‘Sports, arts don’t rate people on religion, country. It should be left like that… Disappointing that India, Pak don’t play’

After seven years, the ‘Indo-Pak Express’ returned to the tennis circuit for the ATP 500 Mexico Open in Acapulco. The reunion comes at a time when India and Pakistan are seeing a thaw in political tension.

SHAHID JUDGE: The first time the two of you had paired up was back in 2003 at the Bristol Challenger. What are your memories from the time?

Bopanna: (At the time) Aisam and I had already been playing a few Challengers… It was a grass-court Challenger that week and we both didn’t have partners, and so we decided to team up. In Bristol, when we started off, Aisam was playing the ad court (left side of the court) and I was playing the deuce court (right side of the court). Later, in Denver, Aisam’s coach Robert Davis suggested we switch sides.

SHAHID JUDGE: And you won the Denver Challenger.

Qureshi: I remember how we celebrated winning that as well, but I will not share it on this platform… The most important thing for me was knowing Rohan well off the court. When I started playing at the Future’s level, there were a lot of Indians. At the Challenger level though, there were fewer. Rohan was one of the top ones and he liked fast courts just like me.

I thank Rohan a lot because there were so many Indians on the tour, but he chose to play with me. I thank him for everything he has done for me to get laurels for my country.

SHAHID JUDGE: Since you were the only Pakistani player on the tour, did the presence of Indian players help, because of the common culture?

Qureshi: India has been very crucial in my career. Choosing tournaments in India was the easiest thing for me because it was just across the border. I really enjoyed my time playing in India. Gelling and hanging out with Indians came very naturally to me. I remember playing a lot of Challengers with Bops (Bopanna) in England, Nottingham, Manchester… Going to all the Indian restaurants together with him, Prakash Amritraj, (players) Harsh Mankad, Mustafa Ghouse. And also going to watch Bollywood movies.

SHAHID JUDGE: How did the friendship between the two of you develop?

Bopanna: The Europeans stick together; the Americans stick together. Aisam was someone I had known for such a long time. Getting along with him just felt so natural. I don’t think we once thought that we were from different countries. It was just like being with a close friend, we hung out day-in-day-out. On the tour, it’s like a relationship. You are constantly with that person, constantly hanging out. And like Aisam said, we played very similar tournaments. So that also helped all of us hang out and have a good time on tour.

SHAHID JUDGE: Did you often talk in Hindi to ensure your opponents don’t understand you?

Qureshi: Yeah. On court I speak with Bops in Hindi. It’s an advantage for us that we don’t have to whisper behind our hands, we can just say it out loud on court and nobody is going to understand. Especially the swearing part.

SHAHID JUDGE: How important was it in your careers to make it to the US Open finals in 2010?

Bopanna: It was such a big moment in our careers, it changed our lives. We played some fantastic tennis in those weeks. Even in the final match there were two tie-breakers… It was a memorable moment.

For friends, families, the countries, to support one team was really huge. It was a big breakthrough. Today, we are still playing on the tour because of the fact that we had such a breakthrough year. It’s 11 years later and we are still playing at the highest level.

SHAHID JUDGE: You championed the slogan ‘Stop War, Start Tennis’ during that tour. How important is it today?

Qureshi: For me, it was much more important than making the finals of a Slam. Working with organisations such as Peace and Sport, the United Nations… They just make you understand the bigger picture.

Even in Pakistan right now, people who don’t know tennis but interact with me, they are always talking about the ‘Indo-Pak Express’. Even in India… The fact that I just entered this tournament with Bops, the kind of messages I have been getting is unbelievable. I never thought people would be this excited to see us teaming up again. It just shows the impact we made at that time as well.

NIHAL KOSHIE: There has been a thaw in the relationship between the two countries. Would the two of you have had second thoughts about teaming up if the situation wasn’t such?

Qureshi: It has never made a difference what the situation is between India and Pakistan or anywhere. I have always believed that I would never mix politics with sports and culture. We have to, as individuals, work towards peace in this world. I really believe peace is the only way to move forward. Not just between India and Pakistan, but throughout the world.

I’m playing with him because we have done very well in the past. He is one of my closest friends. But even when things are not good between India and Pakistan, I have said no to my country… I have had political pressure before as well when I have played with Bops and when I played with a Jewish guy (Amir Hadad from Israel). But I still carried on playing with my friends. And I would have done the same this time around as well.

NIHAL KOSHIE: In hindsight, would India travelling to Pakistan for the Davis Cup in 2019 have helped in promoting peace between the two nations?

Qureshi: Anytime an event gets called off or a team doesn’t want to come to Pakistan or Pakistanis cannot go to India, I feel very disappointed. The people in both the countries cherish that, no matter what kind of series it is — a kabaddi match, hockey match or cricket match between the two nations.

We used to have the Indo-Pak tennis series also. The series was unbelievable. It really helped improve our standards as tennis players. I really cherished them. So, it is disappointing that for political reasons these things are not happening and sports is getting affected. The beauty of sports and arts is that we don’t rate people because of their culture or religion or the country they belong to. It should be left like that… It’s disappointing that Indians can’t come to Pakistan to play, or Pakistanis can’t go to India to play either. (The Davis Cup in 2019, for which the Indian team was expected to travel to Islamabad, was shifted to neutral Kazakhstan by the International Tennis Federation.)

SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Aisam, are there any memories your grandfather Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed shared with you about his time as a national tennis champion before Partition?

Qureshi: Unfortunately, I never got to see him play. My mother never got to see him play either. I have only seen him in videos and pictures. When I used to travel to India, some of the older players used to come and tell me that they had seen him play at the Delhi Gymkhana Club or in Mumbai.

SANDEEP DWIVEDI: As a visa requirement, how difficult was it to visit a police station every day when you were in India as a teenager?

Qureshi: Sometimes it was frustrating, but I always knew what to expect when I came to India. I knew I had to report to a police station in every city at the time. Before I knew my hotel, I knew which police station to go to. I had to report to a station within 24 hours of my arrival and tell them exactly when I was leaving the city. Other than that, it used to feel like home in India. I used to watch Indian movies, have Indian food all the time. I still think the best daal makhani and chicken tikka masala that I have ever had in my life has been in Dehradun and I will never forget that.

SANDEEP DWIVEDI: At the award ceremony of the US Open final, you said, ‘People have wrong perception about Pakistan being a terrorist country… We are very friendly, loving and caring people and we want peace as much as you guys want. May Allah bless us all.’ What made you say that?

Qureshi: If I had given that speech anywhere else, it might not have made that impact. I had to make it to the final of the US Open for it… After 9/11, I have felt a lot of discrimination in the United States. And I was just talking about my personal experience of going to the States post 9/11 and the kind of discrimination I felt. For me, it was a wrong perception that Americans had about Pakistan. If I hadn’t made it to the final with Bopanna on that platform, I don’t think it would have made that much of an impact.

SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Rohan, is there a misconception about Pakistan that you can clear since you have spent so much time with Aisam?

Bopanna: Whoever I have spoken to (in Pakistan) has been fantastic and always positive. One incident I must share is from the time when I went to Aisam’s wedding. The function finished pretty late. I was headed back to my hotel, when suddenly we were stopped at a checkpost. The cop recognised who I was and wanted to take selfies. And this was at 3 am and they were like, ‘Let’s sit down and have a cup of tea’. It has always been about such wonderful incidents.

Then there was the Indo-Pak friendship tour that we had. We had a great welcome, great hospitality. I know when Aisam came to my wedding all the way to Coorg, everyone wanted to talk to him. When you read about a person and have constantly heard about him, you feel like you know him. All my friends were there talking to him as if they had known him for 15 years. That I feel is the real beauty of this friendship.

SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Aisam, any misconception that you want to clear…

Qureshi: I don’t know the political reasons because I don’t get involved in politics so much. In my personal opinion, all the Indians I have met, in India or outside… There are certain tournaments where Indians have watched my match. The only reason they watch my match, even if I am not playing with Bopanna, is the Indo-Pak Express… Every time I meet or speak to an Indian, it’s all about love. It’s all about peace and respect. That’s all I can relate with. I don’t know what’s happening between both countries on the border or stuff like that. For me, a life lost anywhere in the world is depressing and disappointing. I feel like the whole world has stopped appreciating the value of human life.

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