‘The only regret I have in tennis is that I’ve not been able to make it to the top-100 in singles. My highest ranking was 103. That sometimes really hurt me because I was very close, but that’s life’
Aisam-ul-Haq is undoubtedly one of the best tennis players produced by Pakistan. In a country where every second child wants to be like Imran Khan, Wasim Akram or Shahid Afridi, Aisam opted for a sport which was not so popular in the country until he played the final of US Open in 2010, partnering with India’s Rohan Bopanna in men’s doubles and Kveta Peschke of Czech Republic in mixed doubles. With 10 ATP tour doubles title, 16 ITF singles titles, 42 ITF doubles’ titles, Aisam has achieved what no other Pakistani tennis player has achieved. In a recent interview to The News on Sunday, Aisam spoke his heart out about his career so far, the treatment he received back home over partnering with an Israeli player and his future plans. Following are the excerpts.
The News On Sunday: In a country like Pakistan, kids usually follow cricket or football, what encouraged you to choose tennis?
Aisam-ul-Haq: I started playing tennis at the age of 13. My mother Nausheen Ihtisham was Pakistan’s No 1 for ten years and my maternal grandfather Khawaja Iftekhar Ahmed was all India No 1 before partition.
So, tennis was my family game and it’s in my blood. My mom took me to tennis courts during summer vacations. She wanted to see if I had any tennis genes in me and that’s where it started. Out of all my siblings, I was the sportiest one.
TNS: How difficult was it for you to be among the leading tennis players of the world? Especially coming from a country where tennis is not so popular?
AuH: It was very difficult, obviously! To become a professional tennis player being from Pakistan! I never had any government support, federation support, financially or in any other way; it wasn’t so easy. But I did try my level best to bring more and more laurels for my country and wherever I go, I try to present a good image of Pakistan. I tried to be the door opener and to make tennis popular with my results, by playing in top tournaments and by playing against the best players of the world.
TNS: Do you think Pakistan Tennis Federation is doing enough for the promotion of tennis in Pakistan and they did enough to capitalise on your achievements?
AuH: I don’t think PTF is doing what’s needed to be done to promote this game. The PTF had a lot of opportunities to cash in on my achievements, but unfortunately it never did. I don’t see any increase in tennis courts in Pakistan. In fact, I feel that there is actually a decrease in the number of tennis courts. It’s been really sad. The PTF and the government could have done a lot more.
TNS: Is the government doing enough for country’s sporting heroes?
AuH: Honestly speaking, I don’t think the government is doing enough for the country’s heroes, whether they’re from hockey, tennis, squash, football or tennis. It’s very unfortunate that we forget about our heroes very quickly and very easily. People who have brought laurels for the country don’t get the right respect or recognition. I think the government and the federations of all these sports need to realise that most of the times these players have actually made it to top level by themselves, by doing hard work. The government can do a lot more for the encouragement of our heroes to get them recognised.
TNS: You first partnered with Amir Hadad of Israel, then partnered with Rohan Bopanna of India. Were these decisions purely based on tennis requirements or you wanted to give some message as well?
AuH: I initially partnered with Rohan and Amir, purely because of tennis. There was no political agenda behind that. But some people made me realise that I could do a lot more than just being a tennis player through my partnership with Amir and through my partnership with Rohan. They made me see the bigger picture, how I could influence so many people all over the world because of my partnerships.
TNS: When you paired up with Israel’s Amir Hadad, back home there was lot of hue and cry. How did you deal with it? Was it disappointing?
AuH: The first time when I qualified with Amir Hadad in the Wimbledon, I thought I was going to get praised by the government and the federation, but it was totally a different ball game. They actually banned me from playing Davis Cup for Pakistan and national events if I continued to play any further with Amir. It was obviously a shock to me because for me, playing Wimbledon was my dream and I think I was the first Pakistani in 30 or 40 odd years to be playing Wimbledon. I felt that I was doing the right thing to keep on playing with him and I really believe that you can’t really mix politics, culture, and color with sports. That’s what sports really teach us, that’s the beauty of sports, any sport. It brings people and cultures together. In cricket, you see IPL where cricketers from all over the world are playing in one team and nobody saying anything. I only took them as normal human beings playing for the same cause to help each other and to bring laurels for our respective countries.
TNS: You were awarded Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award twice. How can sports be used for peace building around the world?
AuH: Getting Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award, obviously, is a huge honour for me. I feel really blessed and really honoured and definitely proud as well. There are so many top names in the list of people who got Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award like Nelson Mandela. This is really a big honor not only for me but also for the country because most of the times Pakistan was in negative news, especially during past few years, but this was something positive.
TNS: How was your experience of pairing with Rohan Bopanna? Would you like to join him again? Any regrets for parting ways with him?
AuH: Playing with Rohan was a great experience. I’ve known him for so many years. We’ve had lots of ups and downs. I won my first ATP title with him, I made to my first grand slam final with him. There are a lot of good memories and I am very thankful to him for making me achieve all those moments with him. I have no regrets of parting with him. Right now our rankings are at different spots, but in future we may play together again. He had an opportunity to play with a top guy who’s also a former number one and I think he made the right decision. It’s not like we’ve signed a contract that we’ll never play with each other again.
TNS: You played the final of US Open in 2010. Before that you defeated Roger Federer in 2009 in doubles event at Basel Open. Which of these two would be your greatest memory?
AuH: Playing Roger Federer and US Open final, both are very, very special in my life. There’re handful of people who can say they’ve played against Roger Federer and even lesser who’ve defeated him. I am very fortunate, lucky and blessed that I can say that I’ve played him and I’ve actually defeated him as well. It was an honour to be on the same court as him. This is something I will never ever forget in my life. Playing the final of US Open changed my whole life. All my life I wanted to be recognised as a tennis player in Pakistan. It took me more than 12 years to be recognised. When I came back after the US Open, I actually felt like my country knows that there is a tennis player from Pakistan, and definitely I can say that my whole life changed after that. So, both are very special moments.
TNS: Any regrets in life? Something which you could have done, but you didn’t?
AuH: The only regret I have in tennis is that I’ve not been able to make it to the top-100 in singles. My highest ranking was 103. That sometimes really hurt me because I was very close, but that’s life.
TNS: How many more years do you think you have on tennis courts? Any major goals you want to achieve before you retire?
AuH: I am not retiring any time soon. I am still very motivated and I still feel very hungry to win titles. My main goal is to get the first grand slam title for Pakistan, for my family and for myself. To qualify for Olympics is another goal for me.
TNS: What are your post-retirement plans? Do you intend to start any academy in Pakistan?
AuH: I am not even thinking about post retirement plans at the moment, because if you start thinking about post retirement plans then you get distracted from goals you’ve set for yourself. Right now I am actually much focused on things I want to achieve in my career. After that, I would like to give back to the community, and to help youngsters in every way possible, so there can be more and even better Aisam Qureshis. I will be, hopefully, working on my foundation and doing more philanthropy work.
TNS: Your advice to aspiring tennis players in the country?
AuH: If they want to become tennis players and if they want to bring laurels for the country, they really need to be very dedicated, they have to be very motivated and hungry for success. They have to be very disciplined and they’ll have to make a lot of sacrifices as well. Talent and skills can get you to a certain level, but hard work is what actually pays.