Former partners and “peace ambassadors” Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi will reunite on court after seven years, at the ATP 500 event in Acapulco, Mexico, later this month. As things stand, the arrangement is only for a week.
It all started when the former top-10 Indo-Pak doubles pair got chatting at the Australian Open this year. Since both aren’t currently with fixed doubles partners, they decided to explore the idea of entering the Dubai Open (March 7-20) together. Having won the tournament in 2014 as partners, they figured they’d be in a position to request organisers for a wild card entry. In the post-COVID Tour scenario, with fewer events, smaller draws and stronger cuts, there was a risk, however. If they waited for the wildcards and missed out the two available slots, they’d be left with nothing. The Mexican Open (March 15-20), which runs around the same time, was the other alternative. Luckily, with a combined ranking of 89, they managed to scrape their way into the entry list for that one on Tuesday.
“Aisam and I have always been thick friends and at this juncture of my career it’s nice to be playing with someone I’ve known for ages,” says Bopanna. “If we’re struggling to get into ATP 500 tournaments together, we can imagine how it’s going to be at Masters events. So for now, we will be playing together just for this tournament. As doubles players, we are literally living week-by-week at this point. I will be trying to find different partners every week till I get someone fixed.”
Bopanna and Qureshi’s acquaintance goes back to their junior circuit days, well before they partnered for the first time at a Challenger event in Denver in 2003. As a pair, the ‘Indo-Pak Express’, as they were known, have won five ATP doubles titles together, and they’ve reached the 2010 US Open final. They parted ways ahead of the London Olympics but reunited in 2014 to win the Dubai Open title. The Shenzen Open, an ATP 250 series event, in September that year turned out to be their final tournament as partners.
Their nationalities — Indian and Pakistani respectively — turns them into an oddity of a partnership on the tour, given the acrimonious political relations between both neighboring countries. Bilateral sporting ties between both countries remain suspended but Bopanna’s thinking is clear.
“My mindspace is simple: This is a guy I share a great friendship with and we’re getting to play a tournament,” he says. “In sport, that’s how you look at things. If we think about it, it’s just one Indian and one Pakistani in the ATP 500 entry list. It’s not like there are hundreds of Indian players out there playing at these big events every week. People are free to judge or make comments. It’s not judging who I am. I need to play the top events to get my ranking in shape and try to qualify for the Olympics. In a population of 1.3 billion people, you have one guy playing a big event so it probably makes sense to let him play with whoever he gets, rather than him not playing at all.”
Back in Islamabad, Qureshi is readying for Pakistan’s World Group I Davis Cup tie against Japan this week. The prospect of teaming up with Bopanna crossed his mind several times in the past seven years but it didn’t seem like a practical choice.
“Honestly, I’ve missed playing with Rohan. He was ranked much higher than I was all these years and had a very strong partner in (Denis) Shapovalov. If he had someone like that even now, I would never even ask him to play with me because it makes a lot more sense for Rohan to play with a younger guy. Right now, he’s ranked 40, I’m 49 and if we end up doing well in Acapulco and get back into the top 40, you never know… Maybe we’d decide to continue this partnership once again and give this a shot,” says Qureshi.
“No matter what the political difference between both countries, Rohan, his wife Supriya and their daughter are like my family. We’ve both been peace ambassadors and I firmly believe peace is the only way forward, and not just between India and Pakistan. The whole world is suffering and it’s a lesson for us to be humble, humane and giving, irrespective of borders.”
At the peak of the pandemic, Qureshi was out on the streets of Lahore, distributing boxes of food and essential supplies to the needy. Through his foundation ‘Stop War Start Tennis’, he’s reached out to regions like Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan — ravaged by war and natural calamities — providing equipment and tennis wheelchairs to those who’ve lost limbs. A few years ago, he was awarded the Peace and Sport Award by the Prince of Monaco.
“As a Pakistani and a Muslim, it’s not the kind of honour you expect to come your way because you’re just so used to people looking at you differently wherever you go. This time during the pandemic, I was able to help people of my country through the ‘Star against Hunger’ campaign and I was so glad to see all the top guys Roger [Federer], Rafa [Nadal], Novak [Djokovic], [Stefanos] Tsitsipas, Sania [Mirza] donating their signed memorabilia so we could raise funds and for the poor. We’ve auctioned most of it, but there’s some still left, so if someone wants Sania’s racket please get in touch with me! Every single penny is going for a great cause.”
Much like his growing charitable causes, Qureshi thinks his game too has matured. He misses his yearly trips to India for the Chennai Open and looks forward to a day when he can visit Bopanna’s home in Bengaluru.
“In 2010, we were more of an emerging doubles team. Playing with different partners over the years helps you see your weaknesses and strengths clearly. I faced a lot of backlash when I paired up with Aamir (Hadid), a Jewish player from Israel at the start of my career, but in Rohan’s case, everyone in Pakistan knows he’s my closest friend on the tour. In fact, even years after we stopped playing together, wherever I went in my country the only question people asked me was when we’d be pairing up again.”
Bromance aside, Bopanna is also relieved to have a fellow 40-something as partner and forgo punishing schedules. “At least I know we will be doing quality practice sessions instead of endless hours on court like we did things back in the day. We both know there’s only so much our bodies can take at this age. That’s the beauty of knowing a guy for almost all your life.”