It is not a stretch to suggest that the tennis career of Omar Behrouzian began at the All England Club. Behrouzian was a small boy on summer vacation in England when his father, Khaled, who worked in London, took him to see matches at Wimbledon in the late 1980s. Young Omar was fascinated, particularly by the exploits of Stefan Edberg, the Swedish player. His parents noticed. For his sixth birthday he was given a tennis racket and has hardly put it down since, becoming the top player in the UAE, a status the 28-year-old resident of Dubai has held for almost a decade.
"My dad and some of my family members used to play and they used to go to London every summer for Wimbledon," he said. "They played just for fun. And when I was six, my dad bought me a racket, as a present. He wasn't really that serious about it. But it seems like I took to the game. So it all started with my dad. He is the one who encouraged me to start." In April, Behrouzian led the UAE Davis Cup team past Singapore and to promotion to Division III in the Asia-Oceania group. He also is the only Emirati ever to be ranked by the ATP Tour, reaching No 805.
He also an interesting character and concedes: "I always like to be different." He is a huge fan of Michael Jackson and never takes to the court without listening to a song from the late "King of Pop". His family support Manchester United but he prefers Arsenal. He has hit balls with Roger Federer, the winner of 16 grand slams, and played in the Dubai Open, but he said he is averse to risk. So, Michael Jackson?
"The passion about movies and songs, I am really not into it," he said. "Only Michael Jackson. He is like an inspiration to me. I have to listen to his songs before every match and it has been like that for a while and still remains, even though he has passed away." He said Jackson was "different" from other singers. "I am really not into music that much, but it's just that he sings with true feelings. That is why before every match I need something to get me going and I try to get motivation from listening to his songs."
After Jackson gets him going, he wears red Arsenal sweatbands on the court to celebrate what has been his favourite football team since the age of 11, when he saw the Gunners play Manchester United and decided to break with family unity and support Arsenal. Behrouzian's rise in tennis occurred soon after he got his first racket. He was hitting with his father when the UAE national team coach at the time, an Englishman who Behrouzian recalls only as "Rod Hotshot", saw him play. "I was very small, but I think he told my dad, 'I think he can be a good player, so bring him'."
He started practising with the national team at the Dubai Municipality courts when he was "six or seven" and has been a UAE fixture for two decades. Zeeshan Ali, his former coach, believes Behrouzian, 28, might have been able to achieve more in international tennis had he entered more tournaments when he was younger. The young Behrouzian always balanced academics with tennis, but the lack of exposure hindered his progress, said Ali, a former Davis Cup player for India.
"He has been an amazing student," Ali said. "He is extremely hard-working. But, unfortunately, what happened was that he was a bit short of exposure that he required and was needed, in terms of going out and playing more tournaments. "He was playing a lot of tournaments in the UAE itself, but between him and the next level from where he was, he needed to be out of the country playing the Challengers [competitions], more of the higher tournaments, for at least seven or eight months of the year."
Behrouzian said he does not regret the course of his career. He has brushed shoulders with some of the greats in the game thanks, in part, to wild-card invitations at tournaments in Dubai. He has practised with some of his favourite players, including Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati and Federer. "When I was six or seven, I would have dreamed of playing, for example, in the Dubai Open, or playing with Federer," he said.
"I feel that I am lucky, that God helped me out. Federer for us tennis players is, like, the icon. I mean, not a lot of people get a chance to practise with him for three days in a row," he said. "That's when I felt I was a tennis player, playing with maybe the best player in history. In a few years, he is going to be even bigger, maybe the biggest player in history. To be on the same court with him, to practise with him, is something you can never forget."