October issue 2010
Interview: Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi
“Never give up on your dreams”
– Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi
At a time when bad news seems to be the only news in the Pakistani media, Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi’s almost win at the US Open doubles final on the courts of the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York in September was a cause for nationwide celebrations. It was not just the fact that his achievement was unprecedented for a Pakistani on the tennis circuit, or that his partner, Rohan Bopanna, was an Indian — both of which were reason enough to delight Pakistani souls weary of losing and acrimony. It was Aisam’s moving speech at the awards ceremony that was the icing on the cake. With his winning looks and natural demeanour, he made the best argument yet for Pakistan. In his interview with Newsline, Aisam talks about his first love, tennis, his hopes and dreams for the future and his new-found celebrity status.
Q: How has the Pakistan government responded to your near success in the US Open final?
A: Prime Minister Gilani called me after my semi-final match and wished me good luck and appreciated my achievement. That was a tremendous boost for me. On my return, the Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, threw a big reception on the lawns of the Governor House and Punjab Chief Minster, Shahbaz Sharif, invited me for breakfast. Also, I have received congratulatory calls from the federal sports minster and several parliamentarians.
Q: But does the government support or fund this game in Pakistan?
A: Unfortunately, tennis could never get the attention of the government, so far at least, despite my many successes at the international level. Let us hope that now things will change.
Q: How have the Indians responded to you?
A: The feedback I have received from India about my pairing with Indian players, in general, is very positive. I have not received any negative comments from any side. I think everybody understands my position and my vision about it.
Q: You have been playing tennis from a young age. When did you decide to go professional in this sport?
A: The decision to go professional was taken in 1998, when I was debating whether to go to an American university [many of them were after me at that time as I was the Asian No. 1 and World No. 7 Junior Tennis Player] or to become a professional tennis player. I like to explore different options as compared to others, so I chose to become a professional tennis player instead of choosing the all-expenses paid admission in an American university.
Q: Did you ever dream of playing on international tennis courts, alongside top-ranking players?
A: Having achieved the Asian No. 1 and World No. 7 ranking in junior tennis, I always believed that I could do well in the Men’s Open as well, and I was fortunate that my parents and my family never lost faith in me. I have been quite familiar with top players like Federer, Roddick, James Blake, Taylor Dent and Oliver Rochus from my junior time and had even played and beaten some of them. So I always believed I belonged to the same community.
Q: Do you think you can ever win a Wimbledon championship?
A: Wimbledon has always been my dream. I am working out everyday to be able to do that, and don’t be too surprised if I actually do it one day, Inshallah.
Q: What is your training regimen for tennis? How much of your time does it take?
A: I used to spend four to five hours on court and then one to one-and-a-half hours in the gym plus one hour of stretching. Now, however, I have changed that a bit. As I am aging, I tend to spend more than two hours in the gym in order to keep up my fitness levels and I have reduced my on-court time to about three hours — my emphasis is more on quality now.
Q: What has been the lowest point of your career?
A: Ups and down have always been there and, at times, I have felt low enough to even quit tennis, but my parents and my family have always given me enough support to bounce back. I am really indebted to them.
Q: Was it always a goal of yours to use tennis as a catalyst for spreading peace?
A: Universality of peace is something that I staunchly believe in, and throughout my career as a tennis player I have tried to make use of every available platform to spread this message.
Q: Who came up with the slogan “Stop war, start tennis?” Are you and Rohan referring to the Indo-Pak war, or war in general?
A: No, we are not referring to India and Pakistan. This is a general message of peace. The slogan was the result of a joint effort by me and my coach, Robert Davis.
Q: Which of your partnerships have been the most memorable? Do you choose partners yourself or are you paired with them at random?
A: The partners have been chosen based on eligible ranking for a tournament. I normally like to choose a partner that I am comfortable with, both on-court and off-court. I have enjoyed my pairing with Rohan the most.
Q: Would you consider teaming up with Sania Mirza for a doubles match in the future?
A: Playing with Sania Mirza in a mixed doubles match is definitely a possibility. Being on the tennis circuit, we have known each other for many years. I know that a lot of people in India and Pakistan want to see us together on the court.
Q: There are talks that you are planning to team up with Bopanna to play an exhibition match against the Bryan brothers to raise funds for flood affectees.
A: Yes, we plan to do that and have already requested the Pakistan Tennis Federation to arrange it. You will hear further details in due course of time.
Q: And then there’s the match at the Wagah border. Will you rope in other Indian and Pakistani tennis players to participate as well?
A: We are waiting for a nod from the Pakistani and Indian governments for the Wagah border match.
Q: You have pretty much all of Pakistan’s — if not the world’s — females swooning over you. What kind of a girl do you hope to marry? Will it be a love or an arranged marriage?
A: My family is keen on my marriage now, though I feel I will not be able to give as much priority to my wife as one should, due to my travel commitments. My family is very open-minded and supportive so a love marriage would be no issue as far as they are concerned. I look forward to having a wife who would love me for what I am as a person and not merely for my fame or glory.
Q: Do you have a social life at all, or do you prefer to think of new tennis strategies in the comfort of your home?
A: I believe there is a time for everything. I give pretty much six to eight hours daily to my game [on-court and off-court], but I do like to relax in the remaining hours of the day by watching movies, listening to music and reading some quality stuff [mostly to improve my mental strength and character]. I have a three-year-old nephew and, whenever I am in Lahore, I love to play with him for hours and hours. And recently, I have taken up a Masters in Management programme at the University of Phoenix and need to spend some hours a day studying.
Q: Given your celebrity status, you will probably be hounded to become a brand ambassador for several products. Would you be a willing model?
A: That comes as a part of the package, but I will definitely be very selective as my image and moral values are very dear to me.
Q: Have you ever considered acting? If you had to sign up for an acting contract, would you opt for Bollywood, or Lollywood?
A: Frankly speaking, acting — at least once — is on my to-do list. If for nothing else, just to experience the process. Whether I’ll actually do it and where, is something that the future holds.
Q: You are a source of inspiration to other Pakistanis wanting to excel in their own respective sports. What can they learn from your experience?
A: If other Pakistanis were to draw inspiration from me and my success, then I would be the most contented person. The one lesson they can draw from my experience is, never to give up on your dreams. Keep working hard to achieve your goals with diligence and honesty of purpose — and you will definitely make it.