Pakistan’s standout tennis star

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Interview – Aisam ul Haq Qureshi

The most influential tennis player ever produced by Pakistan is its global super ambassador too

Aisam ul Haq Qureshi is arguably the most influential tennis player ever produced by Pakistan since 1947. From his beginning as a junior prodigy when he beat Andy Roddick and Taylor Dent to end up just one spot shy of the top 10 junior world ranking, to his Davis Cup service for Pakistan and evolution into a topnotch doubles player on the international professional circuit, Aisam has made his and his country’s presence felt for over a decade. In the process, he has handled himself with a gentlemanly grace. And today, no one can deny his status as a true role model for our aspiring sportsmen.

On top of it, whenever he has had the opportunity, he always made a heroic endeavour to present the image of his country in the best possible light.

AisamulHaqQureshi

Belonging to a family of tennis stars (his maternal grandfather was an All-India champion, his mother a Pakistan national number one), Aisam found his own niche as a doubles player par excellence and is a formidable force on grass courts where his natural attacking game has earned him several famous wins. The only Pakistani to reach the finals of a Grand Slam event, Aisam did a double, reaching the men’s and mixed finals at the US Open.

But it is his performances for Pakistan in the Davis Cup that remain etched in memory with wins against top Asian players and an excellent doubles record with Aqeel Khan.

Aisam is undoubtedly a fine ambassador for Pakistan wherever he goes – in fact, after the three legendary Khans, Imran, Jahangir and Jansher, outside cricket he is the only one remaining on the international sporting scene still bringing laurels for his country.

Excerpts:

Q: As you approach the last few years of your career, what according to you have been the high and low points of your career?

A: First of all, I don’t believe I am playing the last few years of my career. Definitely, reaching the finals of the US Open in 2010, beating Roger Federer in Basel in 2009 ,qualifying for Wimbledon in 2007, getting three gold medals in the first Islamic Solidarity Games in 2005 and taking my country to world group play offs in Davis Cup are the main highlights of my career

Having said that, there have been many low points as well but I know all those low moments have made me a stronger person and a player and surely has helped me in working harder and made me achieve most of my goals.

Q: Do you still have hopes of winning a Grand Slam title? If so which one would be the most likely?

A: That is the main driving force now for me apart from getting laurels for my country and family – to win a Grand Slam, and I truly believe I have the ability to accomplish this.

I think I have a shot at winning all of them. I have made the finals of the US Open and reached the semi-finals twice. I have reached the semis of the French Open three times as well. Twice I have reached the quarters at Wimbledon, so I know I have the ability to win either of one and that is what makes me push myself harder than ever before.

Q: How are you feeling playing again with Rohan Bopanna after two years with Roger? Do you having to change tactics because of Bopanna’s different style of play?

A:  It’s good to be back playing with Rohan again. I think we both have matured as players in the last two years. Obviously everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. I just try to work with my partner together and find the best way to use his strengths and neutralize his weaknesses.

Q: Do you agree to the notion that tennis in Pakistan has declined to a new low? If so, why has it happened, and, if not, what are your reasons for optimism?

A: Like any other sport, in order to promote tennis in Pakistan, we need more international events and for me, the main reason for the downfall of tennis and other sports in Pakistan is the lack of international events ever since the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team. I surely think that has been one of the main reasons for tennis’s downfall in our country because ever since I got recognized and there was a tennis fever in the country, there has not been any international tennis event in the country

Q: When it is so obvious that the Pakistan Tennis Federation has done next to nothing to promote the game in the country, why have you chosen not to speak against the Federation? As Pakistan’s topmost player ever, is it not your responsibility to speak up for the game and how it has suffered? What should be the preference: being politically correct or standing up for the future of Pakistan Tennis?

A: Yeah, it is really sad that the Pakistan Tennis Federation has not been able to do anything to promote the game of tennis in our country or cash in on my achievements even till now. As much as I blame them, I do blame successive Pakistan governments as well for not providing the right facilities for the youngsters to play this game and the electronic media too for not promoting this game the way they can or could have.

I have never taken any sides and I have always spoken what I felt was right that is why I have always been a part of controversies throughout my career. I always took a stand when I knew and felt that the Federation was wrong and still do but it does not mean that I don’t praise the good work they do and have done in the past. My preference would always be to take a stand for what is better for Pakistan tennis.

One of the reasons tennis has taken a blow is that the federation or the government has not taken any kind of initiative to bring international tennis back in the country or arranged any ‘home ground’ away from home in order for us to excel in Davis Cup and world rankings ever since we qualified for World Group Qualifiers. Unless they do that, the level of tennis in Pakistan is going to keep on dropping

Q: What would be the one thing that, in your opinion, could popularize tennis in Pakistan?

A: The one thing that can surely help promote tennis in Pakistan is more coverage on the TV. We do have two sport channels in Pakistan and I think they can do wonders if they start showing national tournaments or at least finals of those events, give coverage to the Davis Cup matches we play and maybe some of the tournaments I play as well. It will surely help get more recognition and sponsors for the players and the tournament organizers

Q: Do you regret not having performed as well in ATP singles as in doubles? What was the reason behind this?

A: I don’t really regret not being able to perform as well in singles as in doubles because I know I gave it my best shot. Unfortunately at that time, tennis was not that big in our country and people never cared how I did or how I was doing. I got to 103 in the world, became Asian No 3, have wins against four top 10 players in the world. Maybe I could have reached the top 100 mark in singles and sometimes that does bother me but I know I gave it all I had in singles and then after reaching finals of the US Open in 2010, I had to make a switch.

Q: What has been your biggest tennis regret to date?

A: Honestly speaking, I don’t really have a big regret in my professional career. Ever since I started playing tennis, it’s always been a learning process and it still is. There are no regrets. At the end of the day, I know I have done and still am doing everything in my power to get laurels for my country and my family. You can’t always achieve all the goals and dreams you want in life but it does not mean one has to start giving up on the other goals that can be achieved. I also have not been able to achieve some of mine like making it to top 100 in singles or winning a Grand Slam (yet) but I do feel blessed and lucky that all the hard work I have done in the past 15 years has helped me to get recognized as a top tennis player not only in my own country but all over the world.

Q: You have been playing Davis Cup since 1998 with Aqeel Khan. Why is it that the same duo remains Pakistan’s top choice for more than a decade and a half?

A: First of all, I don’t like to compare myself with anyone. We all have our own paths and destiny. Honestly speaking, I think there is a major gap and it’s going to take some time till someone can take Aqeel and my responsibility in the Davis Cup and fills those shoes. I do really hope it happens soon as I have always tried to be a role model and a door opener for the youngsters and surely want even better players coming out of our country and representing it.

Q: Do you see any Pakistan players who you feel can take your place on the Davis Cup team when you retire?

A: It has been a great honour for me to represent my country for so many years in Davis Cup. It is definitely sad that unfortunately no one has been able to step forward to the task in the past 15-odd years. I just feel the youngsters now don’t have the desire and patience that is required to be a top level athlete and they are just happy with what they have achieved and are not willing to go all the way for their country or for themselves. Secondly, I don’t think the federation has any confidence in putting youngsters ahead of Aqeel and me.

Q: There has been some endeavor amongst your younger cousins to emulate you on the international circuit? Do you think they have the potential to make the cut?

A: Tennis is an individual sport and it all depends on how much hard work and sacrifice one is ready or willing to do. Talent can only get you to a certain level but then it’s all about the hours and hours of hard work and dedication that helps one become a top athlete or tennis player. My cousins surely have a lot of potential and I personally think they can be very good but for that they need to dedicate all their time and life to tennis.

Q: Was it not possible for you to play a few smaller ATP tournaments with Aqeel Khan so that he would have a chance to play regularly on the tour?

A: No, it would never have been possible because our rankings were never the same and secondly, Aqeel hardly travelled to play international tennis events. Maybe at the start of my professional career we could have played some but then he never travelled.

Q: What are your plans post-tennis?

A: I feel younger and fitter than ever. I can easily see myself playing for another six to seven years, InshaAllah.

Q: How many more years are you planning to play on the tour?

A: I don’t really have certain plans as no one can predict the future. It depends a lot on what more I can achieve in tennis and where I finish my career. I do have a charity – ‘Stop War, Start Tennis’ – that focuses on providing wheel chairs and tennis equipment to people who have been affected by wars all over the world. I would surely like to expand it and help more and more people out all over the world and give them hope and a reason to smile. I am a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations so when I have some more time, I would surely like to help them more in their projects helping Pakistanis and other people.

Then I am sure I would like to stay connected to tennis and help the youngsters out in some way and try to help promote this game more in Pakistan. By the grace of Almighty, I am sure there are few opportunities there for me to explore and InshaAllah when the time is right, I would give them all a shot.