Tennis, down the line
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In the small town of Chakwal, about 90km south-east of Islamabad, 10-year-old Khawaja Iftikhar Ahmed would accompany his father to the local club. It was the 1920s and he would pick up balls while his father played tennis. He wasn’t allowed to touch the wooden racket at first.
The boy would play against the wall using a takhti—a traditional wooden slate for handwriting practice—when nobody was watching. Finally, one uncle intervened and prevailed upon Ahmed’s father to let him play. Ahmed senior, a school principal, relented and the boy finally got a racket to play when he entered class IX.
Ahmed grew up to be an all-India champion in undivided India; a left-hander with a crafty serve that beguiled opponents. “It spun so much, players couldn’t handle it,” says Nosheen Ihtsham, Ahmed’s daughter, herself a multiple-time national champion, on the phone from Lahore. “It would send the opponent out of the court.”
The British brought cricket and tennis to India in the 19th century, and the sports slowly caught on in local clubs and gymkhanas. Local tennis championships were introduced in 1885 in Lahore and in 1887 in Calcutta (now Kolkata). In 1920, the All India Lawn Tennis Association was formed.
Ahmed was among the early wave of home-grown stars to become adept at this foreign sport. For six years, from 1940-46, he was the top-ranked player in India and played at Wimbledon in 1939. After Partition, he remained Pakistan’s No.1 from 1947-56.
But Ahmed’s story is not just about one young sports star in the colonial era. It is the story of the tennis dynasty he spawned—his daughter grew up to be a national champion and her son, Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, is Pakistan’s reigning No.1—and an uncanny India-Pakistan link; while Ahmed played in undivided India, Qureshi has sought to bridge the post-Partition divide through his partnership with an Indian on court. In 2010, Qureshi, then 30, reached the men’s doubles final of the US Open along with India’s Rohan Bopanna—the duo came to be known as the Indo-Pak Express.
Ahmed, who retired in 1962, had six children, and was grooming one of his sons to play. But the one who really showed promise was his youngest child, Ihtsham.
Ihtsham, still in school, would hang around the club in Lahore where her brother was being coached, watching from the sidelines, picking up balls and absorbing every second of the game. She would go on to win the first of her several national championships in 1979, and represent Pakistan. “I was passionate about the game,” she says. “I kept playing after marriage and my husband supported me.” For several years after retirement, she continued as a non-playing captain in the Fed Cup.
This champion’s daughter, a champion herself, would become the mother of a champion. Qureshi, who began playing at the age of 14, was first coached by his grandfather, who would play with him at a club in Lahore. “The reason I started tennis was because of him and my mom and it’s never easy to live up to their name,” says Qureshi. “But, I always use that kind of pressure to motivate myself to work harder and use it as fuel to do well.”
In 1999, the mother-son duo created a record by playing in the Davis Cup team and Fed Cup the same year.
In 2010, the entry of Qureshi and Bopanna, who had known each other on the junior circuit, into the US Open made for poignant cross-border camaraderie. “It was wonderful,” says Ihtsham, who watched that match on television. “For the first time in history, the Indian and Pakistani ambassadors were sitting together and clapping for the same team.”
They lost that final, played as a team for some years and now play with different partners, but have remained in touch and spoken about their hopes for better relations between their two countries.
Qureshi says Bopanna, 37, is one of his best friends on the tour. “I’m certain that playing with him changed mindsets on both sides and helped people understand that we can work together and do well together,” says Qureshi. “At the end of the day, we are all humans and should respect each other and their beliefs as well.”
He has played several times in India, and takes pride in seeing his grandfather’s name embossed on the wall in places like the Delhi Gymkhana Club. “Playing in India is always fun,” he says. “Everyone respects me. I have many friends from India so it is always great to go and play there and it almost feels like home.”
Ihtsham, who has been to India several times to watch Qureshi play, too has fond memories. “It’s so good I can’t even tell you,” she says. “Indians love Aisam and have supported him.”