When I met him in March 2010, Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi had just finished his first media campaign for a leading multinational beverage; entered the ATP doubles top-50 for the first time in his career and had beaten Roger Federer (and a partner) in a doubles match. Two years on, he is the closest competition Shahid Afridi has among Pakistani sports fans.
In the two-year period in-between, Qureshi was busy making tennis history with his doubles partner from India, Rohan Bopanna. Together they reached the Wimbledon 2010 quarterfinals, broke into the top 20 men’s doubles rankings and most prominently, entered the final of the US Open in 2010. Qureshi became the first Pakistani to enter the final of a grand slam tournament, when he and his mixed doubles partner Kveta Peschke, of the Czech Republic, faced Bob Bryan and Liezel Huber at the Arthur Ashe Stadium on September 9, 2011.
Qureshi and Bopanna, better known as the IndoPak Express, topped their brilliant run by qualifying to play the ATP Tour Finals at London’s O2 Arena in December, where they were also presented the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award.
How did it happen? While he terms the US Open stint a ‘turning point’ in his life, Qureshi credits the 2009 match against Federer as the real game-changer.
“Life took a turn after that match,” he says.
“It gave me a great deal of confidence and made me believe that I can be among the top players.”
Qureshi’s speech at the post-match ceremony of the men’s doubles final, which had close to 60,000 YouTube hits at last count, made him a house-hold name in Pakistan. “It was great for Pakistan tennis.”
Another YouTube hit featuring Qureshi was his post-engagement dance video. He decided to get hitched in the summer and finally tied the knot with his two-year (according to the man) sweetheart Faha Akmal Makhdum in a grand, four-day ceremony in Lahore. [To watch an on-court video of a beaming newly-wed Qureshi and his wife, click here.]
The split The IndoPak Express’s much talked-about journey came to a sudden halt late last year, when Bopanna decided to change partners and pair up with an Indian player to prepare for the London Olympics. Bopanna’s decision, Qureshi says, caught him by surprise.
“It was a very important phase in our careers and because we were fighting for a place in the Masters event in London, I didn’t want anything bothering us.”
Reports of a ‘bitter end’ to the partnership were quashed when Bopanna arrived in Lahore for Qureshi’s wedding, last month.
“The friendship is still there. Rohan came and danced at my wedding,” he quips.
On a serious note, Qureshi says he respects Bopanna’s decision ‘as a friend and as a tennis player’ and that the two titles (Bangkok and Stockholm) are testament to their professional approach towards the split.
Favourite shot: Back-hand volleyOlympic dream
Favourite sporting personality: Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan
Titles in 2011: Paris, Stockholm, Bangkok, Halle
Favourite, non-Aisam tennis moment: Goran Ivaniševi? winning Wimbledon 2001
IndoPak Express win-loss record: 38-26
Coach: Robert Davis
Most desirable title: Wimbledon
“I wish him all the best for his Olympic dream.”
As for his own goals for the Olympics, Qureshi says he will aim to maintain his top-ten ranking (until July), a pre-requisite for Olympic qualification.
“If I qualify, I can play with any Pakistani player, which would be a huge achievement because the Pakistani flag has never been hoisted for the tennis events at the Olympics.”
Going Dutch Maintaining a top-ten ranking could be a challenge for Qureshi, who will now play with Netherland’s Jean-Julien Rojer in the 2012 season.
The two have never paired up before, which could hamper their charge but Qureshi believes that being professionals, they will recover for any setbacks that may come their way.
“My new partner has a lot of strengths… he’s a natural serve and volley player. I’ve known Julien for ten years. He’s very motivated and willing to work hard with me.”
Picking a partner after the split with Bopanna was not too arduous for Qureshi, as Rojer was the only top-20 player also without a partner.
“I had to pick someone in the top 20 so I could play all the big events, the super nine (ATP Masters) and grand slams, and be seeded.”
Even before Bopanna, Qureshi had played with a few South Asian partners but he thinks the South Asia-to-Europe move will not bother a professional like him.
‘A tough world’ After an extraordinary year (2010), Qureshi faced a bit of a blip in the 2011 grand slams, where the IndoPak Express’s best result was a semi-final finish at the US Open. But Qureshi is quick to defend the third-round and fourth-round exits. “We had very close matches and our only major setback was Wimbledon, we where lost a marathon match and it didn’t go our way because of the rain.”
“It’s a tough world,” he says. “I won four tournaments after Wimbledon. Besides, playing against world-class players is different than playing in lower-ranked tournaments and I’m still new at the doubles game so I have a lot to learn.”
Despite the grand-slam blip, Qureshi enjoyed the Masters tournaments, winning four titles (Paris, Stockholm, Bangkok, Halle), which makes it seem like grand slam tournaments are much tougher than ATP Masters. Qureshi disagrees. “You play all the best players (in Masters) and they are, at times, more closely-contested than the slams.”
Wimbledon wish While Olympic qualification is a top-of-the list goal for Qureshi, he hasn’t forgotten about his childhood dream of being crowned champion at SW19.
“Wimbledon is the dream I grew up with. It is what brought me in the limelight (in 2007) and it still remains the most desirable title for me.”
Ambassador of peace Banking on his post-US Open fame, Qureshi was appointed as a goodwill ambassador by the United Nations Development Program in August 2010.
As ambassador, he visited the flood-affected regions of Gilgit-Baltistan in a bid to raise awareness about the problems being faced by the inhabitant, a trip that taught him a great deal about life.
“It made me realise that you can’t take life for granted. We take small issues and turn them into big problems, for instance, a backache or headache,” he tells Dawn.com.
“I don’t think I can survive a single day in the conditions I saw there. We must help these people; we must respect them and the problems they’re facing.”
He promises to use his resources and his popularity to bring donations for the flood-affected regions.
Apart from the UNDP appointment, Qureshi has been playing the role of a philanthropist for his family’s ‘Haq Foundation.’
“I have collected memorabilia from some of the top names in the game, which I will auction through the UNDP website (for a three-month period) and hopefully collect generous funds.
While his partnership with Bopanna may be over, the duo has to fulfil one pending promise – a much hyped cross-border match at the Wagah post.
“The match is about being ambassadors of peace in sports – a title we earned in 2010,” says the 31-year-old. As per the proposed plan, Qureshi will serve from the Indian side of the border, while Bopanna will receive in Pakistan.
“We have written to the government to seek approval for the match and they seem busy with other issues, but we hope to get the green light as soon as possible so we can get this done.”
Who is the next Aisam-ul-Haq? Anyone who is willing to make a lot of sacrifices, work hard, believe in himself and put his country and family first, in front of anything else.Agenda for 2012
Qureshi’s first outing with his new partner failed to bring good news but Qureshi is hopeful of a successful year in 2012.
“Main goal is to finish in top five by the end of the year and, obviously, win my first grand slam,” he says. Despite the apparent challenges, Qureshi is counting on himself to deliver.
“They are not very big goals. I really believe in these goals so I’m going to work as hard as I can to achieve them.”
Once the goals are out of the way, will Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi hang his boots?
“Retirement is out of question,” he shoots back. “I am not even thinking about it. I just got married, and it has motivated me to do better,” he says, laughing.
“But honestly,” he explains, “having achieved so much in the last two years, I feel I am the strongest and the fittest I have ever been.”
On a more serious note, Qureshi believes he has “lot to do” to get his job done in Pakistan.
“I have to promote this game here,” he lists.
“And my aim is to be number one in the world. My goal in 2011 was to be in the top ten. I started the year at 20 and now I’m number nine in the world. I’m going to carry on working hard and try to be number one in the world. Once I am there, maybe I’ll think about retiring,” he adds, ‘maybe.’
The writer is Features Editor at Dawn.com.