In 1987, Mansour Bahrami was only ranked number 253 at the ATP when he faced Yannick Noah in the second round of the BNP Paribas Masters. A match which truly made him a household name in France.
First set on the court of the Bercy tournament. Mansour Bahrami is serving. Without anyone really understanding how, the Iranian-born player hits a sort of underarm serve which completely takes Yannick Noah by surprise, with the audience loving it. The return is followed by a winning passing shot. Point for Bahrami, followed by the cheerful clapping of the audience. « It wasn’t a classic underarm serve, like Chang did at Roland-Garros. That’s too easy ! I would throw the ball over my head, pretending I would serve normally, mime the hit, then get my racquet under the ball to hit a reverse drop shot. Chang couldn’t do that ! I hit the same serve in the final of the doubles in Bercy in 1986, against John McEnroe, in front of 15 000 people. I hit an ace. Everyone was laughing so hard except for McEnroe : ‘You jerk, you think it’s funny ?’ I answered : ‘Shut up, look at the people around you if you’re not happy !’ In one move, Bahrami put the Bercy audience in his pocket, and showed what kind of player he was. A guy who was only there for the pleasure of the game. And who didn’t really care about the competition.
« Come on, walk away, Mansour ! »
Despite the world number 253’s coolness, there was a place in the semi-final of the second edition of the tournament at stake. And even if Noah, the French number one at the time, and the mustached Iranian - who wasn’t famous yet - were friends, the stakes were high. Except that Bahrami isn’t your average tennis player. Feeling absolutely no pressure, he carried on putting on a show. Especially when his opponent was serving. The troublemaker kept on walking forward, forward, and forward again…until he was only a few centimeters away from the service box. « Yannick looks at me with his eyes saying something like : ‘Come on, walk away, Mansour ! Get back, I can’t serve !’ I didn’t move. He waited for maybe a minute, served, then I hit a pickup shot and got the point. I looked at Yannick…he was rolling on the floor laughing. The supporters were looking at us, and having a good laugh as well. The audience was happy to see something different. I did it again two years later against Boris Becker, when he was world number 1. He didn’t know how to react either ! »
After a nice show, with a few exceptional lobs, smashs, and volleys, Noah finally won the match 7-6, 6-4. Smiling, the two men shared a hug, and the winner of Roland-Garros 1983 payed his opponent a public hommage : « It’s nice to have this sort of player who brings a bit of sunlight. » The Bercy audience thinks the same. With Bahrami, it has found itself a new rockstar. Of course, the creator of the current Trophée des Légendes isn’t an unknown player in France - he only played tennis in France as he couldn’t get a visa to play abroad -, but his performance remained in every memory. « It’s true that the audience pretty much discovered me with his match. Which was shown on national television, he remembers. A few hours after the match, I stopped at McDonald’s on the Champs-Élysées, and people came to congratulate me. People have recognized me in the streets a lot more after that. »
Schapers, the regret
A nice present for someone, during his match against Noah like during his whole career, has always tried to please the crowd. At the risk of, maybe, not fulfilling the potential that his talent had announced. « Against Yannick, I had fun. Yannick, on his side, was extremely serious. I acted like a fool, as usual. I probably could have won if I had been more focused on a few important points. I even had a set point in the first set, but I messed it up. » The reason ? « I never could stop myself from pleasing the crowd by making it laugh. It was my first goal. I’ve always privileged the beauty of the game over the result. I was essential that the people who came to see me were happy to be there. »
However, Mansour Bahrami still has one regret regarding this Bercy 1987 tournament. Yannick Noah injured himself right after their confrontation and had to withdraw just before his quarter-final against Michiel Schapers, who Bahrami didn’t hold close to his heart and who he wanted to defeat. « I was crushed when I learned about this. I’ve always loved Yannick, he’s my friend, but then again, he gave everything against me, and i stopped him from playing the next round. I would have preferred it if he had withdrew before, to leave me with a chance. Especially as I was popular with the audience, so I really wanted to carry on playing ! » The Bercy crowd was probably only waiting for that.