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By Blair Henley | Thursday, July 24, 2014

 
Aisam Qureshi Doubles

What if your choice in a doubles partner had an effect far beyond the tennis court? Aisam Qureshi knows all too well. Find out how he has used his pro athlete status to promote peace around the world.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi is a unique face in professional tennis. Not only is the 34-year-old doubles specialist the only Pakistani player on the ATP Tour, but he has an off-court resume that reads like that of a seasoned diplomat. The former doubles world No. 8 founded a charity called Stop War, Start Tennis and wrote a book of the same name in 2012. He was awarded the prestigious Salam Prize in 2007, and he has also been dubbed a Champion of Peace by the Peace and Sport World Forum. The United Nations named him a Goodwill Ambassador in 2010 – the same year he won the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year Award for the second time. Prior to this year's Wimbledon Championships, he spoke of his foundation and career in a speech before the British House of Commons.

The awards and accolades underscore the peaceful stand taken by Qureshi and his doubles teammates throughout his career. He made headlines in 2002 by pairing with Israeli player Amir Hadad, ignoring criticism from the leaders of their respective countries. He again placed himself at the center of a cultural controversy when he joined with his current doubles partner, Rohan Bopanna of India.

The duo suffered an upset loss in the second round of Wimbledon against eventual champions Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil, but Qureshi rebounded by joining a World Team Tennis squad for the remainder of July. He led the Dallas-based Texas Wild for the second straight year, narrowly missing a playoff berth. Qureshi spoke with us from San Diego as the WTT season came to a close.    

You’ve had a solid season with the Texas Wild. Is there more pressure to perform when you’re part of a bigger team? Or are you used to that as a doubles player?
Pressure is always there. The reason there is pressure is because we all care!

What is it like to compete with a new doubles partner when you are used to playing with Rohan Bopanna full time? Has it been fun to shake things up?
I played with Alex [Bogomolov Jr.] last year as well. I had a very good time with him. It’s really easy to play with guys I get along with off the court. He’s a super nice guy and motivated as well. He puts himself out there for the team, which really helps me a lot. He has played against the big guys and knows how to step up in big occasions, so it’s been really fun playing alongside him for the last few weeks.

Last month, you had the chance to speak in front of England’s House of Commons to discuss your charity and your experience as a tennis player from Pakistan. What was more nerve-racking – speaking in that setting or playing in the 2010 US Open doubles final?
Definitely addressing the parliament (laughs). There was more pressure doing that. I think with tennis, you’re always working on it, always practicing and playing the big events. This House of Parliament speech, I never practiced that. It was definitely an honor and a privilege as a Pakistani and as a human being. It’s not every day I can say I go to the House of Parliament to give a speech. It was a very humbling experience and one that I will never forget.

When you look back on your career, what do you think you’ll be most proud of?
I am very blessed to be playing something that I really love. As a human being, what I’ve learned is that we need to help those that are less privileged. Four years ago, I was named a Goodwill Ambassador to the UN in Pakistan, which helped me realize the bigger picture – it’s not only about tennis. I’ve been very blessed to be around Roger Federer, Rafa, Andy Roddick, Andy Murray, all guys who have great charities who have tried to help people out. You learn from them as well. We can help a lot of people out with our image and the position we are in. That’s all I’m trying to do. Once I’m done with tennis, I hope people will remember me being a good human being and not just a good tennis player.

There is a lot of unrest in your home region. Is it difficult to focus on the ins and outs of tour life when you know that people are hurting back home?
It’s become part of my life. It’s not easy. It makes you count your blessings more every day. Before, if I had a twisted ankle and a backache or a headache, it used to create chaos. Then you see areas that are struck by natural disasters or war, and you see that they are still fighting, they still have hope and they are still motivated to have a better life. You start counting your blessings even more. It helped to open my eyes when I met them and spent time among them. It makes you think about things you never used to think about.

What does the future of the game look like in Pakistan today? 
The only thing I can do is to play at the highest level and play against the best players in the world. Playing World Team Tennis also helps promote tennis in Pakistan. Playing at the Grand Slam level against players like Federer, Nadal and Murray helps me promote the game, but unfortunately because of the situation back home, there have been no international sporting events for the last six or seven years in Pakistan. It’s been very disappointing and depressing for me. I really want play in front of my people. Hopefully things will change and the international community can start coming to Pakistan. Then we can have international events, and we can promote tennis for new generations.

You have fans around the world, but you’re a very famous face in Pakistan. What is that attention like?
It feels really good. It took me a long time to get recognition back home. When I started playing professional tennis, it was one of my goals to get recognized in my country, being a cricket and hockey nation. After 14 years of being on the tour, people finally realized in 2010 that there was a tennis player from Pakistan. When people come up and say they are proud to have a Pakistani tennis player, that makes me very proud.

You were applauded by people all over the world for the stand you took in partnering with an Israeli player in Amir Hadad and also Rohan Bopanna of India. Did you also face criticism?
In the beginning, I did have a lot of negatives from the sports authority in Pakistan. They banned me from playing in Pakistan and for Pakistan. The one thing I learned from tennis is that you can’t mix politics, religion or culture with sport. That’s the beauty about it. I really believe in my decision [to play with those partners] and I stood by it then. I’m really glad that my family and friends supported me, and all the players supported me as well. I’m proud that I stood by my decision. Thanks to the ITF and the ATP for recognizing my stand. I got the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award in 2002 and 2008. I feel very proud and blessed that I am the only tennis player in history to receive that award twice.

After your tennis career, what’s next for you?
Back home I have a lot of opportunities. To grow the foundation is a big goal; to help more people out is another goal. The rest depends on what ranking I have and where I stop my tennis career. Being well known in Pakistan, there are opportunities. We’ll see where it takes me. 

 

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