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Daouki Coaching & Mustapha Belkhodja « Yes, an African player could win a Grand Slam tournament, but… »

capture-decran-2016-09-11-a-13-46-59 Sunny afternoon in Paris, Mustapha Belkhodja, first northern African player to ever win a grand slam tournament in junior category, joins us at Jean-Bouin stadium. After insisting on the passion and his taste for effort that make him keep practicing sport on a daily basis at 78 years old, Mustapha Belkhodja answers Mehdi Daouki, founder of Daouki Coaching,  questions about his career, the African tennis and the current tennis events.     Mehdi Daouki: Mustapha, not everybody knows your career and your history. Could you please introduce yourself? Mustapha Belkhodja: I started playing tennis very young in Tunisia. It was not easy as my father, a lawyer and Minister for the French protectorate, was encouraging me to study instead of playing tennis while my mother was being more supportive. I started winning really young: U14 and U16 Tunisian champion and even U16 and junior French champion as the French protectorate allowed Tunisian players the right to participate to the French Championship. During my second year as a junior, Bouguiba takes the power in Tunisia and my father is made prisoner due to his involvement in the French protectorate. The situation makes me leave Tunisia for France thanks to my father’s connexions here. Michel Larcade, a Stade Français coach at that time, convinces me to join him. The same year – 1956 – I participate to the Roland Garros junior open. I manage to reach the final against the new protégé of Harry Hopman: Rod Laver, who became afterwards the first and only player to win twice the Grand Slam in 1962 and 1969. I am therefore considered as the outsider in this game but still, I surprisingly manage to win because of my skills and despite a clear lack of strength compared to Rod Laver. My father started fully supporting me at the time. Following this victory, I got promoted in the highest level category at that time, while I am still 18 years old. At 27 years old, I decided to become professional and therefore a tennis coach to provide stability and income to my family. As I had stayed at Stade Français for my whole time in France, I became the club’s manager and from one day to another, I stopped playing tennis to start giving lessons 12 hours a day. This forced me to stop playing grand slam tournaments which were only opened for non-professional players at that time but I could still play several tournaments and championships created for professors and professional players. Finally, in 1967, I became the Jean Bouin First Team’s main coach.   Mehdi Daouki: Throughout your career, who were the African and Arab players that impressed you the most? Mustapha Belkhodja: Due to the protectorate and the colonies, I was nearly the only African player as most of the players involved in the African tournaments were coming from France. Afterwards, Arab players like Haibabi, Arazi, Laimina and Jaziri impressed me with their technique. They all play a beautiful tennis. Though, the problem has always been the same: strength. As if it was just part of the African player’s morphology. Even myself, I could have trained my physical skills for a long time, I would have never had the physical level of players like Becker or Murray. Mehdi Daouki: Many Arab and African players participate to ETA tournaments (U14) such as Tarbes, Orange Bowl or BNP Paribas Cup. How can we explain the fact that these players don’t make it through to ITF, WTA and ATP tournaments afterward?   Mustapha Belkhodja: First, as I was telling you, there is a morphological problem. It’s the same as in athletics. African runners look like they are made for long distance races while western runners seem to be designed for sprint. This morphology implies a lack of strength which is, in my opinion, too much to perform at the highest level. Then, the organisation in Africa is not as professional as it might be in other countries like France. This lack of money and organisation makes it difficult for tennis to fight the popularity and attractiveness of other sports like soccer athletics. Finally, the tennis culture doesn’t exist in Africa. Several African countries still consider tennis as a sport for girls. As long as this mentality remains, it will be difficult for the African tennis to develop itself. mehdi daouki mustapha belkhodja Mehdi Daouki: Could an African player ever win a grand slam tournament? Mustapha Belkhodja: Maybe, but it will take some time. First, mentality will have to change in Africa and then countries will have to develop and offer a professional structure so that players can eventually really start progressing without needing to leave their country as it was the case for both you and myself. Then, players will have to move forward step by step, from becoming professional to join the top 100 and finally the top 10 before pretending to win a grand slam tournament. Mehdi Daouki: More generally, what do you think of current players? Mustapha Belkhodja: I’m very impressed by Nadal. I woke up at night to watch his games during US Open, but not only to watch it, also to live it! When he loses, it nearly makes me sick. Lendl used to impress me this way as well. I am passionate and impressed by them because they play in a completely different way compared to how I used to play and also because they never give up. This is what I like about them! About Federer, I like how he plays but I don’t really like who he is. I also like to focus on player’s attitude and behaviour and I don’t really like Federer’s, I feel him a bit hypocrite. But he definitely is an amazing tennis player. Another player I’ve really liked since his come back is Juan Martin Del Potro. He has a wonderful technique and he is a good person. But I don’t like him as much as I like Nadal. Finally, let’s give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. I remember when you and I were both at Jean-Bouin a few years ago. You used to tell us that Gasquet, who was still very young at that time, will make it to the top 10 and obviously nobody believed you. I must now admit that on the one hand you were right and on the other hand that I like him. I really feel bad that he always has troubles.   Mehdi Daouki: Still about current players. Is Serena Williams the best woman player of all time? Mustapha Belkhodja: Serena is for sure the current best woman player. But it’s more questionable about being the best of all time. She has qualities and skills that no other woman had before her, especially regarding her strength and physical abilities. However, Navratilova for her technique and Steffi Graff for her longevity are in my opinion at least as good as Serena.         Mehdi Daouki: Who will reach the top of the world ranking according to you?   Mustapha Belkhodja: This might be a surprise, but the young Canadian player who won Wimbledon Junior, Shapovalov. He impresses me a lot and reminds me Rod Lever. Also, about current players, I really think that Murray can do it, especially if he stays with Lendl. Djokovic has seemed to be weaker than before for several months and even a player like Stan Wawrinka could become #1.   Mehdi Daouki: What are the key characteristics to reach the top 10 according to you? Mustapha Belkhodja: To me, personality is paramount. If you give Nadal’s personality to a player like Gasquet, I am convinced that he would be unstoppable. About Gasquet, you see with his attitude and body language that he doesn’t have enough character. It really is too bad. Also, emotional stability seems very important to me. Most of current best players are married. It is, according to me, what is missing to a player like Dimitrov to reach the top 10. Finally, tactic is essential. As you can see, nowadays, most of top 10 payers have the same technique, so what differentiates them is their tactical sense.   Mehdi Daouki: What about the key characteristics of a top coach? Mustapha Belkhodja: Coaches’ work is really hard. Tennis is an individual sport and all great players have in common to be unbearable. Look at Murray, only Lendl managed to really channel his energy. A coach must be an amazing and comprehensive person. En addition to being able to endure and support this kind of behaviour, he also has to become a trusty confidant for his player as he is probably the closest person to him. So either a coach accepts the behaviour and find an alternative way to express his anger, but I don’t believe in this solution, or a coach also has a strong personality et manage to channel his player’s energy like Lendl. But how many coaches are able to do that?   Mehdi Daouki : Finally Mustapha, have you followed the recent news in tennis? Olympic Games, US Open, French team… Mustapha Belkhodja: Yes! Del Potro’s Olympics impressed me! His ability to change the way he used to play due to his physical issues is remarkable! His swing with slice spin is really bothering for his opponents. I actually think he might win the US Open, or at least to win a grand slam tournament again! Talking about the US Open, Monfils’ tournament is also impressive, maybe he also has a chance! He has a remarkable physical condition now that he is not injured anymore. He also changed his serving technique which, in my opinion, provides him more precision, power and regularity for it. Lucas Pouille frustrated me! (laughs). He played a hell of a game against Nadal and deserved to win, but I was expecting Nadal v Monfils so much in quarter final that I was frustrated. Pouille is only 22, he can achieve great things all the more thanks to his closer circle. I really like Planque, he is a good coach. Finally, French side for David Cup seems great. I think they can win it. Unfortunately, I don’t think Tsonga will be back on time but despite that, it remains a good team with that pair for the double which is currently the world’s best, in addition to Monfils and Pouille who are in a really good shape at the moment.   (NDLR. The interview was made before the US Open final) mustapha belkhodja mehdi daouki

Daouki Coaching & Mustapha Belkhodja « Yes, an African player could win a Grand Slam tournament, but… »

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