Two nations love all

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The heart loves the idea of an Indian and Pakistani playing together in the big league. Samrat Chakrabarti tells you why this partnership is good for even the cynical viewer

Hard hitting Aisam and Rohan shine in the US Open Men’s Doubles final
Hard hitting Aisam and Rohan shine in the US Open Men’s Doubles final

IN THE same week that the world wondered if a Florida pastor would burn the Quran as a mark of his patriotism and as TV pundits wondered loudly how far the flames would spread in the bullet-riddled Middle East, a train chugged silently through the surrounding courts of New York’s Arthur Ashe stadium fuelled by an all together different fire — camaraderie, ambition and passion.

Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Lahore and Rohan Bopanna of Bengaluru, long-time friends, recently doubles partners and fondly monikered ‘the Indo-Pak Express’ arrived this year at the US Open, racquets in hand and a big heart emblazoned on their sleeves. Travelling along court-side, among shouts of “Lage raho Munnabhai”, was a small group of fans that swelled in glorious size at centre court by 12 September when they played the Bryan brothers in the Men’s Doubles Final. The Indo-Pak Express stopped short of the title, but not before a fine display of big-hearted tennis that made the indomitable Bryans sweat, in an entertaining title clash. By the time Aisam-ul-Haq spoke, in the presentation ceremony, of Pakistanis who prefer apparel other than the bomber jacket, the duo had won over an almost all-American crowd not just with their politics but also for their tennis.

Aisam ul-Haq Qureshi was born on 17 March 1980 to a family of serious tennis pedigree. Aisam’s maternal grandfather, Khawaja Ifthikar was India’s tennis champion before Partition, while his mother Nausheen Ihtisham was a 10-time national tennis champion who represented Pakistan in the Fed Cup. Despite his early athleticism, and for a sport with an early initiation rite, Aisam entered tennis at the over-ripe age of 13. Says Nausheen, “The first time he played in a court, that too against a child trained in the game for two years, Aisam returned 80 percent of the shots and most landed in the court. I told my husband he might have a gift.”

By the time he finished his junior career at age 18, supported entirely by his businessman father Ihtisham-ul-Haq, and having beaten a contemporary by the name Andy Roddick in Osaka, Japan, in the World Super Series Junior Championship in November 1998, Aisam ranked seventh in the junior world rankings. Those were the heady days of promise. What followed was the ignominy of being from the tennis nether world. Players he had left far behind in the junior rankings left Aisam behind in the senior circuit as they got wild card entries to premier ATP events by virtue of being from countries dense in high-profile events. Aisam meanwhile, like is often the case with players from India and Pakistan, saw his career running to a standstill in second grade tournaments — working away heart, soul and sinew in shaving off the numbers in the rankings that would qualify him for the bigger tournaments. Last year, he decided to concentrate on doubles and a new phase began.

Rohan Bopanna at 30 is now a familiar name. India’s No. 2 tennis player was born on 4 March 1980 to a tennis-playing coffee plantation owner in Coorg. Rohan started playing tennis at 11 and soon showed promise. Says father MG Bopanna, “When he was 12, on a visit to Nick Bollitieri’s tennis academy in Florida (this is where Agassi trained), he impressed one of the coaches who encouraged me to support his game. But I never expected him to reach this level. Ever.”

The gap between expectation and promise wasn’t just the phantom nature of talent but also money. Before he could support his expenses through his winnings, Rohan’s father had to sell a portion of his coffee estate to support his son. Rohan is yet to have a sponsor approach him. According to Rohan’s dad, the turning point came when he sent his son to train under Nandan Bal, India’s current Davis Cup coach, in Pune. The tall gangly 15-year-old had in his playful, happy-go-lucky head a certain boldness of spirit that remains intact still. Says Nandan, “Rohan loves the court, loves the big stage. Even at that age, he went for broke regardless of the scoreline, carefree on the big points. And that’s a useful attitude because it puts fear in the opponent who now knows that Rohan won’t hold back no matter what.”

Rohan and Aisam had known each other on the circuit since they were teenagers. Their singles career was similar — mediocre. The afternoon sun shone on their careers when they shifted focus to the doubles game and each other.

Rohan Bopanna, of the power game, baseline school of thought, cites as his favourite player Stefan Edberg — an artist of the serve and volley, close-to-thenet game. Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, whose grandfather sent killer top spins from behind the baseline, plays a close-to-the-net, serve and volley game. In doubles where the area to be covered is only half the court, the serve-volley style of play comes into its own as a tactical necessity. The big serve, the opponent’s return and your partner at the net to intercept and end the argument. It’s a game that needs craft and sophistication.

But in the modern game, power isn’t far behind and here Rohan’s thundering strokes come handy. They both use their ample heights well (Rohan 6’3″, Aisam 6′) to serve big, to cover overhead lobs and to lengthily cover the net. Rohan’s power meets Aisam’s touch in a nice close-fitting ditty.

Rohan and Aisam’s partnership was forged on the road of a singles career in nameless tournaments in little-known places

But the real secret lies elsewhere. Beyond the training, transcending the technical play, it’s finally a commonplace thing that makes them a whole, bigger than their selves.

Friendship. The ‘nicest guy on the circuit’ — who once rode his driver’s cycle to the local barber shop and saw his face on a poster there — and playful Rohan, have a partnership that stays true on and off the court, forged on the endless road of a singles career in nameless tournaments in little-known places over a decade of hope and despair.

And in this there is a curious resonance. Mushaf Zia, nonplaying captain of the Pakistan Davis Cup team says, “We are hungry for good news here. I love India, I’ve played in Delhi, I have friends there. What a thrill to see Pakistanis and Indians sitting together with both flags painted on either cheek. Imagine how many people saw that. No politician’s speech can reach an audience as big as that of the US Open.”

Photo: Getty Images


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