By Sonya Rehman
Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, Pakistan’s very own tennis star, stands as one of the most inspiring heroes for the youth of the country. Thoroughly modest, the handsome tennis player is earnest and slightly shy; his eyes lighting up when he speaks of the sport – smiling his charming, dimpled smile, while he talks about how tennis gave him his highest highs over the years, including several, bad patches that led Aisam to question himself as an athlete.
Growing up in a “tennis family,” where Aisam’s maternal grandfather, Khawaja Iftikhar, was an All-India tennis champion (before partition) and his mother, Nausheen Ihtisham, was Pakistan Number 1 for ten years in a row, Aisam mentions that tennis came naturally to him.
Compared to his two younger siblings, he was the one “born with tennis genes.” It was in his blood.
So when did it all begin?
When I was 14, my mother took me to the tennis courts to see if I had any talent in tennis. The coaches at the court were really surprised that it was my first time. So I just started tennis as a hobby, never thinking that I’d pursue it as a profession, or that I’d represent Pakistan someday. I started playing some local tournaments and when I won my first match (when I was 15, I think), I still remember the way my parents hugged me; telling me how proud they were of me.
Was that an ‘aha’ moment for you?
It was. Because I was 15 and felt like tennis was a reason to make my parents proud of me. And that was my whole motivation during my junior career atleast. But once I became a professional tennis player I felt like I had the added pressure on me – to win laurels for my family (my grandfather did it for so many years, like my mother), so I felt I had to do something as well…for both my family and my country.
Realizing that, did you push yourself twice as hard?
I did! But every loss got harder because of that. My goal was to get recognition in my country as a tennis player. My mother kept pushing me, telling me to believe in my goals and dreams. And after 14 years of a very hard struggle, in 2010, I actually feel that I was able to fulfill that dream of mine.
What has been your most memorable experience on the court?
If I have to think of one experience, it has to be beating Roger Federer [Smiles].
What did that feel like?
I could have easily retired at that point.
But you didn’t…
No I didn’t [Starts laughing]. Roger Federer is the best tennis player on the planet – ever, and to play with him was an honour anyway. Because when I started playing tennis I never thought I’d be competing against the best tennis player in the history of tennis. To play with him, be with him on the same court, in his hometown…and on top of that, I ended up beating him. I honestly can’t express it in words.
What has been the most challenging time for you during your career?
To be honest, my whole career has been a rollercoaster ride…
There have been a lot of ups and downs, obviously. My junior career was unbelievable. I only started playing junior international tennis at the age of 16. And by the age of 18 I was World Number 7, Asia Number 1. So I really felt like tennis was meant for me. Or that I was meant for tennis. I was like; the sky’s the limit, I can be World Number 1 – this is a piece of cake for me. From the ages of 18 till 21 I didn’t have to struggle at all. I got to 200 in the world in men’s tennis which is really quick – if you’re taking that transition from junior tennis to men’s tennis. But from the age of 21 to 25 I went through a lot of self-doubt. I couldn’t break through the top 200 barrier, I had a few good wins but I wasn’t consistent enough. I thought I’d chosen the wrong profession…
How did you help yourself then, was it a step by step process?
It was. But for me the hardest part was that I didn’t have anyone in Pakistan to tell me what I needed to do. I always had to look for answers myself. I didn’t have a mentor in Pakistan to ask for advice. This was my family’s first experience as well, because since my grandfather, nobody had played international tennis for that long. Even though I was training and had different coaches, I just wasn’t making that break through. I remember; I was in Thailand and I was losing 14 first rounds in a row, I had three more tournaments in Thailand and I remember talking to my Dad on the phone and saying: that’s it I can’t do this anymore. Next thing I know, I ended up winning four tournaments in a row. Tennis has played a lot of mind games with me.
You’ve had to be pretty emotionally steady then…
At that age I wasn’t very emotionally steady [Bursts out laughing]. I used to be very hard on myself. But tennis has made me a much stronger person – emotionally, mentally and physically.
And now, what do you do differently?
I read something a few years ago which went something like; take every problem as an opportunity to get better. It’s a very simple thing, but if you take it seriously you can change in a lot of ways. That’s what I’ve started doing. Not giving up on my goals has been a major part of my life, not only as a tennis player but as a human being too. You know that saying, when God gives, He gives in abundance? In 2009 once I beat Federer my life changed – honestly…in one moment.
Are you a more realistic person now, given your bad patch?
It just makes everything sweeter now. That I didn’t give up then. Even this interview that I’m giving you, it just feels sweet.
Your family’s been your rock of support throughout your career. What about your country – what do you think the Pakistani government should be doing for its heroes?
After the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan [in 2009], the incident changed the whole picture of sports in Pakistan. Every single sport in Pakistan has gotten affected by it. So right now, for the past few years, I can’t blame the government. But without international exposure, without international teams coming to Pakistan and without any international events in the country, nothing will change. However before the incident, I think the federation could have cashed in on my achievements, they could’ve gotten far more sponsorships from the government and from the corporate sector. But the government did award me with the Sitara-i-Imtiaz and the Pride of Performance Award. And only two other Pakistani sportsmen, before me, have been honoured with the Sitara-i-Imtiaz; Imran Khan and Jahangir Khan.
You’ve been the UNDP’s Goodwill Ambassador from 2010 till now, what has that experience been like?
It has definitely made me more humble. I used to moan quite a bit about my back and neck injuries, but that’s nothing compared to when you go and see how those affected by the earthquake and the floods in Pakistan are living.
What was your most moving experience when you visited the camps?
After the floods, I revisited one of the villages after six months. Their houses were built, and the money I’d generated was actually spent in the right way. People came up and thanked me when I went. That kind of feeling was bigger than winning a Grand Slam. Helping someone has a bigger impact than doing something for yourself. Tennis has made me realize that you can do much more than the game itself. You can use your identity in such a positive way.
You’ve been awarded the ‘Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year’ twice during your career – with your doubles tennis partners, Rohan Bopanna and Amir Hadad. In your opinion, can sports aid in peace-building?
Definitely. I think if anyone played sports or was associated with sports, this world would be a better place, because sports teaches you not to judge a person because of their religion, caste or creed.
You wrote a book, ‘Stop War, Start Tennis: Lessons of Life and Understanding From a Pakistani Tennis Player’…
Yes, I wrote it two years ago after the US Open. I have to give all credit to my coach, Robert Davis and my Dad since they’re the ones who made the book happen. I always wanted to somehow convey my message to the youth of Pakistan to not repeat the same mistakes that I did as a tennis player and as a human being.
What about your recently launched foundation, ‘Stop War Start Tennis,’ what’s the objective behind it?
I just started it about a month ago. I’ll be going to Myanmar soon for my first project. The foundation focuses on youngsters that have been affected by wars all over the world. I’ll be going to Iraq, Sri Lanka and up north in Pakistan as well. The idea is to help boys and girls (who’ve lost their limbs) with wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, and to provide them with tennis rackets and somehow give them an opportunity to play tennis and help them become part of a community. Some of the places that I’ll be visiting will be hostile – but God will give me the strength and patience to do it. Hopefully I can use tennis to bring a smile on the faces of those affected by war.
Like Mother, Like Son
Nausheen Ihtisham – Former 10-time National Champion
“Thanks to my husband, I played tennis all my life. He never discouraged me, infact I used to leave my children at home with my mother-in-law and my husband when I’d be on the court. I remember, I’d be on the court during a match and I’d glance over at my husband and see him running after the kids with milk bottles in his pockets!”
“If my father were alive today, he would’ve been able to see how far Aisam has progressed in his career. My father would’ve been so happy. It makes me very emotional thinking about it.”
“I’d like to encourage parents in Pakistan to let their children participate in sports. The problem today is that parents don’t give their children quality time. Parents just have their own priorities these days. I mean both my husband and I were very social, but when Aisam was playing, my husband would leave office at 3pm and be on the courts with his son for hours. In June. Then he’d take Aisam to the stadium for training and then finally come home, around 9pm.”