

Thinking about it they also have another link, gambling. I’m not insinuating anything bad, just something that can be useful and hurtful at the same time. Mansour admits that gambling is his own vice. Often losing in one visit to a club his winnings of the day before. Agassi simply grew up in Las Vegas, Americas gambling mecca and his father worked in the casinos. I couldn’t help but notice in Andres description of his approach to tennis how it seemed strongly influenced by someone adept at weighing the odds.

I’ve heard that while Agassi was considered the best returner of his time he also often had the most aces against him. So he preferred to guess and commit, to get an early chance instead of reacting and being a split second late. Instead of almost being in position most of the time he was in great position some of the time. Basically taking the advantage away from the server.

This can work in tennis because you only need to win 4 points to win a game. Against a great server you will generally lose each point against their first serve and maybe even their second. Yet, as long as you hold your serve you need to break your opponent just once to win the set. So if Andre guessed right 2-3 times during an opponents service game there is a real chance Agassi might break their serve and thus win the set. To a gambler this strategy would make complete sense.

Mansour seems to be similarly affected. Enjoying the drama of the gamble but also the strategy. Weighing the odds. At the same time he seems more at ease with losing than Laver, Sampras or the others. Probably because gamblers generally lose. That’s why the win is so exciting for them.

It could also be because the Iranian never really got to pursue his dreams unfettered and thus develop a fitting competitive urge. He seems to realise he is lucky to have played as much as he did. He could probably have achieved so much more but what he did achieve is much more than many others.

What Mansours story highlights for me is just how difficult it is for many to get into sport, particularly tennis. If he were a footballer he would have done very well and earned a good living. Even travelling around Europe relatively easily.

Tennis, with its globe trotting nature and relatively low incomes is harder. Back in Iran the same was true. Only because he grew up next to Irans equivalent of Wimbledon and got to play every day could he even get a start. Getting further then relied on political winds blowing in the right direction on many occasions.

Being self taught also highlights the importance of making your own luck. To have a coach is fortunate, though learning for yourself how to grow your game is the most important skill. In truth he had the best coaches he could imagine. He trained early on with Davis cup players. They may not have had the title ‘coach’ but he learnt the game from them. You really can only beat who is in front of you and he had amazing players to learn from in that regard.

So in all I find that it was Mansours relentless desire to learn that was most important in his success. Loving the beauty of the game, he took charge and made it happen. His coaches worked with what he gave them.

I recommend the book. As fascinating a story about tennis as it is about life, politics and another world. It has certainly put Mansour at the top of my must see tennis players. I can’t wait for the next Tennis masters at the Royal Albert Hall. In fact I just recorded it and it really was fantastic.

Mansour, The Court Jester inspired some of the posts on Competitive Urge:

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