Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bhopanna and Qureshi - A True Success Story

Diplomatic Doubles Team Is a Contender, Too

TORONTO — One recent morning in Los Angeles, a taxi driver turned to the professional tennis doubles team in his back seat. The driver asked where they were from. Pakistan, Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi answered. India, Rohan Bopanna replied.

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 America heard and cared about our story and knew we were on the right path, doing the right thing.”

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 New York this month.

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 Pakistan 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.

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 Washington.

“I’m telling you, it’s the only time you see fans from India and Pakistan cheering for the same team,” Davis said. “They’ve shown that partition doesn’t equal division.”

The first time they realized their potential for change came in 2007, at a tournament in Mumbai, India. The pair had advanced to the final, but before it started, they watched India and Pakistan play in the cricket World Cup from the players’ lounge.

Qureshi and his father, joined by dozens of Indian players, looked on as Pakistan lost the match. Qureshi said his disappointment faded when he stepped onto the court, looked into the stands and spied hundreds of fans with India’s flag on one cheek and Pakistan’s on the other.

“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 Denver 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.

Still, each seemed the perfect complement for the other. An officer in India’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 Pakistan’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 Davis more as a future diplomat.

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 Pakistan 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.

Davis has noticed recently that both players are reading more about geopolitical events, studying world crisis to better answer the questions their higher profile has prompted. They feel more responsibility than they did before.

“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. Davis said they could crack the top 10 by year’s end. The Bryans said it was good anytime a doubles team could get attention.
“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 India. They have reached out to both governments, but so far, largely because of security concerns, the idea has not advanced.

Perhaps it will, eventually, if the doubles diplomats continue their evolution.

August 14, 2010

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