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Tennis Blog Page

Indian and Pakistani Thrive as a Team

Elina Frumerman

  By Stephane Danna, AFP/Getty Images

By Stephane Danna, AFP/Getty Images

PARIS — India and Pakistan are uncomfortable nuclear neighbors at best, warring enemies at worst and fierce cricket rivals whatever the situation.

Boundary skirmishes, religious tensions and political rivalries have defined their coexistence since the violent partition of what was once British India in 1947.

Rohan Bopanna of India and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan are challenging these notions of mutual mistrust. Their unusual and increasingly successful doubles partnership is defying popular perceptions of their country's tangled political history.

"Until the last year I never thought we could make a change in peoples' lives through sport," says Qureshi, who is at a career-high doubles ranking of No. 46 after he and Bopanna reached the final in a clay event at Nice last week. "It made us realize we can do something bigger than sport: send a message of peace."

Unseeded and never past the second round in Paris, they are long shots to bring home a French Open championship. Rain on Thursday postponed the pair's opening-round match against Fabio Fognini of Italy and Michael Russell of the USA.

One need not look far to be reminded of the unlikely nature of their alliance.

When Indian tennis star Sania Mirza and Shoab Malik, a former captain of the Pakistan cricket team, announced their engagement earlier this year it created a storm of negative press even though both are Muslims. The controversy died down (the two wed last month), but it demonstrates the level of hostility that simmers below the surface.

Bopanna, a Hindu from Bangalore, and Qureshi, a Muslim from near Lahore, are in their own way quietly building bridges.

"Tennis is bringing nations together," says Bob Bryan, who with twin brother Mike is part of the world's top-ranked doubles team.

Bopanna and Qureshi's friendship dates back a decade when the two 30-year-olds were first breaking in on the men's tour. Language was an initial bond. 

"We got along well and almost spoke the same language," says Bopanna, who speaks Hindi, which is very close to Qureshi's Urdu. 

Over time, they found themselves sharing dinners, hotel rooms and friendly shouting matches in front of the TV when India and Pakistan squared off in cricket, the national sport. Red Sox-Yankees and Lakers-Celtics passions pale by comparison.

Camaraderie blossomed between them and eased the isolation of circuit life.

"On the tour it can be very lonely," says Bopanna, who carries a No. 54 ranking in doubles.

They didn't think about their country's tensions and found that they had complementary styles on the court as well as off. 

Qureshi is quick and adept at the net. Bopanna has the heavier groundstrokes and meatier returns. Both are comfortable coming in behind their serves, even in singles, a rarity in the modern game.

They first teamed up in 2005 and played more consistently in 2007, winning several lower-tier Challenger events. But doubles remained on the backburner as both refused to give up their singles aspirations.

After another successful run at the end of last year — they won two more Challengers in November — they decided to make doubles a priority in 2010.

The decision has paid off. They won their first ATP Tour event together in February at Johannesburg and reached two other finals at Casablanca and Nice.

While Bopanna owns one previous ATP title (with Eric Butorac at Los Angeles in 2008), the Johannesburg victory was Qureshi's first.

"I always wanted to get my first title, and I'm very happy I got it with him," says Qureshi, whose sunny outlook and deliberate manner of speaking hint at a diplomatic career in the making. "It was a great moment."

"So far it's been very good," says the more free-flowing Bopanna. "I see us getting stronger and stronger."

As their success has grown, so has the opportunity to do something meaningful with it.

The two Bollywood aficionados have talked to their clothing sponsor about creating T-shirts emblazoned with the words, "Stop War, Love Tennis, Love India/Love Pakistan."

But their grander ambition is to stage an exhibition at the Wagah border, the only road crossing point between countries with a combined population of about 1.3 billion.

The idea: string a net across the dividing line and conduct a clinic from the opposing side — Qureshi in India, Bopanna in Pakistan.

Peace and Sport, a neutral organization backed by Prince Albert II of Monaco, is supporting the initiative by reaching out to local governments to help organize it.

"It's coming from the vision of these two players," says Yann Coelenbier, the Monaco-based organization's managing director.

Qureshi is no stranger to the intersection of politics and sport.

He initially made waves when he teamed with Israeli Amir Hadad at Wimbledon in 2002. Although he was the first Pakistani to qualify at the All England Club in 40 years and reached the third round with Hadad, the reaction back home was surprisingly harsh.

"I never got any death threats, but the sports authorities threatened to ban me," Qureshi says. "I've always kept religious and cultures away from sports. If I believe I can do well with someone, whether it's a Christian, Hindu, Jew, I would definitely play with him. That is the beauty of sport. It's free of differences between people and countries."

A smaller measure of negativity met Bopanna and Qureshi when they started to play regularly, but that has since blown over, especially after they reached their first ATP final at Mumbai in 2007. They are popular figures at home, and their matches are often broadcast live.

"They really appreciated my partnership with him," Bopanna says of the support back home.

Both have ambitions to promote tennis in their countries.

Bopanna draws inspiration from Davis Cup teammates Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, both of whom have won multiple Grand Slam titles and been ranked No. 1. 

Qureshi, who also plays Davis Cup for Pakistan, is the first from his country to attain a top-50 ranking in doubles and three years ago became the first from his nation to qualify for the main draw in singles at Wimbledon. He advanced to the second round.

"I have to play a lot of singles, and the Asian Games are coming up," says Qureshi, who has been Pakistan's No. 1 player for 13 years. "For me to promote tennis in Pakistan I have to play in the biggest tournaments against he biggest players."

In doubles, their goal is to play well at the majors and qualify for the Barclays ATP World Tour Final in London. Eight teams make the cut; they currently stand in 14th place.

American Mike Bryan says they have potential to move up the rankings and positively impact perceptions at home and abroad if they pair up consistently. 

"Hopefully they will play together every week, and it'll make headlines," Mike Bryan says.

"If this partnership helps in building up the two nations even in a small way," Bopanna says, "it's great for us."