Twenty-one years is a long time in the life of an international tennis player. If you get to that stage, chances are you would have the experience of playing in almost all kinds of situations — and against all sorts of players — the tennis tour could throw at you.
Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi’s career started in 1998. Since then, he’s won 17 ATP doubles titles and has been a former World No.8 in doubles. In 2010, he reached the final of both the men’s doubles and mixed doubles events at the US Open. Qureshi is easily Pakistan’s most decorated players and, at 39, still their lynchpin in both singles and doubles when it comes to the Davis Cup.
But if he thought he had seen it all, Qureshi was wrong. For the first time in his long career, he will play against India on his home turf when Pakistan host its eastern neighbour for a Group 1 Asia/Oceania Davis Cup tie in Islamabad next month.
Over the last 21 years, Qureshi has partnered with multiple Indian players in doubles, some successful, some not so. And he certainly has found himself on the opposite side of the net, and beaten his Indian opponents. The new and unseen challenge for Qureshi, though, is to do it on home soil, while representing his country.
Playing in Pakistan, for Pakistan, against his Indian friends — that is something he’s never done before. “The pressure is there because we care so much,” Qureshi says. “Aqeel Khan (another Pakistani veteran) cares for the Davis Cup, and so do I. That’s why we’ve been playing and representing Pakistan for the past 20 years. We both are very patriotic when it comes to Davis Cup and we both play our hearts out. The pressure was always there, and it will still be there when we play India.”
India versus Pakistan is never just ‘a match’, no matter the sport. Pakistan has, in recent years, lived in the shadow of their stronger Indian opponents. So there will be some expectation from Qureshi to lead the charge to a successful change in fortunes.
Qureshi will draw from his experience of playing India in a Davis Cup before. In 2006, India hosted Pakistan in Mumbai. Qureshi beat good friend and future partner Rohan Bopanna in their singles rubber, but the Indians eventually secured the tie with a 3-2 scoreline.
“It was one of the fun ties I’ve played. All the Indians playing that tie were very good friends of mine. Bopanna, Prakash Amritraj, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi,” Qureshi says. “Obviously, it was a heartbreaking loss for us but we did push them to the end, which I think is something they never expected. But I have great memories. We went to the Governor’s house as well to have a team dinner. I’m looking forward to hosting the Indian players. Luckily, from that tie Bopanna is still playing and Mahesh is the non-playing captain. Hopefully, they can have some fun memories they can take back to India after the tie.”
Qureshi and Bopanna would go on to forge a successful doubles partnership, the high watermark of which was making the 2010 US Open final.
Recently, Qureshi and Khan also shared a meal with their Indian ‘friends’ in Nottingham. “We were all sitting together in an Indian restaurant,” recalls Khan. “Leander was talking about that (2006 tie) there, Aisam and I were there, so was Rohan and Ramkumar (Ramanathan). It happened so long ago but we all remember it fondly.”
That evening of reminiscences happened shortly before the Wimbledon Championships this year. While the Indians were gearing up for the Grand Slam, Qureshi and Khan were actually working steadily towards their preparation for the tie.
Qureshi, a doubles specialist now ranked 55th in the world, is the only Pakistani player — singles or doubles — to be placed within the top 1000 ranks. Both he and Khan are country’s longest-serving players in the Davis Cup. While Khan does not compete internationally, the Pakistan Tennis Federation (PTF) made arrangements for him to travel with Qureshi for six weeks as a hitting partner.
Qureshi says: “Back home in Pakistan, there’s not much tennis going on. So I asked Aqeel to come and help me out as well. I hope that it helped him in preparing for the Davis Cup tie the same way it’s helping me. Still there’s 6-7 weeks before the tie. Hopefully we’ll be able to work it and give India a good challenge.”
By now, Qureshi and Khan have become accustomed to the steadily growing support they receive during home ties. It’s something they weren’t allowed to enjoy from 2005 to 2017 when the International Tennis Federation had banned the country from hosting international tennis matches due to security concerns. “The regret we have is that both Aisam and I were 25 when the ban was imposed,” Khan explains. “It was sad that we lost our peak years.” When the ban lifted though, Khan recalls being washed with waves of both joy and tension.
“People had heard a lot of stories that Aqeel and Aisam play quite well, ever since we came up in 1999, but nobody had really seen us play,” Khan says. “So all these stories had started floating again, and we started feeling some pressure because were now 37, and people had the same expectations of what they had heard about us when we were 25.”
In the five ties Pakistan has hosted since the ban was lifted, they won four. Their most recent match was a loss against Uzbekistan, which paved the way for the draw against India. The diplomatic ties between the two countries have worsened in the last few days, but there will be people on both sides of the border hoping that the September tie goes ahead.