Indo-Pak pair in tennis diplomacy

India’s Rohan Bopanna and Pakistan’s Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi team up and reach the US Open Men’s doubles final.

U.S. Open - Day 5
Rohan Bopanna, right, of India and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan are set to take on the Bryan brothers in the US Open 2010 men’s doubles finals late on Friday [GALLO/GETTY]

The idea of a partnership between Pakistan and India has long been considered almost impossible.

But the success that India’s Rohan Bopanna and Pakistan’s Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi have achieved so far at the men’s doubles event at the US Open, has given the issue a new spin.

Their winning performances attracted supporters from both countries, including their United Nations ambassadors, to sit in the stands together at Flushing Meadows on Thursday.

It was a new experience for both sets of fans as Bopanna and Qureshi beat Eduardo Schwank and Horacio Zeballos of Argentina 7-6 (5), 6-4 to reach the final.

The pair will take on the top-ranked Mike and Bob Bryan of the United States, the most successful doubles team in history, late on Friday.

Rashid Malik, the Pakistan Davis Cup coach, told Al Jazeera that he is confident that the Bopanna-Qureshi partnership can achieve success.

“They are very good friends, both off the court and on the court. The success of their team so far has been a big encouragement for both countries, it will only have a peaceful and positive impact on their people.

“I have predicted all along that he [Qureshi] can win, if he can beat four top seed players within a month, there’s nothing to stop him now. Rohan is also playing very well. They have come so far, they are favourites to win.”

Manohar Singh Gill, India’s sports minister, said he hoped for the pair’s success in the final.

“I have one question for everyone. If Bopanna and Qureshi can play together, why cannot India and Pakistan?”

‘Stop War, Start Tennis’

Qureshi and Bopanna have been playing together on and off since 2003.

Given that not much top-level tennis is played in Pakistan, Qureshi had to find a partner from neighbouring India.

Hence, initially it was a partnership of convenience.

However, earlier this year, as part of a peace campaign supported by a Monaco-based group called Peace and Sport, the two started wearing sweat shirts with slogans reading “Stop War, Start Tennis”, thus attracting a lot of attention to their partnership.

The winning combination refer to themselves as the “Indo-Pak Express”.

For Qureshi it is more than a chance to make history as the first Pakistani to win a Grand Slam; he also wants to use his success to present a positive image of Pakistan.

“We do have terrorist groups, we do have extremists, but I feel like (in) every religion there are extremists there,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean the whole nation is terrorist or extremist. Pakistan is a peace-loving country. Everybody loves sports. I think everybody wants peace, as well.”

Mood lifter

A country affected by devastating floods, a series of terrorist attacks and a cricket scandal in recent weeks, Qureshi’s victory is just what Pakistan needs to lift the nation’s spirits.

As Pakistan and India have not collaborated in such a high profile manner before, there has been a lot of focus on their “unique” partnership.

“It just feels like us doing well on the bigger level is getting the message across throughout the world – if me and Rohan can get along so well there’s no reason the Indians and Pakistanis can’t get along with each other,” Qureshi said.

“We’re not looking into any political part or anything to do with whatever is happening,” Bopanna said.

“If even two or three per cent of people say, ‘If they can get along why can’t we?’ that’s what we’re trying to do.

“They’re all mixed together sitting in the crowd. You can’t tell who is Pakistani and who is Indian,” Qureshi said.

“That’s the beauty about sports. Before our pairing you would never see that in any sports, fighting for one cause. It’s really good to be part of it.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies