A Touchtennis Titan: Interview with World No. 2 Arian Forouhandeh
Updated: Feb 3
A few months ago, I interviewed my personal friend and current touchtennis world no. 2 Arian Forouhandeh, who also goes by the name of Arian Pecci Fernandez and works as a GPS Analyst and Sports Scientist at Wolverhampton Wanderers F.C. The interview was conducted in Spanish, which I have transcribed into English for this post. If you would like to see the interview in Spanish, you can watch the video at the end of this post.
J: How does touchtennis differ from “normal tennis,” in other words, the game we all know? I bet it’s not easy getting used to playing on a much smaller court. Isn’t the ball different, too?
A: That’s right! Touchtennis is essentially a smaller version of tennis. It’s a game that we’re all used to playing from a young age with a smaller racquet and a sponge ball. There’s a touchtennis tour that takes place all over the world. It’s played a lot in Spain, France, Italy, India, and America.
In terms of the main differences between touchtennis and tennis, the court is smaller; you only get one [attempt to] serve, whereas you get two in tennis, so if you don’t land your first serve, you’ll lose the point; points are much quicker, since the smaller court means that the game is played at a much greater intensity; and the points are a bit shorter.
There’s a very big difference between good players and not so good players in tennis, but in touchtennis, because the ball is made of sponge and doesn’t travel so quickly, you can also adapt to it more easily. Also, there’s only one serve, and serving is harder, since the service box is smaller, and let doesn’t exist in touchtennis, so if you serve and the ball touches the centre strap, the point continues. In addition, touchtennis has deuce, but there’s no advantage, so whoever wins the next point wins the game. Moreover, the first to six games wins the set in tennis, while the first to four games wins the set in touchtennis. When the score reaches 4-4, there’s a tie-break, but it’s the first to five points. As usual, you must change sides while serving, so the rules are the same as tennis in that respect.
So, it’s a faster game, and the players are always desperate to play and have a smile on their face… I first played it when I was at university, because there was a tournament in Liverpool where I was studying. I was asked to play, I’d read a lot about touchtennis, so I played, and I loved it. Tournaments last the whole day, on Saturdays or Sundays. Everyone there had a smile on their face all day long, playing points, playing in tournaments, plus I earned a bit of money from it, so I said to myself: “I can get used to this.” Then, I gradually rose up the rankings, playing tournaments in Spain – I did one in Valladolid last year – France, Italy, in all countries, which I really loved.
The guy who invented touchtennis is from London. He started playing it in his garden with his daughter. He started doing it because he wanted to be world no. 1 in a particular sport – it didn’t matter which sport – so he started saying he was touchtennis world no. 1, because no one else was playing it [at the time]. But, slowly but surely, more people started to play it until it became popular enough that it was broadcast on Sky Sports, so it’s been incredible witnessing the growth of this sport. That’s why I was making videos during lockdown, because not many people could play tennis – not many people have a tennis court in their garden – but it’s quite easy to play touchtennis, because the court is smaller, so all you need to do is get a net and put it up in your garden. You can play touchtennis anywhere. You could play outside KFC, at Shire Oak (my secondary school in Walsall Wood, Walsall, England, which was also our home pitch when Arian and I played together for Shire Oak Hawks F.C.), on the road, everywhere.
J: That’s interesting! I didn’t realise that the sport had been broadcast live on Sky Sports, and I didn’t know either that it was so popular in all the countries you’ve mentioned. Would you also say that this sport is becoming increasingly popular in the UK?
A: It’s biggest in the UK; it first started in the UK, and there are tournaments all over in the UK, in London, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Liverpool… There are also tournaments in Scotland, Edinburgh… It’s been great to see how much the sports has grown in the UK, because tournaments are organised by people who actually play the game. If I wanted to, I could organise a tournament right here in Birmingham, outside, in a park, wherever. People come to play from across the country. If I said “I’m organising a tournament that starts at 11 on Sunday morning,” people would come down to play from all over, from London, Liverpool, then we’d play all together in the park. There are usually one or two tournaments per month, and as we all do them together, we all know each other, but new people always take part in each tournament, and we all get on well, then they stay in these tournaments and carry on playing, because they enjoy it so much. It doesn’t cost a lot to play either; I’ve got a small tennis racquet, which cost me around £100/€100, but you can get a touchtennis racquet for about 15 or 20 quid, so it’s a cheap and easy game to play.
J: Where can you buy these racquets, because I haven’t seen them in the big sports shops in Britain?
A: You can buy everything on touchtennis.com, nets, balls, racquets, etc., and you keep getting new things year on year. You should also be able to find these things online or on Amazon if you type in “touchtennis” or “touchtennis racquets.” You can get official touchtennis racquets, which say “touchtennis” on them, but the rules don’t state that you have to play with one. If you play with a racquet that’s firm enough, then great, but if you try to get an actual touchtennis racquet, you should be able to buy them in many places.
J: I know you’ve been playing tennis for a long time, since we first met, in fact, but would you now say that you focus more on touchtennis or tennis? In other words, now that you’ve risen up the touchtennis world rankings, do you take touchtennis more seriously than tennis, or do you focus equally on each?
A: That’s a tough question. I’ve grown up playing tennis; I started playing when I was 7. My club is on my doorstep, I’ve been playing for it for 20 years. I’ve played for many years in tennis leagues, at university, etc., so I simply see touchtennis as a mini version of tennis, and it excites me. What also excites me about touchtennis is the fact that I have a world ranking. Tennis, meanwhile, is a massive sport; everyone plays it. It’s very difficult to become a professional tennis player. You might play tennis in the park or whatever, but it’s very difficult to reach that level. But what I like most about touchtennis is that you can play it absolutely anywhere. I don’t play it every day, but every time I play, I really enjoy it.
I remember three or four years ago, when I was around 2000th in the world, then I started moving up the rankings slowly but surely. I remember when I first made it into the top 100. I was delighted and wanted to continue rising up the rankings. Then I was in the top 50, then the top 25, then the top 20. This year, I even made it into the top 3, and you start to think that you’re making a name for yourself. There are people who train every week here in Walsall, and also in London, in preparation for the Grand Slams. We have a tournament this Sunday, the first since lockdown, so we’re all ready and prepared, and itching to play. So, coming back to your question, I treat touchtennis and tennis equally. I love tennis and touchtennis, but both sports bring me things that the other doesn’t. I love playing long tennis matches, but touchtennis matches are very short. However, you can easily qualify for other touchtennis tournaments and quickly rise up the rankings. Despite this, I still focus equally on both sports.
J: When I looked at the official world rankings a few days ago, I noticed that you were 7th in the world, which is very impressive. You must be proud of yourself.
A: Thank you! I never thought I’d be able to make it this far. Last year, I was around 20th, then 11th-15th, but I couldn’t get any higher. I went to Spain to play in a few tournaments, and I loved it, but I wasn’t playing at the top of my game, but then I took my game to that next level. I won some massive matches to do so. When I play like that and win a tournament, or reach the semi-finals, I know my opponents, and I know I can beat them. My friends and family can’t believe that I’m 7th in the world. Being 7th in the world in any sport is very impressive. When I say it like that, I love it, but we’ll have to see how I get on. If I do well this Sunday, I could go up to 6th or 5th. So, with a bit of luck, I’ll play well. The most difficult thing to do is get into the top 5, because they’re incredible players — ex-professional tennis players with ATP rankings. When they retire from tennis, at around the age of the 30, they admit that they can’t carry on playing at the same level, so they start playing touchtennis. When you’re playing touchtennis against them, it’s so difficult to hang on in there. In fact, I think the same players have been in the top 5 for two or three years now. No one else has managed to break into it. With a bit of luck, though, I may be able to change that. Let’s see!
J: It’s a challenge that will give you a reason to keep going and improving, plus you could argue, based on what you’ve just said, that you’re the best non-professional in the game, according to the rankings.
A: Well, there are about four or five of us who keep swapping positions in the rankings and are trying really hard to break into that top 5. Slowly but surely we’re getting closer to the top 5, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to get there.
J: Another thing I wanted to ask you about was what it’s like to play tennis one day, then touchtennis several days later. Given the differences mentioned, in terms of the size of the ball, the dimensions of the court and the speed of the game, it must be very difficult to adapt.
A: They’re very different games. When I played in my first ever touchtennis match, I couldn’t land a single shot on the court. The difference between the two is unbelievably big, because tennis courts are much bigger and tennis balls fly more, because they’re heavier, so when you suddenly start playing with a sponge ball, it suddenly becomes more difficult to get it to come down. I’ve been playing tennis a lot lately, but I also had to make sure that I’ve played quite a bit of touchtennis before this Sunday, because if I get to the tournament without having played any touchtennis in the build up to it, I’ll really struggle. I’ll have to start doing ball exercises an hour before my first match starts for me to get used to the game again, the ball, the spin, changes in direction. Switching between tennis and touchtennis is not easy at all. I don’t think I’d be able to play both games on the same day and do well in a match. I just can’t see how I would be able to play well in both a tennis and touchtennis game straight after each other. I might be able to play well in one, but definitely not in the other, too; I wouldn’t be able to adapt. I’d need to give myself a bit of time beforehand. Some find it easier to switch between the two, but I find it very difficult.
J: I suppose you’ll find it easier to switch between the two as you gain more experience, even though it will still be difficult.
A: Yes! I’ve been playing both games for several years now, so if I compare how I was when I played my first touchtennis game to now, I’ve definitely improved in that respect. Like I said, I couldn’t even land a ball on the court during my first ever touchtennis match, so that proves how difficult it is, but I’m fine now. I still hit the ball out of the court a few times, when I first start playing, but I’m okay now. Getting your mentality right is also tough. Touchtennis matches are much faster, so if you start slowly, you could lose the first set within two minutes. So, you must be fully focused from the outset. The first game in tennis could last 5-7 minutes, but you could lose a whole set in touchtennis in that time, so you need to be on the ball very quickly.
J: I bet both games are also very different, tactically speaking.
A: For example, you can easily win a game on serve in tennis, but in touchtennis, moving up to the net and landing a volley in the court is very difficult, because the court is much smaller, so your opponent will hit the ball right at you with a lot of pace, knowing that it’s very difficult to play in the mid-court. The court is much smaller, so it’s harder to play a drop shot, since you can cover more of the court. Tactically speaking, both games are very different, but your tactics will be adapted to your opponent. The world no. 1 touchtennis player has an incredible serve. You wonder how he will get the ball to come down when he holds the racquet so high above his head, but as soon as he makes contact, the ball has gone over the net, so it’s difficult to return his serves. But he’s a big lad. Meanwhile, other players who are shorter will stay at the backcourt, so your tactics truly depend on your opponent.
J: Thank you for your very detailed answers. I already thought that the differences we’ve discussed between both games would translate into significant tactical differences, but I didn’t expect them to be so big. I’ve also seen that your nickname is “Forehand”. Why do people call you that?
A: They call me that because they don’t know how to say my last name (Forouhandeh).
J: Of course, yes!
A: I’ve actually been called the “Gag Smasher” of late. In a tournament in Valladolid last year, I hit a smash high above my head about four times, but couldn’t finish off the point. He kept returning the ball above my head, which was just waiting to be hit about eight or nine times, but I ended up losing the point. Everyone says that I really struggle when the ball comes to me high above my head, so that’s where the name “Gag Smasher” came from. They also call me “Forehand” because I always feel that I’ll come out on top during an exchange of forehand strokes. I never really think that I’ll make any errors with my forehand, so my opponents have to change their tactics, because I feel most comfortable playing with my forehand. But really, they call me “Forehand” because of my last name.
J: It’s much easier, because we know that Brits can’t speak foreign languages very well, so it’s almost impossible for them to pronounce a name like yours.
A: Every time I go out onto the court, they introduce me as “Arian Forehand.”
J: I also wanted to ask you about what you’ve been doing to keep fit during the pandemic, because you haven’t been able to play against opponents. So, what have you been doing to maintain your physical fitness and keep up your tennis skills?
A: It’s been a tough time for all of us. In terms of keeping up my fitness levels, the first two months were the hardest, because you’re used to doing something every day, not staying in all day without being able to do anything. All you could do was go out for a walk or something once a day. However, I’m fortunate in the sense that I’ve got a net at home and a garden, as well as a sister who also plays tennis. She’s young – she’s only 17/18 – but we’ve been playing together, since we’ve both got racquets, so I haven’t lost that feel for the ball. We’ve been playing touchtennis in the back garden almost every day. We’ve also been doing exercises in the garden, because we don’t have a gym, we don’t have anything else. So, we’ve been doing what we can in the garden, going running every day, doing 5-10 Km.
Keeping up your fitness is more important than anything else, because touchtennis is played at an incredibly high intensity — points are played much quicker. You don’t have time for a breather after each point. Because there’s no social or physical contact in tennis – one player is on one side of the net, while their opponent is on the other side – we were lucky after those two months, since the government decided to re-open tennis courts. When they were re-opened, we were playing three or four times a week at the club. Now that we’ve started playing again, we’re desperate to be involved in competitive matches, so everyone who wants to play on Sunday has realised just how difficult this time has been. It will be interesting to see what shape some of the players are in on Sunday.
J: I’ve also seen on the official touchtennis website that you’re criticised for wearing short shorts. Do you think that this is something that annoys your opponents, or is it a deliberate tactical ploy?
A: I compared myself to Rafael Nadal at first. He used to wear short shorts, so I decided to do the same. I remember when I played in my first touchtennis tournament, and it was clear that people hadn’t seen anyone play in such short shorts before. I like doing it and I can get away with it, because I’ve got darker skin and I’m Spanish, so I can show off my legs. Every time I turn up at a tournament, I can see people chuntering to themselves “here he is again with his short shorts,” so I’ve already got them thinking about something other than the game. Every time I change sides, I tell myself that they can’t move around the court as well as me, because my legs are freer: “You can’t move around the court as well as me with those long shorts on.” It was more of a question of style at first, but people were talking about it, so I thought to myself: “I can get inside people’s heads if I carry on doing this.” It was genuinely to do with style at first – my shorts are white with a bit of black and blue on them – but people were wondering why I was wearing them, so I’d say: “You’ll see.”
J: Anything that gets inside your opponent’s head will make life more difficult for them, and that’s the case in all the sports I’m familiar with, so why not get any advantage you can you.
I don’t have any more questions about touchtennis, but because I love sport in general, particularly football, and because we used to play together in the same team, and despite my passion for their fiercest rivals, I have to ask you about your role at the Wolverhampton Wanderers F.C. academy, which is a very impressive role, may I add. So, I wanted to ask you what your role entails and how you have used the knowledge and skills that you gained at university, because you studied Sports Science, of course. Also, how’s your work going? Do you really enjoy it?
A: I’ve spent I-don’t-know-how-many years working to get the type of job I currently have. I wanted to do exactly what I’m doing now when I was 16. I studied Sports Science in Liverpool and did a Master’s in Exercise Physiology in Nottingham, but, after that, I always knew that I wanted to work for a professional club, physically preparing the players, etc.
I’ve been working for Wolves for a few years now, and I love it. I work with the under-18s, and they’re already professionals at that age. They train five days a week, sometimes playing one or two matches a week against the big teams: Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United… I get very excited about working with professional players every single day and preparing them physically, because they’re still very young — between 15 and 18. So, we must prepare them to deal with the intensity and what to expect in the first team. Our job is to help players develop who will end up playing in the first team or being sold [to other clubs]. They’re all very different; we have smaller players who need to work on their strength, while there are others who are strong, but can’t run, so we have to assess players individually and work out what we can do for them to help them improve in every aspect. So, our job is to improve the players on a daily basis, as well as to try to prepare them to win on Saturdays. We also try to get these players promoted to the under-23s, then the reserves, and, ultimately, the first team. That’s my job.
J: So, would you say that you use all the skills you learnt at university, and that you’ve learnt a lot more on the job?
A: It’s exactly what I’d already been doing for five or six years. I was in Liverpool for three years doing it, then I did at again at Nottingham during my Master’s, without which I wouldn’t be where I am today. But experience is the most important thing of all when you’re looking to get a job like this. Without experience, you can’t work at a professional football club or do a job like this. For example, I did three year’s voluntary work. I was a volunteer at Nottingham Forest to start with, where I didn’t earn a penny, but I gained a lot of experience. I then worked as a volunteer with the US Olympic hockey team, where I also gained a lot experience. That’s what impressed Wolves when I went there for my interview, because I already had real-life experience of working with players and helping them improve. It doesn’t matter what you can do on paper, or what you’ve learnt at university, because you won’t be going anywhere without experience. You must gain experience and keep learning. I definitely got the job because of my experience. 100%.
J: It’s clear that you’ve gained a wealth of experience in your field, particularly working with the US Olympic hockey team. That must have been very interesting, and you were extremely lucky to do that.
A: I was extremely lucky to get the chance to work with the hockey team. I was in Nottingham, and my lecturer said: “I have a job you can do for a few months across the whole of Europe with the US hockey team.” They wanted a Sports Science student to go with them and accompany them on their tour of Germany, Belgium, all European countries, Great Britain… The two months that I spent away with the team were incredible. I’d need to spend an hour thinking about what I did during that time, and I was so fortunate to play with sportspeople at such a high level. I wasn’t just working with players from a normal team; I was working with Olympians, who play at the very highest level. It was so amazing to work with such a big and professional team. But I always tell people that they don’t have to get experience working with the very best; you can get experience anywhere. You could work for your local club. It all counts. I was very lucky to work with such a big team, but I got that opportunity through my work with a local team. My professor came to me and said: “I’ve been watching the great things you’ve been doing with this team.” So, you have to start somewhere, then you can work your way up.
J: It’s true that you have to start somewhere, but there’s no doubt that you’ve had some wonderful experiences that are much better than you could ever have imagined.
A: The experiences I’ve had have been unforgettable, and I’ve been very lucky. They’re not “normal” experiences, and I’ve been very fortunate. But, like I’ve already said, get any form of experience you can, because people will remember you and what you’re doing, so they’ll go to you first, then you’ll steadily work your way up. But I have to admit that my experiences were very good and that I was very lucky.
J: I’m very pleased that you’ve had such wonderful experiences, because you deserve it, mate.
M: Thank you very much!
J: To finish, I have a very, very important question to ask you, now that you work for Wolves. We already know that you support Walsall and Real Madrid, but would you also now consider yourself a Wolves fan?
M: I knew you’d ask me that!
J: You already know the right answer to that question (I support West Brom, in case you didn’t already know). If you give me the wrong answer, we’re not friends anymore. No, I’m only joking!
M: Are you saying that we’re no longer friends if I say “yes”?
J: No, no, no. I’m only joking, of course.
A: My heart will always be with Real Madrid; my family, my Dad, my Granddad, everyone supports Madrid. Also, because of the relationship I have with Walsall – it’s my local team and I know one of the coaches there – I’ll always follow them. But when I first started at Wolves, I thought I wouldn’t care less whether they won or lost, but lately, when I’ve been watching Wolves games, I feel happy when they score. I always jump up when they score. So, I must say that I’m a Wolves fan now.
J: What’s happened to you, mate?
A: I work for the club, so the better the Wolves do, the better I feel.#
J: Right, I’ll think of you in two weeks when we’ve got the Black Country derby, but you already know that I hate Aston Villa more than Wolverhampton Wanderers, because I can’t stand their supporters. We already know that we can’t recover from our current situation – we’re already heading back down to the Championship – but doing the double over Wolves would make me extremely happy.
A: You’re right, because you beat us at Molineux, didn’t you? In fact, it’s been a long time since Wolves beat West Brom?
J: It was a long time ago.
A: Wolves have had a lot of injuries this season. We’ve lost Raúl Jiménez, now Neto, Rui Patrício, Jonny again. We’ve lost many players after last season, which was difficult because of the Europa League. But this game is a very unique game. It’s not a league match; it’s about the Black Country. Points go out of the window in these games.
J: We’ll have to see what happens.
A: So, thank you very much for this interview. I’ve learnt a lot about touchtennis and your job, which is very interesting. So, thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me today about all these things.
J: Thank you very much for the invitation, Jae.