Diplomatic Doubles Team Is a Contender, Too
By GREG BISHOP
Even thousands of miles from home, the driver knew their story: that they wore outfits at Wimbledon that read Stop War, Start Tennis; that some called them the Indo-Pakistan Express; and that they were trying to stage an exhibition on the border between their countries, which have a long history of conflict.
“It was overwhelming,” Qureshi said in a phone interview last week. “Someone in
heard and cared about our story and knew we were on the right path, doing the right thing.” America
Unable to obtain a visa, Qureshi did not travel here for the Rogers Cup. It felt strange without him, Bopanna said, because the pair have climbed the rankings together in 2010, their first season dedicated mostly to playing doubles. They plan to play in
Cincinnati, in New Haven and at the United States Open in this month. New York
At each stop, they will surely answer the same questions journalists have posed since they first played together in 2003. But this year their story is shifting, especially on the court.
Now these partners who set out to become elite players, not international ambassadors of peace, have found that the better they play, the more of a difference they can make. Because of that, they have further embraced their role as doubles diplomats.
“The older they get, the more they can see the significance of what they’re doing,” said Robert Davis, Qureshi’s longtime coach. “They’re more aware of what they can accomplish.”
Not just in sport, but through it.
In 1947, when British rule ended,
India and became separate countries. They have waged three official wars since. Qureshi studied the split in history classes as a child, but neither player said the conflict had influenced his thinking. Both try to stay out of politics. Pakistan
They prefer to tell stories of the Pakistani and Indian fans who come to their matches and sit together, not separated into sides. These fans send them e-mails and Facebook messages. One group recently drove hours to watch them play in
“I’m telling you, it’s the only time you see fans from
India and Pakistan cheering for the same team,” said. “They’ve shown that partition doesn’t equal division.” Davis
The first time they realized their potential for change came in 2007, at a tournament in
. The pair had advanced to the final, but before it started, they watched Mumbai, India India and play in the cricket World Cup from the players’ lounge. Pakistan
Qureshi and his father, joined by dozens of Indian players, looked on as
lost the match. Qureshi said his disappointment faded when he stepped onto the court, looked into the stands and spied hundreds of fans with Pakistan India’s flag on one cheek and ’s on the other. Pakistan
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” he said. “I never expected that we would be able to create such a high.”
Nor had they intended to. Their partnership started the way most doubles pairings begin on the ATP World Tour: because they were best friends and because it seemed convenient.
Both remained focused on singles. Even when they won a Challenger tournament in
in 2003, they did not play doubles again together for three years, mainly because the gap in their singles rankings — Qureshi’s was considerably higher — meant they rarely played the same tournaments. Denver
Still, each seemed the perfect complement for the other. An officer in
’s Navy and a businessman (his family owns a coffee plantation; he owns a bar), Bopanna possesses a dominating, aggressive personality. Qureshi, a rare Muslim on the tour, came from tennis stock. His mother once won India ’s national championship, and his grandfather reached No. 1 for both countries before the separation. Qureshi attracted offers to star in Bollywood films, but he always struck Pakistan more as a future diplomat. Davis
They are point, counterpoint. Indian and Pakistani. Aggressive and diplomatic. Even their games — Bopanna, schooled on hardcourts, excels from the baseline; Qureshi, raised on grass courts, employs the serve-and-volley style — bring balance.
The attention, at least initially, surprised them. Qureshi had partnered with Amir Hadad, a Jewish player, in 2002, and the
sports authority had barred Qureshi from Davis Cup play as a result. That only strengthened his belief that politics and religion should be kept separate from sport. Pakistan
“If Aisam and I can get along, people in our countries can, too,” Bopanna said. “Even if 5 percent change their minds, it’s worth it.”
This coincided with their decision to concentrate on doubles — and their partnership — this year. They trained in doubles-specific drills for the first time. They made a commitment to play more tournaments together.
They reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, and they beat the
Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike, the men’s doubles team with the most career wins, in . Washington said they could crack the top 10 by year’s end. The Davis said it was good anytime a doubles team could get attention. Bryans
“They’re great for doubles, tennis,” Mike Bryan said, then paused. “And world peace.”
Bopanna and Qureshi have become less of a mere curiosity and more of a legitimate tournament contender. And as that happened, they came to care more about the difference they could make.
“We want to be remembered as good players,” Qureshi said. “So far, we’ve done well. But the bigger tournaments we play, the more tournaments we win, it will create a bigger hype to spread our message.”
The two hope to play an exhibition match on the Wagah Border, with Bopanna serving from
Pakistan and Qureshi serving from . They have reached out to both governments, but so far, largely because of security concerns, the idea has not advanced. India
Perhaps it will, eventually, if the doubles diplomats continue their evolution.
August 14, 2010