AISAMUL HAQ TAKES PAK TENNIS TO DIZZYING HEIGHTS

ANISUDDIN KHAN
(feedback@pgeconomist.com)

Sep 13 - 26, 2010

Tennis was in his family, his maternal grandfather Khawaja Iftikhar was an all India champion and his mother Nousheen Ehtesham ladies champion of Pakistan for a number of years. Tennis was so dominant in the family that when Aisamul Haq chose the sport no one was surprised. Great hopes were attached by his family when as teenager Aisamul Haq won an ITF junior scholarship that moulded his tennis career.

For the past decade Aismaul Haq was a permanent member of Pakistan Davis Cup team. He made deep impact on Pakistan tennis in Davis cup but it was in men's doubles event that Aisam had really excelled.

About eight years ago he hit the headlines when he chose an Israeli Aamir Hadad as his partner for the Wimbledon tennis championships. A Pakistan playing with an Israeli was unthinkable at least at home and in many Muslim nations across the globe. The Pakistani government conveniently ignored Pakistani media criticism of the partnership. But the publicity however placed international spotlight on him. From an obscure tennis player from a poor third world country like Pakistan which had no strong tennis tradition, Aisam suddenly became start attraction of International tennis community who praised his courage. He was duly awarded a humanitarian award for his choice of the partner. Aisam's rise to international fame was slow and time consuming. It has taken him exactly ten years to climb to a place where he was noticed.

For the last several year he had played doubles events all over the world with Rohan Bopanna of India. The pair had stuck together. In the beginning the pair struggled and made early exits at various international events. But around August this year, the pair won their first title in the USA just before the start of the US open.

It was in New York that the pair made its biggest impression when they reached the final of men's doubles. For Pakistani Aisamul Haq the occasion was unprecedented.

This was the first time that a Pakistani had entered the final not of one but two events of a grand slam event. In the past there were couple of Pakistanis who had played in grand slam events. One of those was Haroon Rahim but even Haroon had not entered a final of a championship though he was the best tennis star produced by Pakistan since independence in 1947.

For Aisamul Haq and Pakistan it was a proud moment that a Pakistan would be playing in the two finals- mixed doubles with Kvta Peschke of Czech Republic and men's doubles with Rohan Bopanna of India. Though Aisam failed to win either of the two titles but mere appearing in two final was a great feat by any standard.

The Pakistani won the hearts of the millions of TV viewers with his speech at prize presentation. Aisam delivered his message loud and peacefully, and it had nothing to do with forehands or backhands, or even the doubles title he failed to win.

As a Muslim from Pakistan playing in the US Open doubles final, he said New York needed his words the most, as post-9/11 counsel. So the 30-year-old grabbed the microphone and addressed the estimated 15,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium - probably the biggest crowd to watch a Grand Slam doubles final - and made sure the moment wasn't lost.

"I want to say something on behalf of all Pakistanis," he said following Friday's 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4) defeat to the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike. "Every time I come here, there's a wrong perception about the people of Pakistan.

"They are very friendly, very loving people. We want peace in this world as much as you guys."

The crowd cheered. By now, such poignancy is expected from Aisam and, to a lesser extent, his doubles partner, Rohan Bopanna of India.

Together, they've formed the politically charged tandem known as the Indo-Pak Express, breaking down barriers with their kinship and jettisoning expectations with their recent play.

Their respective neighboring countries have warred with and terrorised each other since the 1940s, citing religion as their great chasm. But Aisam and Bopanna, a Hindu, represent peace, both on and off the court. Indian and Pakistani fans filled pockets of Arthur Ashe Friday, arriving as early as two hours before the match. UN ambassadors from both countries sat side-by-side in the President's Box - the second straight match they've attended together - cheering the same unexpected struggle their team brought to the greatest doubles team of all time, the Bryan brothers. The 16th-seeded Aisam and Bopanna followed up their run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals with five wins in Flushing.

Pakistan ambassador Abdullah Hussain Haroon said. "I think on a people-to-people basis, they're setting an example that the politicians should follow. "Prize money and rankings were never a motivating factor, Aisam said, only good news for his flood-stricken countrymen and a platform to express his message of American misunderstanding. He also defended the decision to build a mosque near the World Trade Center site.

"For me, as a Muslim, that's what makes America the greatest country in the world - freedom of religion, freedom of speech," Aisam said.

"If the mosque is built, I think it's a huge gesture to all the Muslim community out there in the world. I would really appreciate it."

Aisam said he's been stopped at airport immigration "every time" in New York - three hours at a time - including after his latest flight for the Open. And on the eve of the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he wanted to defend his country's masses.

"Since September 11, every time I come to the States or western countries I feel people have the wrong impression about Pakistan as a terrorist nation," Aisam said. "I just wanted to declare that we are very friendly, loving and caring people, and we want peace in this world as much as Americans and the rest of the world want.

"There are extremists in every religion, but just because of them you cannot judge the whole country as a terrorist nation. I just wanted to get this message across as a Pakistani. "When he and Rohan Bopanna played against top seed duo of Mike and Bob Bryn, the Arthur Ashe stadium at Flushing Meadows, the UN ambassadors of both Pakistan and India were sitting in presidents box to show solidarity with the two youngsters who had transcended the bitter political divide of their countries. Even Indian newspapers cast aside its biases against Pakistan and poured their heart while praising the Pakistani and his Indian partner.

Far from being downcast after the defeat, the duo, Indian newspapers stated, couldn't stop smiling and cracking jokes even though they had just lost the final. Aisam said. "Every loss makes you stronger. As they say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. "With their warm friendship and tremendous faith in each other shining through their game, the pair found in the Bryans a new set of fans.

The journey for Bopanna and Aisam has been long and often cumbersome, juggling pressures of the Tour alongside political arm-twisting, and it was only this year when the two of them collectively decided to focus on their doubles career.

"We talked at the start of the year and decided that there's no reason why we can't be among the top 20 teams in the world by season-end.

Making the final here has taken us closer to that goal and also made possible the chance to play the season ending World Tour finals,"

Aisam elaborated while Bopanna piped in saying, "We believe in our ability and there's no reason why we can't be world number ones."

Bopanna though, was quick to dispel notions that theirs has been a sudden climb. "We haven't reached the top quickly. We have been grinding out in the challengers for years now. We knew we had to make the slams count - Wimbledon quarters and the final here was just that."