A Day With: Youssef Hossam – Courting attention Down Under

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Arab prodigy: Youssef Hossam.

He is the only Arab in the Australian Open juniors draw, and made it to the third round, seeded No12 in the boys’ singles competition.

Junior world No19 Youssef Hossam was carrying the Egyptian flag solo here in Melbourne and the 17-year-old has big hopes of becoming his country’s first top-100 player since 1978 and just the second in history to do so.

Sporting a big serve and a heavy-hitting forehand, Hossam caught the eye of many at Melbourne Park before falling to the Australian No6 seed Alex De Minaur in the third round yesterday.

Sport360 caught up with the North African teenager to find out more about his ambitions, his grand slam experience and which childhood idol snubbed him when they met.

What’s been the Australian Open experience like for you?

It’s a beautiful place but I see it as any other tournament. Of course a tough event but I’m not fazed by it. My first junior slam was the US Open last year and I have to say it was tough. Seeing all those big players around you, I ended up choking in the first round. So that was an important learning experience.

But here in Melbourne, I feel completely different, I’ve been just focused on my matches. And I could tell that my opponent in the first round, it’s his first slam, and he really was choking, he was foot-faulting, I could see myself from the US Open in him. This time for me, I came to compete.

So what was that US Open experience like?

In Egypt, we don’t have any major tournaments, you don’t get to see the stars, I’ve never been to the Abu Dhabi or Dubai tournaments for example, so at the US Open, it was the first time for me to see a top player in front of me. It’s a weird feeling to describe. I was thinking ‘wow, that player looks exactly like he looks on TV’.

Anyone in particular?

Novak Djokovic for example. I’m a big fan of his game but I also found out he’s a really nice guy. I remember the first time I saw Djokovic, I was with my coach from the ITF Touring Team, and I just stood in my place, completely star-struck. And she was like ‘you have to get used to this, they are all over the place’.

I was in a queue to get food and Tomas Berdych came to get some pasta and the cook told him he had to go stand in the queue. And I couldn’t believe it, that’s Tomas Berdych and the guy won’t give him food because he’s not in the queue. I didn’t have the best experience with Roger Federer, in the players’ lounge, I asked him for a photo and he told me ‘no, sorry, go away’. I was a bit shocked. Maybe I caught him at a bad time. Djokovic however, was so nice when we took a picture and he asked me if I was playing and he wished me luck.

As a player, at the calling point, I walked on court with bodyguards making way for me and I’m thinking ‘why am I walking with bodyguards?’ I was so shocked in the first set, focusing on ridiculous things, like the ball kids giving me the towel between points. So my mind was not on the tennis, it was difficult, I couldn’t cope.

Luckily in this Australian Open, from the very first point I’m competing. I was nervous but because of the tennis not the atmosphere.

How did you get to be a tennis player?

I have been playing tennis since I was six years old at Six October Club in Cairo, the same club where my brother (Karim Hossam, ATP world No649) started. I was born into tennis, I had no choice, as I spend my childhood on a tennis court with my brother, with my dad, so that’s how my passion for tennis came to be. I’m based in Egypt, I go to a high school in Cairo, and I train at Gezira Club.

What is your biggest weapon on court, I feel you have a similar game to your brother?

I’d say my forehand. Me and my brother have the same style, aggressive game, big serve, big forehand. He always cramps, me too I always cramp. So we have things in common and it’s pretty funny. But maybe I like to drop shot and attack the net a bit more, he’s a strict baseliner.

During the period where Egypt had a political unrest, did it affect your tennis much?

During the revolution, there was no tennis, it was more about making sure you got home safe more than wanting to play tennis. But lots of credit goes to my dad because even during curfew hours, he always took us to practice and insisted we not neglect the sport.

But of course you couldn’t find someone crazy like you who is brave enough to go out during curfew to hit with you. So I was literally hitting balls against the wall or with my brother. It took a while before things picked up and tournaments were back on.

There aren’t many players coming out of Egypt, the Arab world, or even Africa as a whole, do you feel a burden trying to break that trend?

I wish that I could enter new territory so that people in Egypt can believe that they too can enter that territory. I try as much as I can to blaze a trail so many more can follow suit. I’d like to show people that it is a simple thing, it’s not mission impossible so they can pursue it too.  

You had your best result end of last year when you made the final at the Grade A tournament in Mexico. Did it change your mentality, knowing you could compete at such a high level?

Playing in Mexico is tough because you’re playing at altitude so the first week is rough.  I almost skipped Mexico in 2015 but it somehow turned out to be my best week of the year, results-wise. I wasn’t expecting a lot. Making the final made me believe I had a place amongst the world’s best juniors which was very motivating. People started to really know me. I also got a lot of points. So since then I had new-found confidence. Mexico has certainly put me on the road I’m on right now.

What was your start like on the junior circuit?

When I was young, I had a lot of injuries so I wasn’t that great of a player when I was 12, 13. I started playing some junior ITFs when I was 14 but Grade 5, Grade 4. I remember before the first Grade 2 event that came to Egypt I was really scared and I lost in the first round. So I wasn’t good when I was young. It took me a while to develop.

What’s your attitude like towards the sport?

In Egypt there is so much pressure on players. If you make one good result everyone will want you to do better so they obsess around you, tell you what to eat, how to sleep, what to do… I’m much more simple than that. I always take it easy. I don’t put pressure on myself, I take it seriously of course but I don’t think in a way where I have to win every match or I have to do this, I take it one step at a time, do my best and hope for the best.

Egypt hasn’t had anyone in the top-100 since Ismail El Shafei in the 1960s and 1970s. What do you need to make that leap?

I believe I have the tennis to make the top-100, I don’t see a huge gap. But of course there has to be a certain commitment to make that leap. I will need support, not just financial, although that is important because traveling to tournaments is very expensive. I would need support from the federation, from sponsors.

I will need a touring coach. I will need to be following a strict training schedule while I’m in Egypt and not use my time away from the road like it’s a break, or a time to rest and I forget everything I learnt while I’m away playing tournaments.  I believe I can make it into the top-100 while I’m based in Egypt but it will require a lot of focus and commitment.

You have a unique advantage in having an older brother who is also a player, what’s something he did with his career that you would like to avoid?

When he finished playing juniors, he was excited to start playing ITF Futures and did really well at the start but he kept playing Futures and didn’t get out of it. It felt good to win so many titles at that level and didn’t step up to the Challenger Tour. I don’t want to fall into that trap.

Who or what inspires you the most?

I could have been like anyone who does sport, just for fun, but my father, since I was a young boy, before I even became an African champion, he would call me an African champion all the time. He taught me and my brother to think big, have greater ambitions. Instead of dreaming of becoming a national champion, or even an African champion, I dreamt of bigger things. So that gave me a lot of motivation for sure, to try and achieve something no other Arab has managed to achieve for example.

And when I achieve something, I do it for myself. I’m not really into sharing photos on social media of my achievements and things like that. I do it for myself and that’s it.

What’s your biggest dream in the sport?

If not top-10, even though I believe it’s achievable, then I’d like to be a top-50 player and play grand slams, make it far in the slams. I believe I can go there, I don’t see it as mission impossible.

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Andy Murray toughs it out to make Australian Open quarter-finals

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The Scot has advanced into the quarter-finals of the Australian Open.

Up until Monday morning, Andy Murray was considering pulling out of the Australian Open over concern for the health of his father-in-law Nigel Sears.

The world No.2 fled to the hospital following his third round victory on Saturday after Sears collapsed in the stands while watching his pupil Ana Ivanovic.

Murray admits the past two days have been “tough” but with Sears out of the hospital and deemed healthy enough to fly back to the UK, the Scot took to the court for his fourth round on Monday night and got through a “scrappy” match, beating Bernard Tomic 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (4) to set up a quarter-final with No.8 seed David Ferrer.

Trying to reach his seventh consecutive Australian Open quarter-final, Murray survived a tension-filled affair in which he dropped serve four times and was tested by Australia’s No.1 player.

The No.2 seed confessed he woke up feeling drained from the events of the previous two days and it took its toll on him on the court.

“It was tough, yeah. It was tough. Obviously it depended on Nigel’s health obviously. If the news was not positive, then, no, there was absolutely no chance I would have kept playing,” Murray told reporters in Melbourne.

He added: “To be honest, when I woke up I felt quite drained, quite tired. As the day sort of went on and I decided to play, I started to focus a little bit better. But definitely on the court I was more emotional than normal. I was talking to myself after every single point almost from the first point through till the last, which was obviously not ideal.

“That uses up a lot of energy. Again, just that makes you sort of more kind of up and down throughout the match.”

Murray looked on point at the start when he broke Tomic, the No.16 seed, in the opening game. But the 23-year-old struck back to draw level at 2-all before Murray went up 5-2. Serving for the set, the Brit falter giving Tomic some leeway to get back in it but Murray served it out the second time around to take a one-set lead.

The rest of the match was no easier and it saw Murray go through numerous patches of rage but the four-time Australian Open runner-up played the better tiebreak in the third set to seal the deal and take his record against Aussies to a perfect 17-0.

“I didn’t think we played the best match tonight. I think at times there were some entertaining rallies. But I think both of us were a little bit up and down today,” said Murray, who added he was pleased with his serving, having struck 18 aces.

On his part, Tomic found himself again in murky waters readdressing the Roger Federer comments from Brisbane regarding the Aussie’s tough time trying to crack the top-100.

Tomic had responded after his third round match on Saturday by saying Federer is nowhere near Novak Djokovic’s level at the moment.

He added: “I just would have liked Roger to say ‘okay, look, he had an amazing 2015. Went from 70, 80 to being 16’. He didn’t mention it. I just felt like maybe Roger said the wrong thing.

“I’m working. I went from where I was to 16, 17 in the world. It’s an amazing achievement. I’m there. I’m six, seven spots away. When I’m playing my best tennis, I’m a top-five player in the world. But I need to get there. And not just to get there. I want to be there four, five, six years, inside the top-10, top-five.”

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Mixed doubles pair Kubot and Hlavackova reject match-fixing claims

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The Pole has denied claims his first-round mixed doubles opponents fixed a match.

Lukasz Kubot and Andrea Hlavackova believe their first round mixed doubles opponents David Marrero and Lara Arruabarrena were “trying 100 per cent” in their match at the Australian Open on Sunday, rejecting the match-fixing suspicions that have prompted a police investigation.

A report in the New York Times said that a sports gambling website, Pinnacle Sports, suspended betting for the match on Sunday after large amounts of money, for what is typically an obscure match, was placed on Kubot and Hlavackova to win. The company notified Victoria police of possible irregularities.

Spanish duo Marrero and Arrubarrena lost the match 6-0, 6-3. The one-sidedness of the betting raised red flags at Pinnacle Sports over possible match-fixing, which prompted the company to suspend betting for the encounter around 13 hours before it started.

Both Spaniards denied any match-fixing and Marrero blamed his poor performance on a knee injury.

Suspicious betting information is not considered evidence for match-fixing but the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) – tennis’ internal watchdog – has started an investigation, with both Kubot and Hlavackova confirming they were questioned about the matter.

They would not reveal any details of their conversations with the TIU, which were strictly confidential but they insist they believe their opponents were trying their best.

“Yes, they were trying 100 per cent. We were trying our best, we won the match, I don’t know why many people are here,” Kubot told a packed small interview room at Melbourne Park on Monday.

Asked whether he sensed if Marrero was injured, Kubot added: “To be honest we were so focused on our game that I didn’t even notice if he was injured, or that she was injured. We were just focused on ourselves and we were trying to get our momentum. As you could see there were many no-ad points, which we won in the end. Let’s say in the first set we were very lucky, but that’s how it happened.”

The match-fixing suspicions have come hot on the heels of allegations raised in a report published last week by BuzzFeed and BBC that claimed gambling corruption was widespread in tennis and that several top-50 players were flagged to the tennis authorities and that they took no action.

Hlavackova, owner of three grand slam doubles and mixed doubles titles, admitted it was uncomfortable having to answer questions regarding the match with the Spaniards.

“It’s nothing very comfortable to think that we didn’t win the match on our terms. We played our best yesterday, we did very well and we won. So it’s a bit uncomfortable to be questioned if someone else wasn’t playing 100 per cent or something,” said the Czech Olympic silver medallist.

A list of players was published following the BuzzFeed/BBC report by an unknown website that claimed they used a mathematical algorithm to figure out the suspected players.

“I think the name should not be put on a list in a newspaper without any proof because I think you work hard every day, as everyone of us, and this is just putting us, let’s say, on a blacklist but without any proof. I think that should not be written in the paper,” said Kubot.

“To be honest, as someone who idolises Lleyton Hewitt, I’m really sad that it happened, his name, right here in his favourite grand slam but maybe it should be like this, I don’t know, it’s not my business.”

Spanish No.1 David Ferrer finds it “impossible” that either Marrero or Arruabarrena could be involved with gambling corruption.

“They were just trying to win a match. It is impossible that David or Lara have bet (fixed) a match. In this particular moment this is a touchy subject. The media is being sensationalist,” Ferrer said on Monday after reaching the quarter-finals in Melbourne.

Referring to the New York Times article, Ferrer added: “It sells. It’s looking for more than there really is. If you find someone who is betting (fixing matches) then sanction them. The truth is I feel no pity for those tennis players.

“But if you don’t know (and have no proof), then don’t call them dirty and don’t taint tennis.”

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