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.