NEW YORK Long after dust gathers on the US Open trophy that barely eluded Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, the message he sent on a grand stage in New York still will echo loudly.
After two sets of riveting tennis during which Pakistan's Qureshi and India's Rohan Bopanna came a scant few points short of winning the men's doubles title Friday, Qureshi was handed the microphone and given a chance to speak words that, in his mind, couldn't be said strongly enough.
“There's a bad perception that Pakistan is a terrorist nation,” Qureshi told the crowd in 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium. “We're a friendly, loving, caring people. We want peace as much as you guys. May God bless us all.”
He received a warm ovation from a crowd that included Bopanna's parents, who flew from India to New York for the match. And at that moment, it hardly seemed important that Qureshi and Bopanna had lost 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4) to Americans Bob and Mike Bryan, brothers who won their ninth Grand Slam tournament and third US Open title.
About a half-hour later, the ambassadors of Bopanna's India and Qureshi's Pakistan - neighbouring countries with a decades-long history of war, distrust and tension - placed 5,000-year-old ceremonial cloths over the shoulders of the Bryan brothers, who are donating money through their foundation to help victims of flooding in Pakistan that has affected more than 17 million people.
As they've been saying all week, Qureshi and Bopanna simply want to send some good news back to their homelands, where good news has been sorely lacking of late.
It was one of those moments when an athletic event means something more than a win and a loss.
“Sports will always play a certain role,” Pakistani ambassador Abdullah H. Haroon said. “No matter how you look at it, this is bound to improve things. Because this is people to people, this is not governments to governments, which have reservations and other aspects. This is people to people. People have enjoyed it. It has created a tremendous boom.”
Bopanna and Qureshi have been playing together since 2003, though the story of their peace partnership - “The Indo-Pak Express,” as they call it - really gathered steam earlier this year when they started wearing sweat shirts with slogans reading “Stop War, Start Tennis” as part of a campaign backed by a group called Peace and Sport.
Hardly unnoticed on Friday was that their closing act in New York came on the eve of Sept. 11, with the city in the midst of a fractious debate about whether an Islamic centre and mosque should be built near ground zero, and the country closely following the twists and turns of a Florida pastor's threat to burn copies of the Quran.
“Yes, I've been hearing about that,” said Qureshi, who needed three hours to get through customs when he arrived in New York.
“For me, you have to understand there are extremists in every religion. But those small groups or activists shouldn't justify the thinking that everyone is like them. Above all, everybody wants peace. Not everybody is an extremist. That's my message and hopefully everyone can understand that.”
Qureshi said he vividly recalled the moment of the 2001 attacks in New York, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people.
An up-and-coming tennis player at the time, he had been at a training camp in Holland when he saw events unfold at the World Trade Centre in lower Manhattan.
“It was strange but I was going through the channels and I actually thought it was a movie or something,” he recalled. “I switched the channel again and then felt like it was the same movie on a different channel.
“I was kind of confused. Everything was mostly in Dutch so I couldn't really understand. Then I actually realised what had happened. It was a very shocking moment.”
On the court, the players put on a show worthy of the message they were sending.
There wasn't a single break of serve in 24 games and the tiebreakers were decided by two and three points. The Bryans won their 65th career title - improving on their own record. For Bob, it marked the second straight day he's barely outdone Qureshi. On Thursday, he teamed with Liezel Huber to win the mixed doubles championship.
Bob Bryan said Qureshi's post-match speech “choked me up.”
“I could see him. He was quivering a little bit. He was very choked up,” Bryan said. “Just to give that message to everyone was very heartfelt.”
Quite a message, indeed, for a tennis match.
“It's the message it sends that India and Pakistan are playing on the same side,” said India's ambassador, Hardeep Puri.
“The core message that comes through is that you cannot allow relations between two countries to be held hostage by actions of a few. A large majority want peace, want tranquillity. They want to live together and get along with their daily lives.”