Rising Tension over New Delhi’s decision to end Jammu and Kashmir’s special status hasn’t dulled Pakistan’s anticipation for next month’s Davis Cup tie against India in Islamabad. The last time an Indian tennis team crossed the Pakistan border was 55 years ago. A cloud of doubt, however, gathered over the tie on Wednesday with Pakistan downgrading the diplomatic relations with India.
Team Pakistan’s mainstay, Aqeel Khan, 39, sums up the wait for the Indian team led by non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi and has Top 100 singles player Prajnesh Gunneswaran, and Grand Slam regular and doubles specialist, Rohan Bopanna. “Lots of people ask if India is coming,” says Aqeel. “The television news channels here have been taking a lot of interest in this tie.”
This excitement was triggered last month after the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) gave the green signal to the Islamabad venue, and grew when the Indian government left the decision to travel to the All India Tennis Association (AITA). But last week, Bhupathi, in a letter to AITA, expressed concerns about the team’s safety.
Pakistan captain and Bopanna’s one-time doubles partner on the ATP circuit, Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, calls these fears unfounded. “Security concerns have always been because of the fear of the unknown,” he says, on the September 14-15 tie. “No matter what you do or what you hear, until somebody comes and sees the security measures they will not realise or understand it. They would be surprised by our security arrangements and the hospitality. Nobody knows about the future, all we can do is give the assurance that, Inshallah, everything will go right. That’s how it’s been happening for the past three years,” says Qureshi.
Tennis in Pakistan is picking up the pieces, recovering from its 12-year international isolation. Between 2005-2017, the tennis world gave Pakistan a miss due to security concerns. This freeze resulted in the game dying a slow death. With no new talent emerging, Khan and Qureshi, the two 39-year-olds, still retain their places in the team.
Qureshi regrets missing playing at home. “Unfortunately, I was not able to play in the country during my golden years of playing singles,” says the former world no 8 in doubles who reached the Wimbledon singles second round in 2007. “There were no international events happening at home. Tennis suffered a lot because we could have grown better players and got better results,” he says.
Since tennis’ return to Pakistan in 2017, Iran, Thailand, South Korea and most recently Uzbekistan have travelled to Islamabad.
“People were coming in from Lahore and from Karachi to watch the ties,” says Khan, who has represented Pakistan 51 times in Davis Cup ties, more than any other player. “This has never happened before.”
And now that India is set to hop across the border, the buzz is greater than what Pakistan tennis has ever experienced before. Pakistan hopes the tie will change perceptions around the world about the nation.
“People are realising that Pakistan is a safe country, a pleasant country, a peace-loving nation, a sports-loving country full of people who are friendly, humble, lovable, and caring,” says Qureshi.
“I feel in the past 3-4 years the perception in the western world has been changing about Pakistan. I hear people talking good things about my country, which is very satisfying. Obviously, there are some parts (of Pakistan) that are still not safe. But you can’t judge a country of 220 million people based on a few groups, or terrorist activities,” he says.
“I’m doing my level best, as a Pakistani, to promote the image of my country and the people that I know and believe in. Hopefully, we will show it to the Indian Davis Cup team when they come to Pakistan. I’m sure they’re going to take very good and happy memories of us back to India,” says Qureshi.
Another chapter of an India versus Pakistan rivalry will unfold in a tie that, on paper, has a different meaning for both teams. India has reached the Davis Cup final thrice. Pakistan has never made it to the World Group, and this, by far, is the biggest tie they will ever play in. India, with better ranked experienced players, is easily the favourite to win. However, for Pakistan, the result doesn’t matter. The tie does.
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