Bahrami thrills as conjuror and court jester

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The Independent Online

Last Wednesday, in a church hall picturesquely nestled beneath the Hammersmith flyover in west London, I sat in on a rehearsal of Absolutely Fabulous, which returns to our television screens this autumn. It was a hoot, but it was not the most entertaining thing I saw that afternoon.

For after Patsy (Joanna Lumley) had abused Saffy (Julia Sawalha) for the umpteenth time, I strolled down the Fulham Palace Road to the pish-posh Hurlingham Club, where a tennis tournament called the Marsh Classic was unfolding in front of the corporate-hospitality classes. I got there in time to see Pat Cash beating Mansour Bahrami in the men's singles semi-final.

Then a pukka voice came through the public address system. "Ladies and gentlemen, for corporate guests, tea will now be served in the clubhouse," it said, sparking off the most genteel of stampedes.

This was a glorious sight, further enlivened by the colourful regalia of the corporate-hospitality classes in season – the ladies wearing floral print dresses, the men in cream suits and the occasional jauntily angled Panama hat. They will be at Wimbledon, too, although there they will be compelled to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi.

At Hurlingham, there was no sign whatever of the hoi polloi. If you didn't speak the Queen's, or rather the Hurlingham's English, then you were probably either a professional tennis player or a security guard. In fact, it would have come as no great surprise had I tripped an infra-red sensor, causing a robotic voice to sound in the secretary's office: "Full alert, full alert... Northern grammar school boy in grounds... proceed with caution and a degree of curiosity."

Still, sport is a great leveller and we were united by appreciation of the tennis. The Marsh Classic is a so-called champions' event, featuring such flamboyant legends of the game as Pat Cash, Ilie Nastase, Henri Leconte, Guillermo Vilas, Vijay Amritraj and, er, Chris Wilkinson. Poor old Wilkinson (actually, at 31, not that old, in fact 26 years younger than the oldest competitor, Tom Okker) had the misfortune to be profiled on the same page of the handsome programme as Vilas, winner of the Australian, French and US Opens. The most enthusiastic line about Wilkinson, by miserably stark contrast, was that in 1993, the year he climbed to his highest world ranking of 122, he reached the third round at both Queen's and Wimbledon.

But then Mansour Bahrami was scarcely more successful on the regular circuit, never making much of a name for himself in a career which peaked when he reached, but lost, the final of the men's doubles at the 1989 French Open. On the senior tour, however, Bahrami is Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino rolled into one. His early career was blighted when the ayatollahs unsportingly closed all tennis courts in his native Iran, but he has since moved no less a judge than Rod Laver to describe him as "the most naturally gifted player I have ever seen".

More than anything Bahrami is the consummate showman. In fact Nastase followed him on to centre court and seemed plain boorish by comparison.

Bahrami's extraordinary bag of tricks include serving while holding six tennis balls in his tossing-up hand. I also saw him swish dramatically at a smash, miss the ball completely, and then play the dinkiest of drop-shots, all in the same movement.

Some might say that such antics have no place on a tennis court, but the Pimm's-fuelled corporate-hospitality classes enjoyed it hugely, and so did I. And so, more to the point, did Pat Cash at the other end, dropping his racket and applauding when Bahrami played one particularly outrageous shot through his legs.

At the same time, Cash made damn sure he won. A professional sportsman can't let a court jester distract him from his purpose, which reminds me of the exchange between Tony Jacklin and Lee Trevino years ago, on the first tee at Wentworth as they prepared to contest the final of the World Matchplay Championship. "I'm not really in the mood for talking today, Lee," said Jacklin. "That's fine, Tony," said Trevino. "You only have to listen." Cash, incidentally, not only played the straight man to perfection, he also played marvellous tennis, looking not far off the nick he was in when he won Wimbledon. But that seemed like cheating, in a way, because one of the pleasures of watching the golden oldies is seeing them play a game with which the ordinary mortal is at least on vague nodding terms.

Last Wimbledon, I sat on Centre Court watching Pete Sampras thundering through to the next round. It was awe-inspiring, but it was not enjoyable.

It was barely recognisable as tennis. But later that afternoon, as the shadow of the umpire's chair lengthened over a distant outside court, I watched the Amritraj brothers play Ken Rosewall and Fred Stolle. Now that, that was absolutely fabulous.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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