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.