Who would have predicted that an Indian and a Pakistani would team up for tennis doubles – or that this partnership would lead to such an overwhelming wave of support for them, with millions of Indians and Pakistanis cheering for the same team, and India and Pakistan’s ambassadors to the UN turning up together to watch them play at the US Men’s Finals.
“Even if they lose tonight, they’ve already won our hearts,” read the tagline in a poster (http://www.twitpic.com/2n0nnx) that the Mumbai-based artist and designer Nitesh Mohanty created spontaneously in response to an email from the well known documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan the day before the finals, urging friends to "spread this story of hope amidst the darkness."
The cyber world was abuzz with reflections of this hope. Some warned people not to expect this match to do much in terms of improving India-Pakistan relations. It is actually amazing, the sea of warmth and goodwill that exists among ordinary people of both countries for each other, compared to the stiff relationship between the governments marked by mistrust and even hostility.
It is into this sea of goodwill that Aisam ul Haq Qureshi and Rohan Bopanna tapped, perhaps unintentionally, when they teamed up three years ago (having known each other since their teenage years on the international tennis circuit).
Of course there are those who oppose this partnership – the hyper-nationalists who believe that people should reflect government positions and not cooperate on a private level until things are sorted out.
Qureshi shrugs off the negative criticism, focusing instead on the groundswell of goodwill and support. It helps that he excels in his game and is so charismatic and articulate.
He is Pakistan’s most successful tennis player ever, with 46 Davis Cup ties, under his belt, including 29 singles and 17 doubles. Perhaps it was this excellence that gave Qureshi the confidence in 2002 to team up with an even more controversial partner, Israel’s Amir Hadad, at Wimbledon and US Open. They received the Association of Tennis Professionals’ Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year award for playing together despite pressure from people in their respective countries.
“I don't like to interfere religion or politics into sports,” Qureshi said at the time. “Have to keep sport as a sport and just enjoy it.”
The need to “keep sport as a sport and just enjoy it” applies equally to those who see his partnership with Bopanna as some kind of breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations, which it clearly isn’t. Standing in the way of any breakthrough in state ties are well-entrenched policies and positions, including restrictive visa regimes. Easing these restrictions would enable many more Aisam-Rohan type partnerships to develop, ready to take on the world. At this point, we can only hope that the bonhomie generated by the ‘Indo-Pak Express’ will contribute to a thaw that in turn could be help bring about a genuine breakthrough.
Talking about her son’s partnership with Rohan, Qureshi’s mother Nausheen Ihtesham said he “has already been praised by the Indian and Pakistani media.” She noted that the pair “got more praise because they come from rival nations.”
Herself an outstanding tennis player, she won Pakistan’s national women title for ten years and represented Pakistan in the premier team competition in women’s tennis, the Fed Cup (formerly the Federation Cup). Her father, Khawaja Ifthikar, was India’s tennis champion before Partition. All this, and the fact that she mentored her son, who publically gives her respect for that, speaks volumes about the family’s liberal values, making Aisam ul Haq Qureshi a highly effective, if unofficial, ambassador for Pakistan – someone who represents the liberal, secular values we would like this country to promote.
As for official ambassadors, the presence of India and Pakistan’s Ambassadors to the U.N., Hardeep Singh and Abdullah Haroon, at the semifinals where they sat together, also created a buzz.
The tennis duo are well aware of the significance of their partnership. Their slogan, “Stop war, start tennis,” was picked up earlier this year, catapulting the peace aspect of their game to the forefront.
“Over the passage of time, we have seen a bigger picture apart from tennis, and it’s about changing people’s views. If we can change even one person’s view, we’ll take it as a positive. It’s really nice to see Indians and Pakistanis sitting together supporting one team. You don’t see that anywhere else, in any sport. Our on-court and off-court relationship proves that Indians and Pakistanis can get on fine,” said Qureshi in an interview just before the US Open finals.
Qureshi and Bopanna are both part of Champions of Peace club, comprising 47 outstanding sports champions dedicated to serving peace. The club was formed by the Monaco-based non-profit organisation Peace and Sport (http://www.peace-sport.org) which aims to “awaken the collective conscience of the world’s decision-makers to the strategic role that sport can play to help communities in crisis.”
Besides various other awards, Qureshi was also a recipient of the President’s Award for Performance on August 14, 2004. But this year, he reached heights in tennis that no Pakistani has reached. First he and his partner, Czech player Kveta Peschke, reached the US Open mixed doubles final, and then he and Bopanna qualified for the men’s doubles final.
It doesn’t matter that he didn’t win. That Qureshi reached the finals, and the worldwide support for him, was a great morale-booster to Pakistan, reeling from one blow after another: the worst floods in the history of the region and the match fixing scandal.
Interest in the men’s doubles was so high that Ashe Stadium was nearly full even before the match started. The crowd was mostly ‘desi’ – Indian and Pakistani, rooting for the Indo-Pak Express.
The great crowd-puller in Pakistan and in India has always been cricket, compared to tennis, followed by a relatively small section of society. Talking to journalists after his return from Pakistan, Qureshi said he wanted to change that. “I love cricket,” he told a radio journalist, “but there are other sports that need attention too.”
Tennis has certainly got that attention now, with Qureshi a new icon and a hero for a nation starved of good news.
The Indo-Pak Express didn’t just wow the ‘desi’ lot. Their superb game gave the top-seeded Bryan brothers a run for their money. And Qureshi’s speech after the match led The Los Angelos Times to headline its report: “Bryan brothers win 3rd U.S. Open doubles title but Pakistani wins crowd”.
Bob and Mike Bryan won their third U.S. Open doubles title and ninth Grand Slam championship that day, but it was the moment when Qureshi took the microphone “that brought the crowd to its feet and tears to Bob's eyes,” said the report.
“I want to say something on behalf of all Pakistanis. It is the wrong perception that Pakistan is a terrorist country. We are a loving, caring people and we want peace as much as you guys want it. May God love us all," said Qureshi.
"He was very choked up. Just to give that message to everyone was very heartfelt,” said Bob Bryan. “What they are doing is a lot more important than winning the U.S. Open."
His twin Mike added: "A sport can bring people together. You know, these guys are going to be great for the game for a long time."
The Bryans donated $5,000 to Pakistani flood relief – a gesture that Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador Abdullah Haroon honoured by presenting them with shawls at the post-match news conference.
“The brothers were teary-eyed again and for a moment doubles held sway on the grandest stage in American tennis,” reported the LA Times. The Bryans are planning two fundraisers to raise more money for Pakistan flood relief – which also reflects their association with Qureshi.
Speaking at a reception in his honour at Governor House Lahore after his return, Qureshi began “getting very emotional, I don’t know why,” as he candidly put it, his voice wobbling.
“All my life I’ve tried to do something to make my country and my parents proud of me. It’s been a long tough journey, I want to thank my relatives, friends and family for being with me through my up and downs,” he said through his tears. “You should never give up on your dreams.”
In a word: Inspiring.