x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The 'Indo-Pak Express' play for peace

One is from Pakistan, one is from India – and together this unlikely combination is one of the most formidable doubles teams in world tennis.

Rohan Bopanna, left, and Asiam-ul-Haq Qureshi have become a formidable doubles team. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP
Rohan Bopanna, left, and Asiam-ul-Haq Qureshi have become a formidable doubles team. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP

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Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi have been making headlines all over the world since coming together to form the tennis world's "Indo-Pak Express" last year.

Given the fractious nature of the politics between India and Pakistan, the doubles pair is a rare example of individuals transcending the animosity and divide.

Bopanna, however, said their partnership is not aimed at making political statements, but an effort to spread the message of peace across the world.

Coverage of the Dubai Tennis Open

"It was never a political message," said the 30-year-old Indian. "It's just two friends trying to help each other in our respective careers. He doesn't have anybody from Pakistan to play with. If you ask him today to stop and tell him to play with a Pakistani, there is no one.

"If I play with an Indian, there are two Indians and they are playing with each other. So with three Indians, we have to play with an outsider, whether it be a Pakistani or anyone else. I have to play to make a living out of doubles right now, which is why we are here.

"We have known each other for 14 years. Nobody asked us anything back then. It's just that we are doing well now; it's an impact thing. Now suddenly it's become a political thing."

While the subject of politics keeps getting mentioned whenever Bopanna and Qureshi get any media attention, they have done well as a tennis pair, as well. They won the title in Johannesburg last year and reached the final of the 2010 US Open.

Their progress has been steady, and as a team they are ranked No 14 in the world. Still, the tag of "Indo-Pak Express" remains affixed to them.

"It is our identity," said Qureshi, a 30-year-old resident of Lahore, whose mother, Nausheen Ihtisham, won 10 national titles. His maternal grandfather, Khawaja Iftikhar, was the All-India champion before the country was partitioned in 1947.

"Instead of people knowing us individually, I really like that he is my partner and people know us as the Indo-Pak Express. I feel very good about it. Like Leander [Paes] and Hesh [Mahesh Bhupathi] are known as the Indian Express, I believe it is really good to be known as a team.

"The Bryans [brothers] get noticed because they are twins. So it's just a positive thing for me."

Qureshi, who had earlier teamed with Israel's Amir Hadad, was named a "Champion of Peace" in 2007 by Peace and Sport, a neutral international organisation headed by Prince Albert II of Monaco. Bopanna earned the same honour last year.

"The main thing is we are both brand ambassadors for the Peace and Sport Organisation," Bopanna said. "That's when we looked at it in the bigger picture.

"We met for the first time 14 years ago. We met when he came to India to play a junior tournament. The year 2003 was the first time we played together, it was a Challenger in England. That was basically when it all started."

Added Qureshi: "I have been playing with Indians throughout my career - junior career also and even when I turned professional. Rohan was one of them.

"When we started playing the same tournaments at the Challenger level and stuff, it was just natural for me to ask him because I knew him and he speaks the same language, shares a bit of the same hobbies as well.

"So it was just natural for me to ask him.

"I always believed that both of us can do really well in the doubles. We have an aggressive game - he likes to serve and volley, I like to serve and volley. So it's just a matter of playing doubles seriously, on a consistent basis.

"It has been good going for the last two years. If you see our rankings, it has been improving every month, every week. So it feels really good. Doing well with a really, really good friend on the Tour is like the icing on the cake."

As they make their mark on the Tour, both Bopanna and Qureshi hope they can also spread their message of peace.

"We are not trying to make any political statements," Qureshi said. "It's a message of peace to all the world. We are not talking about just Indian or Pakistanis.

"This is the beauty of sports. In football, you see so many different nations, so many different cultures, so many different religions, they are all playing in the same team. It's the same thing about tennis.

"We are doing our level best to spread our message of peace through our countries and the whole world as well. It's about spreading the message that if both of us, from different nations, different cultures and religions, can get along well, there is no reason why other people from around the world can't get along well with each other.

"That's the only message."

arizvi@thenational.ae