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Hoping to promote better relations between their two countries, Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, mental coach Shayamal Vallabhjee, and Rohan Bopanna train in Estoril.

Bopanna & Qureshi: Bridging A Great Divide

Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi have transcended the Indian-Pakistan political-divide by forming a successful tennis partnership that has heightened interest in the sport on the cricket-mad sub-Continent.

Defined by the violent partition of British India into two states, India and Pakistan, in August 1947, both nations continue to suffer from mutual mistrust and disputes remain unresolved.

When the two nations play one another in a sport such as cricket, one hundred million viewers gather around their television sets. A loss at the hands of the other is considered a nation failure.

Last month, two Muslims, Shoaib Malik, a former captain of the Pakistan cricket team, married India’s best tennis player, Sania Mirza, in Hyderabad. The controversial union, disregarding decades of cross-border enmity, has since been welcomed as bridging the two nations’ bitter sporting and political divide.

But it was a different story when two amiable and Bollywood-loving tennis players – one, a Liverpool football fan, Pakistani Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, the other, a Manchester United supporter, Rohan Bopanna of India – reached the Mumbai final in September 2007.

“When we teamed up we had been travelling separately,” says Bopanna, who was raised in Coorg, a four-hour drive from Bangalore. “It was just a case of finding somebody to play with on the tour. We spoke similar languages. I speak in Hindi and Aisam speaks Urdu. We didn’t think about the national divide, until the media were alerted by our success.

“Initially we did have a few problems, because a Pakistani was partnering an Indian at major tournaments, but people appreciate the fact that we’re sticking together and have done well.

“There isn’t too much prejudice now, but I would be naive to say there wasn’t any grievance.”

Qureshi has lived with prejudice and has been eyed with suspicion ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Whenever the well-mannered Pakistani travelled to the United States, with all the correct paperwork, he would often be held at airports for over four hours before being allowed to proceed.

He first suffered negative publicity on a tennis court as a result of partnering Amir Hadad of Israel to the Wimbledon third round in 2002. The duo, who also qualified for the US Open, was later awarded the ATP’s Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award.

Then, as now, the 30 year old from Lahore insists, “The beauty of sport is that it brings together different cultures and religions. It is free from all the conflicts.

“That was the message that I was sending in 2002, when the sports authorities were trying to mix our religions. I was very surprised when I got bad press and publicity back home, but now we are on good terms.

“I play with Rohan and the federation president and sports authorities accept our partnership. I think it has gotten the message that I am trying to promote tennis in Pakistan.

“Whether my partner is a Jew, Christian or Hindu, if I feel I can do well and promote tennis in Pakistan then I will play with him.”

Bopanna and Qureshi have been friends for more than 10 years and they know that their partnership is unique and special.

“Aisam is a serve and volley player, who possesses great hands at the net,” explains Bopanna. “I have the power and he has the touch. We know one another so well off the court that it is a great strength and we have belief in each other’s abilities.”

Their close friendship weathered early exits and poor form at the beginning of their partnership and over dinner they are able to communicate their feelings without the other person taking it the wrong way.

‘The Indo-Pak Express’ are committed to one another and as a result they have proven that politics should never enter sport. They are considering wearing t-shirts with the slogan ‘Stop War, Love Tennis, Love India/Love Pakistan’ to promote tennis and better relations between the two nations.

Today, their doubles matches are often broadcast live across India and Pakistan. Should they combine their dynamic, offensive games with tactical nous at the net and learn to be more consistent, a rise up the team rankings is certain.

Qureshi comes across as an ambassador in waiting. He is very diplomatic and is careful to never say anything that might offend.

Three years ago he became the first Pakistani to qualify for Wimbledon, joining Khwaja Saeed (1954-55, 1958) and Haroon Rahim (1976) as a main draw singles entrant. His success at SW19 coincided with dips in form for Pakistan’s cricket and field hockey teams.

Recently he completed his first television commercial with Pepsi, the soft drinks manufacturer, for whom he is a brand ambassador in Pakistan. “I think I am the first sportsman outside of cricket in 34 years to be associated by a multi-national company,” Qureshi says.

“It is a huge step for Pakistan tennis. Being a cricket nation, most of the children go to that sport. When parents only see cricketers in advertising campaigns, their first thought is that cricket is the only way to make money.

“I am trying to change that trend. My association with Pepsi has helped and I have asked for land in Lahore – the sports capital of Pakistan – to build an academy. I am waiting for them to pass my application.”

Bopanna, influenced to play tennis by his father, who wanted him to play an individual sport as opposed to field hockey or cricket, feels he is stepping out of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes’ shadows.

The 30 year old is a very good listener, but does not hide his emotions. You know exactly what he is thinking and feeling. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is comfortable giving orders.

This year he helped to “raise money in Coorg for the Opportunity School that caters for physically handicapped children. I wanted to give something back to the community. I would like to do more in future.”

His entrepreneurial spirit saw him open a plush restaurant-bar, called Cirrus, with friends in Bangalore one year ago. “It is an investment as I realise tennis is a short span of time,” he comments.

Seeing Bhupathi and Paes win major championships had and continue to give Bopanna and Qureshi, as with every Asian player, belief that their tennis goals can be realised.

With an 20-16 tour-level record, highlighted by one ATP World Tour title at the SA Tennis Open in Johannesburg and two final appearances at the Grand Prix Hassan II in Casablanca, and the Open de Nice de Cote d'Azur this year, doubles is their main focus. But neither player rules out singles play.

Bopanna insists, “We do try to play singles qualifying, but when you make the semi-finals and finals at tournaments then it is tricky to make qualifying for the next event.”

Qureshi, his country’s No. 1 for 13 years and one of only 29 world-ranked Pakistanis in ATP World Tour history, is adamant that, “For me to keep playing the bigger tournaments, helps to promote tennis in Pakistan.

“I will definitely keep playing singles. I see it as my duty to bring Pakistan back to the Davis Cup Group I. We have the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games coming up, so it will be nice to win a medal at those events. I don’t want to call myself a doubles specialist yet.”

Both players lacked funding at the start of their careers and endured similar paths to the upper echelons of the sport through sheer dedication.

“It is up to you, whether you go out and party or focus on your dreams,” says Bopanna about the start of his career. “When I won tournaments at 19 and 21, I grew in belief that I had the game. People can tell you that you have talent, but until you prove it yourself it is so much harder.

“The great part of tennis is that you learn a lot through travelling the world, meeting different people and sampling different cultures and cuisines. In a team sport you have everything arranged for you, but as a tennis player you have to organise everything.

“My parents are happy that I don’t have to depend on anyone.”

Qureshi, the first Pakistani to attain a Top 50 world ranking [in doubles], has also benefited from his parents’ devotion. “They helped me do all the hard work. The driving force has been to see my parents be proud of me. I want to achieve something in life and tennis has given me that tool. It motivates me to work hard now.”

In 1997, his father, Ehtsham, wrote a letter to the International Tennis Federation for his son to be one of 10 juniors on their annual development programme. “If I had not got onto that course, I would have had no chance and would have probably studied at college in the [United] States,” said Qureshi.

Accepted onto the programme, the ITF would later write a letter to his parents saying, ‘Aisam is a perfect role model and every player should look up to him. He never argues with the coaches, he goes to bed on time at 9pm and is the first to wake up.’

“It was so new to me, that I was shy,” says Qureshi. “It was the first time I’d mixed with international people. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes. When I was a junior I was probably the shyest guy on the planet.

“Tennis has definitely made me a better and more confident person throughout my career.”