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Bombs and backhands: The life of a Pakistani tennis player

Updated Aug 20, 2015 07:36pm

Sitting in the shade at the change of ends, I towelled down my dripping forehead and took a prolonged sip of cold water.

“Just two more games,” I told myself as I made eye contact with my father, who was present courtside.

In the searing mid-day heat of July 2009, top-seed and fellow Lahore player Ushna Suhail and I had been battling away on the fast, cemented Court One of Karachi’s Creek Club in front of a crowd of about 20 people, my father and Ushna’s mom included.

The national ladies’ singles title was on the line – a first for either one of us.

I don’t remember doing much wrong that blustery day, a rare occurrence, considering my luck in the previous three finals. So, when my mid-court backhand slice drew an error into the net from Ushna’s racket, there was more relief than elation as I bagged my first national title.

It had been a long time coming.

I have been playing tennis for as long as I can remember, since the age of four to be precise. Growing up with two elder brothers, both decent players, and a keen father who introduced the sport to us, it was inevitable that I would get into it one way or another.

I have been playing tennis for as long as I can remember.
I have been playing tennis for as long as I can remember.

From sitting through five-set long Davis Cup home matches in my diapers, as I've been told, to inventing sports like ‘balloon tennis’, where you basically whack a balloon with your bare hands, and practicing against the backyard wall, I was always around the sport.

Little did I know as a four-year-old swinging away my 'junior', light blue wooden racket at sponge balls on the green lawns of Lahore Gymkhana Club, that I would be hitting tennis balls on a daily basis for so many years to come.

Getting up for drills at hours when most people are cozy in their beds, practicing in the afternoons, working out in the gym, travelling to tournaments all over the country, scheduling everything around tennis and repeating the routine everyday; this is the life that I chose for myself.

After a while you get used to the ugly tan lines on the arms, owning more tennis gear than formal clothes, the early morning wake-up calls, the long hours on the court and functioning like clockwork.

I was never in it for the money or the fame because when you’re spending three times the amount of the prize money to play a tournament, it all comes down to tennis being your passion and not really a profession.

As for the fame, tennis players in Pakistan are not exactly household names just because of the way the sports hierarchy works in this country. It took Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi a run to the US Open final and a win over Roger Federer in a doubles match to finally make a name for himself in a cricket-obsessed nation like ours.

Gruelling rallies

It’s funny the way the brain of a tennis player works. I can’t recall what I ate last week, but I know exactly which shot I hit or missed on match point some five, six years ago. Match scores are etched in my mind.

The 2009 National Clay Court semi-final in Islamabad is one that always comes to mind. Pakistan number one, Sarah Mahboob, had only lost one match on the national circuit ever since claiming the top spot in 2005.

I was two points away from recording my first win over Sarah in Karachi a year before, but squandered the opportunity. It was followed by a heart-breaking third set, tie-break loss to her the previous week in the National Hard Court final.

Tennis, with its individual nature, can be a very lonely sport.
Tennis, with its individual nature, can be a very lonely sport.

This time, leading 6-3 and 5-4, I reached match point. A perfectly executed backhand top-spin lob by Sarah denied me the second set and we were back on level terms. It felt like history was repeating itself all over again. I tried not to let the disappointment of dropping the second set get to me.

The Center Court at the Pakistan Tennis Federation (PTF) Complex began to fill up as the players on site sensed an upset brewing. We went toe to toe at each other, engaging in extended, gruelling rallies in the third set.

Another tie-break, and this time lady luck was on my side. A match that started in the afternoon finished under the rarely used floodlights as Sarah’s second serve landed long. It was an anticlimactic end to an otherwise high-quality match.

Having exhausted all my physical and emotional energy in getting that win, I was completely flat in the final against fourth-seed Sara Mansoor the following day, losing in straight sets. It wasn’t the result that I wanted but I was glad to see all my hard work, on and off the court, finally beginning to pay off.

I tried to hide my disappointment at the prize distribution. The four-hour drive back home on the motorway always seemed a bit longer after a loss. While my mom tactfully chose to remain silent in those situations, my dad was always ready with a post-match analysis laced with pep talk.

Losses are never fun. Some hurt more than others, especially since I am so hard on myself and national tennis in Pakistan can be so unforgiving at times that you can’t even bounce right back. Uncertain when the next tournament will come around, that extra time for self-reflection often does more damage than good.

Pictured here with Pakistan's most well-known tennis player Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi (second from left) It took Aisam a run to the US Open final and a win over Roger Federer in a doubles match to finally make a name for himself.
Pictured here with Pakistan's most well-known tennis player Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi (second from left) It took Aisam a run to the US Open final and a win over Roger Federer in a doubles match to finally make a name for himself.

Tennis, with its individual nature, can be a very lonely sport, especially if you are on the road all the time, which is why I was always glad to have at least one parent accompany me to tournaments. Both of them have played a huge role in my career. Their emotional, moral, physical and, not the least, financial support, is why I have been able to continue playing for so long.

I think I can say the same for almost all the other girls on the circuit. We might have changed coaches and practice partners or switched around rackets, but the one constant feature in our camps has been our parents – always courtside, taking off work to travel to tournaments, cheering us on, sitting in the heat through long matches and consoling us after tough losses.

Bombs, long lay offs

My coach Mohammad Khalid, a former national champion-cum-Davis Cupper, and I had just finished warming up on the first court at Model Town Club. We sat down for a quick chat and some water before we could start the drills. Suddenly a deafening noise shattered the club’s glass windows and a huge puff of black smoke rose high above in front of our eyes.

A vehicle carrying explosives had driven into a government agency’s office hardly a few hundred meters away from the club, leaving some of the debris on our court. Clearly shaken by what had just unfolded and uncertain if there was more to come, I cut short my practice and rushed home.

There have been a few near misses in Karachi too. While the 2006 suicide car bomb outside the Marriott Hotel only disrupted my pre-match practice at Karachi Gymkhana, the 2010 twin bomb sectarian attacks forced the organisers to schedule perhaps the earliest start to a ladies’ final in Pakistan history at Modern Club.

The country’s political instability and security situation have had far-reaching effects on all aspects of life and I have experienced, first-hand, the damage it has done to our tennis.

There have been no international tournaments in the country since 2008, no Davis Cup home ties since 2005, national team camps were regularly getting cancelled amid the election saga and tournaments postponed any time there is a security threat.

I think one of the biggest challenges is to stay motivated. Playing tennis in Pakistan will test your patience and perseverance like no European clay court could and when months go by without any tournaments to look forward to, it becomes harder and harder to force yourself to train everyday.

With the Fed Cup team.
With the Fed Cup team.
Uncertain when the next tournament will come around, that extra time for self-reflection often does more damage than good.
Uncertain when the next tournament will come around, that extra time for self-reflection often does more damage than good.

A financially handicapped federation, incapacitated by a shortage of sponsors, no outside support, as well as a lack of opportunities can all add up and wear you down. I would be lying if I said I never considered quitting the game. However, I am glad I talked myself out of it.

The obstacles make you appreciate the highs even more. International junior events were an annual feature in Pakistan, but in the winter of 2008, Islamabad hosted the first ever International Tennis Federation (ITF) women’s futures, the lowest rung of the professional circuit.

Players, mostly from the Asian region, made the trip and all of us local girls received wildcards into the main draw. After having flown across continents to Egypt and taken the bus to India, all self-funded trips, in search of much-needed international exposure and valuable rankings points, it was nice to have the foreign competition come to us for once.

The revival of the Federation Cup team in 2011, after a decade-long lapse, has been a very positive move for women’s tennis in Pakistan. For me personally, there is nothing more satisfying as an athlete than to be able to represent your country and wear your national colours on the international stage.

I have been fortunate enough to do it for three years.

Making the team the first year is one of my proudest tennis memories. I was involved in a typical three-set tussle with my old rival and good friend Sara Mansoor on the only hard court at the PTF Complex. The winner was certain of a place in the four-member squad going to Bangkok later that month.

I recall not being able to sleep too well the night before, and having difficulty eating breakfast. When the occasion means so much to you, anxiety and nerves take over. I have been at the receiving end of that nervous energy more times than I would have liked throughout my career.

However, I overcame whatever emotions I was feeling that day, the weight of my own expectations, a determined opponent and a minor choke at the end to cement my place in the team.

For me personally, there is nothing more satisfying as an athlete than to be able to represent your country and wear your national colours on the international stage.
For me personally, there is nothing more satisfying as an athlete than to be able to represent your country and wear your national colours on the international stage.

The drive back home, with my father besides me, was especially memorable because, as much as I realised my own ambition of making the national team, I knew at the back of my head, that I was living out my dad’s dream too. We had a come a long way from the little, blue wooden racket and sponge ball days.

With history being made, there was a big hype around the team's departure.

It was interesting to see reporters flock in for interviews at Lahore’s Bagh-e-Jinnah during our training camp. I think we were all out of our comfort zones with multiple cameras and microphones documenting our practices and every move. At the same time, it was nice to finally get the recognition.

Our results in the Asia/Oceania Zone's group II have been far from spectacular. Pakistan’s best showing since 2011, has been a modest sixth position out of eight nations. I think it’s a lot to expect from a team, mostly comprising of girls who play within the country, to outshine their more seasoned and well-travelled opponents.

For now, we can be thankful the federation has enough faith to continue sending the girls each year. That experience alone may bear fruit in the future.

Priceless memories on the road

While tennis has allowed me to travel to some beautiful places around the world, the opportunity to explore my own country has greater meaning for me. The higher altitude and gravelly clay of Islamabad took some time to get used to, while Karachi with its fast hard courts and humidity has always been a happy hunting ground for me.

The Chenab Club in Faisalabad, which provides hospitality to the players, is one of the nicer venues on the national circuit. The Khyber Cup, played on the grass courts of the Pakistan Air Force base, hosts players, as well at its officer’s mess. But there's always that added anxiety travelling to Peshawar considering how the security situation in the city is perceived sitting miles away from it.

I couldn't have done it without the courtside support.
I couldn't have done it without the courtside support.

I was pleasantly surprised to find an international airport in Multan when I arrived in the city for the WAPDA inter-unit matches back in 2008 but it was the extremely hot weather that I did not appreciate.

When you’re not making a fortune, staying at sub-par rest houses and hotels becomes acceptable and out-of-town relatives, who host you during tournaments, seem like a blessing.

I love how we are always able to have a good laugh and get dinner together even after a hard-fought battle.
I love how we are always able to have a good laugh and get dinner together even after a hard-fought battle.

Taking weeks off from school and then later juggling under-graduate, self-study with tennis meant I had to lug around books along with my rackets wherever I went. I was forced to learn the art of time-management by completing assignments and squeezing in some reading on the 30-minute drive to the club and also between matches.

I have also made a lot of friends along the way. The familiar faces and friendships on tour make competing fun and being away from home bearable.

Despite all the rivalries, we have a mutual respect for one another. I love how we are always able to have a good laugh and get dinner together even after a hard-fought battle. With already such a small tennis circle, the last thing you want is animosity rearing its ugly head.

I have devoted a lifetime to this sport, logged many miles on the road, hit countless tennis balls, won and lost matches. I might have the silverware and flattering newspaper headlines to show for it but it’s the priceless memories and the incredible experiences that I value the most.

I wouldn’t think twice if I had to go back in time and do it all over again.