Wednesday, March 12, 2014

INTERVIEW: Karim Hossam - The next big thing in Arab tennis?

He was ranked No11 in the world junior rankings and, like many promising youngsters who have turned 18
and graduated to the senior level, has been plowing his way up the rankings on the men’s circuit.

Egypt’s Karim Hossam climbed 829 spots to land at 338 in the world after only one full season on the men’s tour. He kicked off his 2014 season with a huge performance against world No9 Richard Gasquet at the Qatar Open in Doha last January, where he proved a big hit with the crowds.

I caught up with the 19-year-old Hossam to find out more about one of the Arab world’s biggest hopes in tennis.

You started last year ranked No1167 in the world, 12 months later you were ranked No338. Did you expect to make such a huge leap all in one season?

To be honest my target was to end the year in the top-500. I spoke to Karim Zaher, my coach, at the beginning of last year and we decided that I quickly needed to get in the top-700, within a couple of months and after that I’d try to get into the top-500.

But within a couple of months, I was already No470 in the world, and that was unexpected. But I stayed in Sharm El Sheikh for two and half months, playing a lot of matches there which really helped. Also playing at home makes a difference, it’s an advantage. Having all those tournaments in Egypt, you have support, people cheering on you, I enjoy that.

I was trying not to focus on ranking and just concentrate on my level. I was also lucky in a few tournaments. I was down match points in a couple of semi-finals but I ended up winning them. I’ve been through a lot of really tight matches recently and thank God I’ve managed to win those. So that made a difference and my confidence went up.

I won four Futures tournaments last season. The last one I won was extremely tough. I played a quarter-final over three and a half hours then a semi-final that went to a final set 7-5 – three hours or so – and the final was 7-6, 7-6, I felt like my heart was going to stop. So thankfully I pulled through it.

So you’ve been training with Karim Zaher all this time?

As a junior, I was based in California training at the Advantage Tennis Academy with Mahmoud Karim. I was there for two years, and when I got back to Egypt I worked with Karim Zaher at Gezira Club.

Once I was done with juniors, I faced the problem of military service, which is something that deters so many players in Egypt from pursuing a pro career in tennis.

So what did you do about the military service? 

Initially I was going to postpone going to university for a couple of years to give my pro a career a go and if, God forbid, I got injured or things didn’t work out, I’d go to university. But I was forced to enroll in a university because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get travel permits and would have had to go do my military service. So now I go to university, but they’re really understanding and allow me to go to tournaments and stuff. I’m studying language translation.

What was your reaction when you found out you were going to play Richard Gasquet and how do you feel about the experience of playing him at the Qatar Open?

I wanted to play a qualifier or a lower-ranked player but when I found out that I was going to play Gasquet I was really excited. I wanted to see how my level was with those type of players.

Of course the level of the Futures tournaments I’ve been playing is very different than the level I played against Gasquet, but I was so pumped that I brought out some big tennis and I didn’t feel the difference in level was so great. It was a very close first set and I really wanted to win it.

I’m happy but I’m also upset because I really feel I should’ve won that first set. I was worried at first that I wouldn’t be able to play at all and get paralyzed just by the prospect of facing a top-10 player. I’m from Egypt and I’m facing the defending champion, but once I was on the court I wasn’t scared at all and I really played well. Mentally I’m happy with how I handled it.

How do you feel you can make the next leap from top-350 to top-100?

This year I have to set my calendar, talk to my coach, talk to the federation, and try to go to as many Challengers as I can. The federation is getting better. Last year they got us free accommodation throughout the year playing Futures in Sharm El Sheikh. They gave us money to play Davis Cup this year, which is also nice. Of course having a sponsor could help me a lot this year. It takes away the pressure and helps you focus on your level and your results more than anything else.

To beat good players, I have to practice with people like them. I have to go to academies abroad and also play many tournaments, because the more matches I play, the better my level gets. I’m looking into academies right now. Whether it’s Spain or France.

Tell me about your junior career, you were one of the best in the world I believe…

I was No11 in the world in juniors and I made the quarter-finals at the US Open juniors in 2011, and the third round at the 2012 Australian Open juniors. I was part of the ITF Touring Team for a couple of years. It helped me become very disciplined.

What do you think are your strengths and what do you think you need to work on?

I think my backhand is one of my strengths. I have confidence in my backhand and I feel that I can put it anywhere I want, and it’s solid on return. My serve speed and placement is also good. The advantages I gained from 2013 were mainly mental ones. I feel that I can play with anyone, without any fear. The things I need to work on are my returns. My unforced errors are mainly on return and on my forehand return. Which is weird because I have a very good forehand.

Do you think you can be the next big thing in Arab tennis?

I really really want to. I have confidence in myself that I can reach the top-10.

Do you have any tennis idols?

I don’t really have idols per se. I like all tennis players and I respect the better player. If I see someone playing well, at a high level I feel then I support them out of respect.

How did you get into tennis? 

I used to play basketball, swimming, but my mother urged me to try out tennis to avoid being in a contact sport. So I started when I was eight years old and I’ve been at it ever since.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

DUBAI: Djokovic wary of Bautista Agut, Berdych serving stats soaring

 Photo via Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Novak Djokovic is braced for a tricky second round against the fast-improving Roberto Bautista Agut in a rematch of their clash at the same stage, on the very same courts at the Aviation Club last year.

The defending champion make quick work of Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin last night, winning 6-3, 6-3 in 84 minutes, saving all four break points he faced in the second set to book a spot in the second round.

Bautista Agut pushed Djokovic in the second set of their encounter last year and the Serb is predicting a difficult encounter.

“He won against (Juan Martin) Del Potro in the Australian Open in a thrilling five sets,” said Djokovic of his second round opponent. “He has improved his game significantly since last year, and winning against Del Potro in a Grand Slam says enough about his quality.

“I'm going to get out on the court and try to win that match, of course, not underestimating my opponent.”

In the first round last night, Djokovic broke in the third game on a double fault from Istomin to inch ahead 2-1. He broke again to take the opening set in 35 minutes and it looked like he would hit the cruise control button. But Djokovic had to save three break points in the opening game of the second set before holding serve. It took the No1 seed six chances before he broke for a 2-0 lead and struggled in the seventh game, saving a break point before holding for 5-2.

He sealed the victory on an entertaining point, a long rally that saw him come into the net to hit a solid volley and Istomin’s attempted passing shot sailed long.

“It was a tough draw against Denis who can play big from back of the court. He's a tall guy, can serve well. He loves playing on the hard courts, and he likes playing on the big stage,” said Djokovic, who hadn’t played a competitive match since his quarter-final loss at the Australian Open.

“I have played him earlier this year in the Australian Open, third round. I know he can play equally well against any of the top players from the baseline, and, you know, I needed to stay focused and kind of believe in my shots.

“It wasn't easy as the score line indicates. I needed to work for my games. My serve worked really well in the second set, and that helped me to get some free points.”

Earlier in the day, last year’s runner-up Tomas Berdych continued to put up some impressive serving stats to secure a place in the second round.

The No3 seed is leading the ATP World Tour at the moment in the percentage of service games won, with a stunning 97 per cent, and yesterday, he won 93 per cent of his points on first serve en route to a 6-3, 6-4 win over qualifier Marius Copil. Berdych took his current winning streak to eight matches – having won two Davis Cup clashes and five matches to lift the title in Rotterdam – and the Czech star is looking to keep it going.

“I'm just trying to profit from that (winning streak), trying to build up on the form, try to bring the confidence as far as I can, and really just go one by one,” said Berdych, who plays Ukraine’s Sergiy Stakhovsky today.

DUBAI: Tomas Berdych says Davis Cup must change

 Photo via Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Tomas Berdych has added his voice to Rafael Nadal – among other players – in suggesting the Davis Cup should become a biennial competition rather than a yearly affair.

Berdych, who has helped the Czech Republic win the last two editions of Davis Cup, will be taking a break from the event for the rest of the year, saying he needs the time to remain competitive with his fellow top-10 players.

He also thinks the Davis Cup is losing its allure when it’s played annually and likened the format of the European football championships, which are played every two years.

“I think it makes sense and would be really interesting and make players really like to play if the Davis Cup is every two years,” said Berdych.

“The World Cup in football is every four years, the European championships every two years, we don’t need four years but two years is a reasonable time.

“Because you finish the semi-final, in September, and after two days I’m getting phone calls asking me what I think about our first round opponents (next year). What’s this? We are going to play the final, enjoy that, let’s be ready for the final and the first question is ‘what do you think about your first round opponents next year?’ This kind of destroys the competition.”

Berdych also made other suggestions including reigning champions being allowed to have a bye in the first round the following year along with moving the final ahead so it doesn’t extend the season past the World Tour Finals.

The world No6 also explained his decision in missing the remaining ties of the season, saying: “I want to take some break because chasing all those (top) guys is really difficult.

“If you look at the calendar, my last two years I missed eight weeks because of Davis cup, four to play the matches and the week after you are dead to play a tournament or even prepare yourself. If you’re supposed to chase them and they have those eight weeks advantage, it’s really difficult.

“So I’ll try to take those weeks for myself, try to see if I am able to use them and maybe be better and move higher in the rankings.”

Berdych comes to Dubai after capturing his first title in 16 months in Rotterdam earlier this month and with fond memories from making the final here last year. But he says he still has a challenging week ahead of him.

“Confidence is one thing but then the tournament always starts from zero, from the first round, and there’s an opponent who really wants to beat you and play well. Yes, it’s an aspect that I can have in my mind that I was playing well and still am, but still there’s a big change coming from indoors, playing here outside. So I just need to start to build it up one more time again, be ready and go for it,” said the No3 seed, who faces qualifier Marius Copil in the opening round.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

QATAR OPEN: Li Na talks Australian Open victory, her autobiography and her mother

Photo credit: Paul Zimmer/QTF

Li Na explained how winning a second Grand Slam has helped her prove to herself – along with her doubters – that her first major triumph at the French Open in 2011 was no fluke.

It took her almost two and half years to add a second Grand Slam title to her resume but the 31-year-old can now proudly say she is no one-Slam wonder.

“I heard a lot, after 2011, so many people say ‘oh, she is lucky, she only can win one, she cannot win a second one’,” Li Na told reporters in Doha on Wednesday.

“So I didn't want to show all of them, but at least I show myself I can win the second one. And also, because I was prepared for what I should do to win the Grand Slam.

“So I was really happy. Doesn't matter how old I am. I'm still young. So I'm still happy I can move a lot on the court.”

In her first match since winning the Australian Open, the Chinese extended her undefeated run this season by claiming her 13th consecutive victory – a tough 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 win over Slovakian world No32 Magdalena Rybarikova, in a match that saw a total of 26 break point chances .

Li Na, who will rise to No2 in the world when the new rankings come out on Monday, making her the highest-ranked Asian in the history of the WTA, had lost her only previous meeting to Rybarikova, who defeated the Chinese to win her first career title in Birmingham in 2009.

The top seeded Li Na had a strong start, wrapping up the first set 6-1, hitting 12 winners and saving all three break points she faced.

Rybarikova, who played a lengthy three-setter against Francesca Schiavone the previous day, upped her game in the second set, capitalising on her numerous break point opportunities. Li Na kept falling behind and breaking back but Rybarikova finally took the set when her opponent sent a backhand wide.

Li Na recovered in the final set however and successfully booked herself a spot in the last 16.

On getting back on the court for the first time since Melbourne, Li Na said: “Always like exciting-nervous. Because first match always tough. Also, she played already one match, so she know how the feeling is on the court.”

Li Na remained aggressive throughout the three sets and she says it’s something she’s been trying to do more and more. “I think this is the way I improve a lot,” said Li Na, who turns 32 in two weeks.

“Getting old, you cannot stay a long time on the court. So you have to finish as quick as you can.”

Her autobiography has recently been released in English and Li Na says she is hoping it can shed some light on how much work she put into her career in order to achieve what she’s achieved.

She says her mother, who has never been to any stadium to watch her play, not even the Olympics in Beijing, finally got a chance to appreciate the work her daughter does by reading the book.

“So many people, I think especially Chinese, they think I'm not normal people. So I just want to show all of them I am normal people, because I have my goal. I just prove myself to make it,” said Li Na.

“I wish the people, if they read the book, they thought, ‘oh, she was working so hard. It's not only about luck, you know’. “And also, you know, I want they know about is not only is tennis player, is about this person, personality.

“So I really wish they can understand what I'm doing, what I do. Especially my mom. I think for my mom is a little bit special, because I think when I win the French Open and she call me, she's like ‘Oh, Li Na, you just win one tournament. Why are you in all the newspapers?

“I was like ‘Thanks, mom. You are doing a good job.’

“Because she's not interesting about any sport.

“So I don't know how to explain to her what I am doing. So at least after the book, after she saw and she say, ‘oh, my daughter was doing what she doing.’”

Li Na will take on Petra Cetkovska for a spot in the quarter-finals in Doha.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

DAVIS CUP: Egypt all set for Moldova clash

Photo supplied by Mohamed Safwat. 
From left to right: Mazen Osama, Mohamed Safwat, Captain Khaled Baligh, Sherif Sabry, Karim Hossam, Karim Mohamed Maamoun

Egyptian duo Mohamed Safwat and Karim Hossam are optimistic ahead of this weekend’s Europe/Africa Group II Davis Cup tie against Moldova in Chisinau.

Egypt have fielded a strong team, headlined by their top two singles players Safwat and Hossam, ranked 203 and 339 respectively. The pair will feature in Friday’s singles rubbers with Safwat opening the tie against world No335 Maxim Dubarenco before Hossam takes on world No167 Radu Albot.

Safwat has an 11-5 record for Egypt in Davis Cup and is coming off a stellar season where he picked up an ITF-record nine Futures titles.

“It’s a very close tie,” Safwat told Game, Set, Match Egypt.

“The level of the players is almost the same, we’re all around the same ranking. Moldova have the home advantage for sure and they had great results last year but on the other hand our team this year is different than other years - four players in the top 500.

“We can play in fast or slow courts - doesn't matter for us. Tomorrow (Friday) I think is the most important day in the tie. We are neutral, not very relaxed and not very nervous and we prepared really well for the tie and we have our chances,” added the 23-year-old from Mansoura.

Hossam, a 19-year-old who rose from 1168 to 338 in the rankings last season, will be playing a Davis Cup singles rubber for the first time in his career. He won all three doubles rubbers he contested in last year’s campaign.

“I feel good,” said Hossam. “I’m playing well and the courts here are not so fast, close to clay. So I think we’ll play good matches.”

Egypt’s No3 player, Sherif Sabry, ranked No430 in the world, is scheduled to play doubles alongside Safwat on Saturday, but team captain Khaled Baligh can choose to field a different pairing, depending on tomorrow’s results.

World No509, Mazen Osama, 18, is the fourth player on the team.

The action kicks off on Friday at 14:00 local time (also 14:00 Cairo time).

Sunday, January 5, 2014

QATAR OPEN: Saturday Diary - Rafa waiting for Murray's call

 Image via Getty

The competition at the top in tennis may reach uber heights on the court but it never fails to amaze me how friendly the players are with each other off it – the ATP players that is (Serena and Sharapova are bucking that trend in the WTA tour).

The Australian Open is barely a week away and Rafael Nadal says he’s trying to schedule a practice with Andy Murray, one of his main rivals, in Melbourne.

“I am waiting the message of Dani (Vallverdu, Murray’s hitting partner) to practice.That's the real thing,” Nadal told us laughing. “I talked to him in Abu Dhabi last week, and I talked to him yesterday before he left. But he didn't know yet the days that he's practicing, that he's playing in Kooyong. So I'm waiting his message to confirm what day we are going to practice. 

“No, seriously, I don't see the competition that crazy way, no? I have a good relationship with Andy, and I'm always happy to practice with the good people and good players.” 

Meanwhile, things got more interesting in the media centre on finals day here as seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander made an appearance. The Swedish legend is in town shooting an episode of Mats Point for Eurosport and when asked if he plans on following the suit of his fellow 80’s stars Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg and dabble into the world of coaching again Wilander was quick to say: “No. There’s nothing I can help any of the top players with, there’s nothing they want from my game.”

Wilander said he can’t imagine any of the young players to upset the tennis order this season and when asked about where he sees Bernard Tomic is at the Swede said: “I don’t know, where is he? His brain just has to click in - find the right… ‘okay there it is, now I’m focused’. Who knows, maybe it’s fast cars, who knows? Something that inspires him to put his best foot forward every day.”

All the legends seem to be welcoming the notion of faster surfaces around the tour and Wilander is no different. He seemed happy to learn that the courts in Australia are reportedly quicker this season saying: “Oh nice, is that Lleyton (Hewitt)? I’m sure it is, and (Pat) Rafter. It’s better for us, it’s about time.”

Saturday, January 4, 2014

QATAR OPEN: Thursday Diary - How cool are Dreddy's shoes?

 Photo via Dustin Brown's Instagram 

It’s been a particularly successful tournament for the Germans in Doha this year with six Germans making it to the last 16 and four going a step further and reaching the quarter-finals.

While Florian Mayer was impressive in his dismissal of Andy Murray and Peter Gojowczyk did great in making his first career ATP semi-final, I don’t think anything has stood out more than Dustin Brown’s shoes. The German-Jamaican oozes coolness and flair, whether it’s his explosive serve-and-volley style, his long dreadlocks or his fashion sense.

Brown was famous for wearing fluorescent shoelaces, a different colour on each shoe but Dreddy – as he is known to his fans online – has now taken his fashion statements to a whole other level. Dreddy stepped on court in Doha wearing a fluorescent orange left shoe and a glaring yellow right shoe. He’s been donning those pair of Nikes around the Challenger tour for a few months but this week, Dreddy’s “boys” - as he likes to refer to them - have made their debut on the ATP tour. There’s been mixed reaction to the mismatched shoes but I have to say the German can certainly pull it off.

Meanwhile, the best opening line of a press conference award has got to go to Gojowczyk. “Hello, everybody. My name is Peter. I'm from Germany, from Munich.” The world No162 is not a very familiar face on the ATP tour, but after making it to the last four, where he took on world No1 Rafael Nadal, Gojowczyk figured it’s high time he introduced himself to the press. He went on to reveal that the last time he had spoken to Nadal was when he asked him for his autograph at the US Open a few months ago. What a difference a few months can make!