Interview: King of grass

Published October 3, 2010

Before September 15, 2010 Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi had never been mobbed by an adoring crowd. In fact, when I met him for an interview six months ago, barely a soul noticed the presence of a world top-50 (doubles) tennis player in their midst. But when he landed in Lahore after a historic run at the US Open, Aisam was taken aback by the throngs of supporters gathered to greet him. Traditionally, that is something reserved for the cricket team.

“When I left New York after the US Open, my parents told me to be prepare for a grand welcome but I never really expected so many people to turn up. I was overwhelmed to see all the media, security and well was certainly an emotional moment.”

In the summer of 1993, Aisam first played a tennis match at an Under-14 tournament in Lahore. Backed by his mother Nausheen Ihtsham, a national tennis champion herself, Aisam initially picked up the racquet as an excuse to stay away from homework. However, as his interest in the game deepened, his training and practice regimen gained momentum and soon Aisam was winning national championships one after the other.

“When I was 17, my father wrote to the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and asked them to consider me in the 10 young players they pick annually for training.”

The ITF answered the call and the subsequent training helped Aisam break into the world top 100 ITF juniors. Towards the end of the year (1997), he was seventh in the ITF rankings and on top of the rankings in Asia.

“This is where things started changing. I got sport scholarship offers from Stanford, Tennessee, Texas, etc, but my father said, 'Why don't you stay here and just play tennis?' and that is when I became a full-time professional tennis player.”

For the last 12 years, Aisam has been Pakistan's top representative on the ATP circuit. While he proudly represents Pakistan in the Davis Cup, the Commonwealth Games and other international events, his absence from local events is often questioned.

“I must play international tournaments to maintain my ranking which is why I'm out of Pakistan during the season and when I come back, there are no events happening here.”

Aisam has been playing back-to-back ATP Challenger tournaments to improve his ranking ever since he turned pro in 1998, but he first made headlines in 2002, when he paired with Israeli player Amir Hadad at Wimbledon Championships.

Despite progressing to the third round of tennis's most prestigious tournament, Aisam was slammed by local media and the Pakistan Tennis Federation banned him from representing Pakistan based on his partner's nationality. The decision was eventually reverted but the disappointment still lingers for Aisam. “Actually, I was expecting a letter of appreciation from the federation for my performance.”

After Wimbledon, the pair went on to qualify for second round of the US Open, where they were presented the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award for playing together despite pressure from their communities.

While Aisam has been making strides at Wimbledon ever since, his life-changing moment came at a much less hyped tournament in Basel, Switzerland, last November. It was at the ATP Swiss Indoors when Aisam and his doubles partner James Cerritani beat world number one Roger Federer and Marco Chiudinelli. Apart from beating the tennis great, he also managed to beat Pakistan's cricket and hockey teams to the headlines that day.

“The night before the match, I asked God to give me this win. I thought that this guy has everything. A loss wouldn't matter to him much but for me, it could be a life-changing experience.”

From that day, Aisam's career journey has been a heady ride as he and his Indian doubles partner Rohan Bopanna have formed a formidable team on the ATP circuit.

“Rohan is my best friend on the ATP tour.”

Initially, Aisam received some criticism for pairing up with a so-called arch rival but that did not deter the 30-year-old.

“Indians are my best friends on tour because we speak the same language, eat the same food and have the same culture so we hang out together.”

The 'IndoPak Express' (Aisam and Rohan) are now the sixth best doubles team in the world, following their record-breaking run at the US Open.

“Before the US Open began, Rohan and I had already beaten the world number one pair of Bob and Mike Bryan, so we were really confident of having a successful run in New York.”

The pair also carried the confidence of a quarter-final finish at this year's Wimbledon.

“Reaching the quarters at Wimbledon gave us a huge confidence boost and made us realise we were grand-slam material.”

The duo are now aiming to participate at the ATP World Finals in London at the end of the year.

“Since US Open was the last grand slam of the year, our focus is now to qualify for the finals and we have a pretty good chance of doing that. The top eight doubles teams qualify for the tournament and we are currently ranked sixth. So if we maintain our rankings for another couple of months, we will be playing at the high-profile tournament.”

As far as his individual plans go, Aisam is currently eying gold at the upcoming Commonwealth Games in India.

Despite coming from a family that supported his ambitions, Aisam realises that young tennis aspirants face the dilemma of indecision. “Their families need to understand that tennis can be a professional career choice too. My aim has always been to win laurels for the country and promote the game here and I think I have finally managed to make an impact.”

(1) Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi play a mens double match against Michael Kohlmann and Jarkko Nieminen during day five of the 2010 US Open —AFP

(2) Aisam-ul-Haq returns a shot during the mixed doubles finals at the US Open in New York — AP Photo

(3, 4) Aisam-ul-Haq returns the ball to Marat Safin a during the second round of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships —AFP Photo



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