The reigning Kings of Doha are the pride of Qatar in beach volleyball. Ahmed Tijan and Cherif Younousse won the King of the Court Finals in January in front of their home crowd, they are once again one of the favorites for the first title in the new year. 2022 was a great year for the couple from Qatar, never finishing outside the top-9 in any tournament. Together with Cherif we look back at that successful season, we look forward to the Olympic qualification and of course we talk about the King of the Court Finals in Doha, starting on January 11th at the Aspire Zone.
How do you look back at the 2022 season?
“It was a tough season. It also was positive, because at the beginning of the last season we started as the world number 1 and we are number 2 now. There were some ups and downs, but we are happy to be back.”
“We started really good at the beginning of the season. Then there were some tough moments for us after our win in Rosarito. We were second in Jurmala, thereafter we missed the chance to be on the podium in the World Champs. We know we weren’t really playing well, but to finish in the top-10 every time is most important. Good points.”
“After that we started to play well, winning the Maldives and we finished third in South Africa. That’s the most important, to every time be one of the best. It was hard, but we did it. We are looking forward to next year, but it will be even more tough.”
There are a lot of top teams at the moment, it is difficult to always get a top-10 position. Every team you play, they will have the crosshairs on you, because you are the team-to-beat. How do you cope with the pressure?
“The level now is so high, each game that you play, whether you play pool phase, or first round, it could be a final. It is hard mentally to handle. We are looking forward to it, it’s going to be a battle. Everyone focusses on you. It’s a tough job, but we are born to play like that.”
“To reach the top, that’s easy. You will have a few good tournaments and you’re there. But to stay there, that’s the difficult job. We just focus on playing good beach volleyball. That’s the most important. Not to win, the most important is to play well. Then the results will come. And you help yourself to not put too much pressure on yourself. It’s a job that even our coach still reminds us of. He said that he doesn’t care if we win or lose, most important is that we play good. Then the results will come. That’s what happened in 2021. We didn’t say we have to go to the Olympics, we said: we have to improve some things in our game. We did that and you saw the results, bronze in Tokyo. We were boom, up. That is the main thing.”
You guys started last season with a win in the King of the Court Finals in Doha, in front of your own crowd. What was the experience like?
“It was really fun. We saw that all the people were watching, and it was an entertaining event. Everybody loved it and was proud of us that we won it. There was no pressure in that event, I came one day before, I was on vacation. I came to have fun. It’s a really fun format, I love it.”
“Relaxation is one of the keys. Because our job is really tough. Traveling all the time, you don’t have time for family. It needs a lot of sacrifice, so we need to relax and just play. We all know how to play this game. It’s a mental game, that’s the difference between the teams.”
In the final last year, especially the last round, all opponents kept serving Ahmed. He scored ten points in the final round. How was that for you guys? It almost seemed like they made it easy for you.
“I don’t know what they were thinking. He was more ready than me, because he was there two weeks before the event, practicing. Maybe they thought I was in shape, but I managed. When they played me, I played it in a simple way. It’s a different format, you don’t have to side-out and then serve and run to the net. It’s just side-out after side-out. It’s easier to see the court, make a system and score. If you are smart it’s going to be easy for you.”
What will it take for you guys to win KOTC Finals again?
“It’s going to be a proud moment. It’s going to be a good challenge for us. It’s going to be tough, I don’t know how many top teams will come. We’re looking forward to be 100% and enjoy the lovely format, the atmosphere.”
“You need to be the best server, you need to be the best side-outer. It’s hard for everyone. The most important thing is the serving and side-out. For me it’s tough to say who will win, the best servers, they will win the event for sure. There’s no tactic, you can’t study anything. Because you don’t have time. You need to get in there and then learn quickly how the teams play. It’s hard to say who is the best team, because in every King of the Court event since it started, there is a different champion. The champion of this event will not be the champions of the next. Everything is changing, it’s hard to say who is the best.”
You guys played Hamburg, reached a 5th place. How difficult was it to get to the final again?
“It’s difficult, because you have to learn to play against the clock, then you have to focus on your side-out. It was really challenging because there were a lot of good teams too. It takes a lot of you physically; you need to be 100 %. Your cardio has to be ready. Everything is rotating so quick, especially in the last round with the best three teams. That is the most difficult part. No time to rest. The most interesting is the beginning, you have a few times to be there and you have to exploit it. After that you’ll have time, but the beginning is the most difficult part.”
“It’s a rush, the clock, it’s hard to keep calm. especially if you are the home team, you don’t want to be out in the first round. The adrenaline is so high, it’s hard to calm yourself.
You’re a fun team to watch, is that important for you, to also entertain?
“Yeah, the fun is the most important. It is the main key to play well. Because you can see when we don’t play well, we are not having fun. But once we are having fun, we are doing good. We are trying to keep that energy and that fire. That’s the main key, we are doing our best every time. It’s a fun sport.”
But in the meantime, Olympics are coming, stakes get higher, you can earn more money, people are expecting things. How do you keep having fun?
“We’re having fun, but we are focused. Because we really want it. It’s an Olympic year, people behind us are expecting something. So do we. We have to go and get it. As an Olympic medalist from previous games, so everybody is expecting for us to take gold in the next event. Actually, it’s every tournament we play now. Everybody is expecting us to be at least in the semifinal. It’s fun at the same time, but also very stressful. We are professional though, we know when to have fun and to be serious. We know how to handle it very well. It’s going to be a special Olympic qualification year, because there are a lot of new young teams, playing fast. It’s going to be interesting.”
“We are lucky to be able to adapt to every team that we are up against. We beat Åhman and Hellvig in Maldives, also in some previous tournaments. We lost against them in South Africa. For us they fit well because they play physically. And physically we are ready. It’s not a big deal for us. They are physical, we are physical. They are fast, we are fast. We can adjust every time. Our main power is the physical. Physically we are ready, we can play anyone.”
For the 2023 season, most important is Olympic qualification. When will it start for you?
“The first tournament is going to be here in Doha. After King of the Court there will be the Pro Tour Finals and then Elite-16. The season will start here in Doha. Three tournaments in a row. It’s a good start to host in Doha, we don’t have to travel. Just be at home, work hard and get ready for those events.”
Looking at the qualification, with all great teams that are on tour, what’s your chance at qualifying for Paris?
“Everyone has a chance to make it. In the last cycle you could kind of see which team would make it. Right now, all the teams are tough, everyone is really optimistic, the level is higher, and the game is getting faster. It’s going to be a bullet train; you need to get on board. If it’s gone, it’s gone. It will be hard for everyone.”
Final question, in all King of the Court interviews. If Ahmed would not be available for a King of the Court tournament, which international player would you like to team-up with?
“Wow, that will be tough. Haha. A lot of young players and a lot of good defenders. I would say maybe with Clemens Wickler. He’s a really good player.”
Cherif and Clemens Wickler in 2020 in Utrecht