For the last two decades, Pakistan tennis has revolved around two names: Aisamul Haq and Aqeel Khan. Both are now 41. And as witnessed during the recent Davis Cup tie in Islamabad between Pakistan and Japan, the duo’s performance is not what it used to be. They were easily beaten by Japan’s second-, rather third-string players. Pakistani tennis fans are now waiting for new talent that can take their place.

Asad Zaman, who recently won the national boys’ under-14 title, has the potential to be the next Aisam, according to Punjab Lawn Tennis Association’s Secretary Rashid Malik, himself a former national champion and Davis cupper.

Asad Zaman’s is a fascinating story, too. Lahore’s historic and sprawling Bagh-e-Jinnah, formerly known as Lawrence Gardens — which also houses the beautiful cricket ground where Test matches were staged before the construction of the Qaddafi Stadium — also has two tennis courts. Apart from the Punjab Tennis Academy, supervised by Rashid Malik himself, the private Cosmopolitan Club also has courts for its members.

“My father worked as a ball-picker at the tennis courts of Cosmo Club,” says Asad. “Later, my elder brother replaced him as I myself started working as a waiter at the club. Watching members play tennis there, I developed an interest for the game. Then my brother and I swapped jobs and I became the ball-picker. In that role I would also play with those waiting at the courts for their opponents or friends,” he explains.

Asad Zaman has been a club waiter and a ball-picker on tennis courts. But by virtue of a consuming passion for tennis, hard work and extraordinary talent, he is now on his way to take the world of sport by storm

As his game improved, Asad began playing in age group competitions. “Mr Rashid Malik saw me winning an under-10 tournament at the Punjab Tennis Academy. Soon, I was attending a coaching camp at the academy, and my game improved a lot, too. I was featuring in more junior tournaments while also working as a ball-picker. But there were times, too, when I had to skip outstation events because of financial reasons.

“My confidence soared when I won the Punjab under-12 title, closely followed by the national under-12 title,” he beams. “It led to my selection for the national team leaving for a junior tournament in Thailand. But I missed that opportunity, as my passport couldn’t be readied in time. At the next national under-12 in 2018, I retained the title, defeating all the three players who had gone to Thailand.”

­Then the sponsorship arrived. “Next, I moved to under-14. Here, too, it didn’t take long for me to taste success. In a local tournament in 2020, I defeated Bilal Asim, Pakistan’s No. 1 under-14 player in the semis, and went on to win the final.

“Meanwhile, I gave up my ball-picker’s job to devote more time to my game. It was just school and tennis for me from then onward, though it did cause some financial hardships at home. Help arrived. Mr Rashid Malik negotiated a sponsorship deal with McDonald’s for me,” he says, adding that the sponsors have been very generous. “Since the start of 2021, they have been catering for all my tennis requirements, such as rackets, balls, shoes, apparel, etc.”

What Asad needs is proper exposure. The teenage years, for a tennis player, are extremely important. It is a time when a rough diamond can be polished into a gem.

Asad says that this past January, he experienced his most memorable victories. “At the Millat Tractors National Junior Ranking Tournament in Lahore in January, I faced the higher-ranked Husnain Ali Rizwan in the under-14 final. It turned out to be a cliffhanger. But in the decisive third set, I managed to win 12-10. Then, in early March, I won the under-14 title in another national ranking tournament. In the final of the Hush Puppies Junior Tournament, again, I downed my opponent in three sets after losing the opening set,” he says.

With proud coach Rashid Malik after winning the national U-14 championships
With proud coach Rashid Malik after winning the national U-14 championships

He is now ranked Pakistan’s No. 1 tennis player in his age group. Asad gives a lot of credit to Rashid Malik for it. “Malik Sahib has been my mentor as well as my biggest support over the last many years. He is an excellent coach, who has really worked hard on my game,” he says.

Rashid Malik has himself won seven national titles between 1985 and 1992, missing out only in 1989 during this period, when he couldn’t appear because of an injury. Rashid believes Asad has the talent to go places.

“The international tennis scene is very competitive,” Malik points out. “What Asad needs is proper exposure. The teenage years, for a tennis player, are extremely important. It is a time when a rough diamond can be polished into a gem.

“Sania Mirza is the highest-ranked female player ever from South Asia, who reached world No. 27 in 2007. In 2000, she came to Pakistan for an under-14 event. She lost to Pakistan’s No. 1 Nida Wasim. Soon afterwards, I was assigned coach to a bunch of Asian under-14 players including Sania. We toured a few countries. There was nothing outstanding about her performance. Still, she was the best in India and attracted a lot of sponsorship as well as media attention during those formative years,” he says.

“It enabled Sania to make her debut on the ITF Circuit at just 15. Further international exposure improved her game. In 2003, she won the girls’ doubles title at Wimbledon and the rest is history.

“Our own Aisamul Haq is another case in point. At the same early stage of his career, there were at least three other Pakistani boys who were no less talented. Aisam was lucky in having supportive parents who could bear his expenses for playing on the international circuit.

“As for Asad, I desire to see him attend camps in other countries, where he can train with better players. Then he may enter international tournaments. All this requires finances, of course. Hopefully, some business houses will come forward to promote Pakistan’s great hope.”

The writer can be reached at ijaz62@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 4th, 2021

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