Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi is waiting to find out how much prize money Pakistan’s Olympic association will declare for medals won at the 12th South Asian Games. Qureshi hails from a rich lineage of tennis players – his grandfather Khawaja Iftikhar Ahmed was the champion in undivided India – and coming from a well-off family, he is definitely not scrounging for money. He considers himself ‘lucky to be in a position to help people’.
For the past few years, Pakistan’s Qureshi has used part of his earnings to fund his foundation, which provides tennis-wheelchairs and equipment to those who have lost their limbs because of conflict and landmine blasts.
At last count, 40 such wheelchairs have been shipped to Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq. Each wheelchair, which enables those who are physically challenged to play tennis, costs $1,000. Qureshi has raised over $10,000 from sources around the world, including from the International Tennis Federation, while the rest of the money has been coming from his own pocket.
“All the money I get from representing Pakistan in tennis goes to the foundation. Money I have received for representing the country at the Asian Games and the Davis Cup has been put into the foundation,” Qureshi said. “A good part of my earnings from tennis also go into funding the foundation,” he added.
Qureshi has used Facebook posts, some of them with celebrities wearing merchandise of his foundation ‘Stop War, Start Tennis’ and Instagram to gather support. There are also pictures of him sitting alongside wheelchair athletes.
Among those who have promoted his endeavour are Indian players Sania Mirza, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna, his former doubles partner who was one half of the Indo-Pak ‘peace pair’.
Qureshi is a popular face in India because of this partnership which ended in late 2011. And while his career hit a roadblock last year as his doubles ranking dropped to the 60s following an injury, he has been rather relentless in promoting the wheelchair tennis foundation.
“Unfortunately now it is not a very big project but hopefully I can improve on it. I am going to hold an auction in Pakistan during which I hope to sell stuff which Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have given me. I need to create greater awareness in Pakistan if I am to generate more funds. Even one or two dollars is welcome,” Qureshi, ranked 43 in the world in men’s doubles, said.
After rolling out the tennis wheelchair project in four countries, Qureshi wants to start a similar initiative at home.
“In Sri Lanka the wheelchair tennis programme involves only soldiers. In Pakistan, I am in talks with a few of the army generals and I want to replicate the similar programme so that our soldiers can also benefit from the wheelchair programme,” Qureshi says.
In Pakistan, Qureshi decided that he would seek the help of the army because it remains a ‘legitimate’ entity.
“The Pakistan army has a programme with ex-soldiers which includes swimming, basketball and cricket. For me it is about integrity. I don’t want people to think I am using money for my benefit. In Pakistan what the army does is considered to be legit so I will provide wheelchairs to the army.”
The next step in generating funds is to make the ‘Stop War, Start Tennis’ merchandise available online for sale.
Qureshi turned his attention to wheelchair tennis after reading an article in the official magazine of the 2010 Australian Open on the Netherlands Esther Vergeer, who was unbeaten in 10 years in competitive wheelchair tennis.
“My eyes opened to wheelchair tennis when I read the article on Vergeer. I just wondered how I never knew about wheelchair tennis. I asked the ATP and the organisers of the Australian Open to put me in touch with Vergeer and I managed to get some time with her. I played a game of wheelchair tennis with Vergeer and realised that it was a tough sport. It made me realise how lucky I was and how I was in a position to help others,” he says.