Aisam ul Haq Qureshi
Aisam ul Haq Qureshi Image Credit: Supplied

Aisam ul Haq Qureshi is to Pakistan tennis what Vivian Richards is to West Indies cricket: in a league of his own.

Many years ago, I met young Qureshi at Lahore’s Shapes. During my workout I suddenly felt unwell, and Qureshi’s unprompted response was to immediately help me. Years later, I met him at the Lahore Gymkhana Club, of all places, on a tennis court! For years, I’ve followed Qureshi’s tennis achievements. As a Pakistani, I couldn’t be prouder of that self-made sportsman whom I first met when he was already a brilliant young tennis player.

Since Pakistan’s mainstream media doesn’t highlight sports, other than cricket, Qureshi’s stunning tennis achievements rarely received the coverage they simply deserved on merit. Inconsistency of Pakistan’s successive governments to support, promote, finance, and acknowledge individual and team sports feats remain mostly consistent even in 2022. Only a rare gold or silver medal in an international tournament gets short-lived applause before the attention of government and media systematically returns to cricket. Cricket’s gain is literally the loss of every other sport in Pakistan, tennis being no exception. Despite all odds, Qureshi continued to shine. In 2022, he still does.

Qureshi’s parents Nosheen Ihtsham and Ihtsham ul Haq Qureshi are his lifelong encouragement, inspiration, and support in his pursuit of extraordinariness in tennis.

Born in a family of iconic national tennis champions, Qureshi, now forty-two, took their brilliant legacy forward and attained international titles, bringing pride and honour to Pakistan and his family. Qureshi’s maternal grandfather Khawaja Iftikhar Ahmed was all-India number one in the pre-Partition India. His mother Nosheen Ihtsham was Pakistan’s number one tennis player for ten years. Both his grandfather and mother are recipients of Tamgha-e-Imtiaz. His two uncles, Umar Rasheed and Tayyab Iftikhar, played for Pakistan in Davis Cup. Two of his younger cousins, Ushna Sohail, Pakistan’s number one female tennis player, and Samir Iftikhar, have represented Pakistan in Davis Cup and Fed Cup.

Notwithstanding all institutional impediments, Qureshi’s single-minded commitment to tennis never floundered, and his achievements, one after the other, carved a distinguished position for him in international tennis. The list is very long, some of his most remarkable tennis distinctions in doubles and mixed: the only Pakistani player ever to reach a Grand Slam final, in 2010 US Open in both men's and mixed doubles; reached seven major semi-finals in men’s and mixed doubles; in 2011, career-high doubles ranking of world’s number eight; won eighteen titles on ATP Tour, including 2011 Paris Masters and 2013 Miami Open; qualified thrice for ATP Finals in doubles; in 2018 reached the quarterfinals of Australian Open and final of Barcelona Open Banco Sabadell; in 2019, won two ATP Challenger Tour in Ilkley and Nottingham, UK, and US Men's Clay Court Championships; in 2020 won the ATP 250 event in New York Open; in 2021, reached ATP 250 finals at the Emilia-Romagna Open and Stockholm Open; in 2022, reached the ATP final at Melbourne Summer Set 1, and reached his second ATP final in one year in Delray Beach Open.

On November 3, 2009, Qureshi made tennis history for Pakistan. In a partnership with America’s James Cerretani, Qureshi defeated Roger Federer and Marco Chiudinelli in straight sets at the Basel Open Doubles.

Qureshi has the remarkable distinction of being the most successful Davis Cup player in Pakistan's history. He also has the unique honour of having won more matches than any other player for Pakistan.

For his excellence in tennis, Qureshi is the recipient of Pakistan’s Pride of Performance award and Sitara-e-Imtiaz. Some of his other noteworthy awards are 2007 President of Pakistan’s Salam Pakistan Youth Award; two Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year Awards; and three gold medals at the first Islamic Solidarity Games in Saudi Arabia. Qureshi was a runner-up for the 2003 Anne Frank Award for Moral Courage by UK’s Anne Frank Trust.

Tennis is not Qureshi’s only passion; serving humanity is also of great importance to him. Besides being the founder of the NGO Stop War Start Tennis, now renamed Haq Foundation, he is also a member of the Champions for Peace club, “a group of fifty-four athletes committed to serving peace in the world through sport, created by Peace and Sport, a Monaco-based international organisation.”

Aisam ul Haq Qureshi
Aisam ul Haq Qureshi with tennis greats. Image Credit: Supplied

In November 2010, Qureshi was appointed the United Nations Development Program’s Goodwill Ambassador.

In 2020, Qureshi’s Haq Foundation, in collaboration with RIZQ Foundation, worked for several months, as ATP Tours reported, to “financially support ration bags for ten thousand families that have been unable to work and earn their daily sustenance due to the coronavirus pandemic.”

In 2022, Qureshi, the national tennis hero and a role model for the young of Pakistan, is fully immersed in setting up tennis academies. Ace Tennis Pakistan is a collaboration of Qureshi and his younger brother Zain ul Haq Qureshi. Aqeel Khan, another tennis icon of Pakistan, is also part of Qureshi’s Ace Tennis Pakistan team.

For Gulf News, I asked Aisam ul Haq Qureshi a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: What is the story of Aisam ul Haq’s tennis journey?

Aisam ul Haq: I started playing tennis at the age of twelve-and-a-half at Lahore’s Model Town Club. During summer holidays, my mom got me a racket and took me to a tennis court for the very first time. I have two siblings, younger brother and sister, and I was the sportiest of the three of us. In my school days, I was known as Jack of all trades master of none! I was pretty much involved in every sport in my school. Football, cricket, hockey, swimming, badminton, table tennis, athletics, you name it, and I was a part of it. My mom just wanted to check if I had inherited some tennis genes from her side of the family. That’s how I started playing tennis.

Aisam with his parents
Aisam with his parents. Image Credit: Supplied

I played my first national tournament when I was thirteen. The first time I ever travelled abroad was when I was sixteen years old. In 1998, I finished as Asia’s number one and world number seven in juniors. That was the time when I received the offers of full scholarships from some US colleges and the offer of citizenship from the UK. But although I had the intention to go to college, my international coach Sean Cole and my father advised me that it was the best time for me to turn pro. My father said to me that there was a limited time to professionally pursue sports, but one could study at any age. Instead of going to college, I became a professional tennis player, and the rest is history!

What was that one moment that strengthened your interest in tennis as a lifelong love for the sport?

A tough question! I would have to say my junior career. When you’re young, you dream of what you want to do in life that would make your parents proud of you. I remember the very first time I won the junior national title in Pakistan, and my parents came up to me, hugged me, and told me that they were proud of me. That feeling when they hug you and tell you they are proud of you, the warmth, the goosebumps you get. I think that was the moment when I realized that tennis was the way to go to make my parents proud of me. That is why I got more serious about tennis.

From making my parents proud, the goals became bigger; I wanted to make my entire family proud of me, I wanted to make my country proud, and that was a huge responsibility. Reaching Asia under-18 number one and world number seven gave me a lot of confidence and self-belief. I felt like I could bring laurels for my country and for my parents, and that has been a major motivation behind my love for this sport.

In the process of reaching where I am today, I had to make countless sacrifices, and twenty-two years later, all those goals and sacrifices still motivate me to be on tennis tours.

Despite national interest in watching Grand Slam tennis, why do you think Pakistan does not seem interested in investing in developing young talent for international tennis?

It’s really sad that Pakistan government, Pakistan Tennis Federation (PTF), sponsors, and corporate sector have never been able to fully invest in developing young talent. For the last thirty years, it’s only Aqeel Khan and me who have been playing Davis Cup matches, representing the country internationally. We also represented Pakistan in SAF Games, Asian Games, Islamic Solidarity Games. It’s disappointing that my achievements have not been cashed in.

Qualifying for the Wimbledon for the very first time in 2002, in singles in 2007, beating Roger Federer in 2009, and reaching the final of US Open in 2010—it was all a huge opportunity for government and PTF to cash in on my achievements to promote tennis, to invest in tennis, to interact with the youth and help them get sponsorships because at that time tennis for Pakistan was on a real high point.

Unfortunately, it’s not just tennis, the rest of the sports in Pakistan have also suffered a lot. The main focus in Pakistan has only been cricket for a long time, while all the other sports went into decline. The relevant authorities could have done so much to promote tennis and find great talent. We’ve very talented players who need the right guidance and the right grooming, and I think all governments and PTF could have played a very big role in producing some great tennis champions from Pakistan.

You recently started Ace Tennis Pakistan, Pakistan's first nationwide tennis talent hunt and mentorship programme. What is your principal aim for Ace Tennis Pakistan?

One of the main reasons why I’ve formed the Ace Tennis Pakistan is to dispel the common misconception that in Pakistan tennis is only for the elite. I got my first sponsor when I was twenty-seven years old after I qualified for Wimbledon, and that was too late, at least in my career. The corporate sector, PTF and government should be involved in a player’s journey, in their professional growth, especially in their junior years. That’s when they need financial help the most. The Ace Tennis programme is to help under-fourteen and under-eighteen players and provide them sports scholarships. We’ll be taking care of their coaching and training in Pakistan, provide them with tennis balls free of cost, and selected players will have an opportunity, annually, to go abroad and play in international tournaments.

What I’m trying to do is something I was not privileged to have when I was a young and later an upcoming player. There is so much talent in Pakistan, what young people need is the right guidance in the right direction. I want to help them with everything that I’ve gained through my travels and my experiences on the tennis court and teach them not to make the mistakes I made when I was a young player. I had to create my own path, and now I want to help young players be properly guided to become the best versions of themselves and get laurels for our country. I’m very hopeful and confident that through this programme we will be able to produce international level players who would qualify for Grand Slam and Davis Cup tournaments in the very near future.

Those three events in your international tennis that were your most significant achievements, that made your years of commitment to tennis totally worth it.

The first one is when I received the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award from the Association of Tennis Professionals for my services for tennis. Being in the same list as Roger Federer, Stefan Edberg and Nelson Mandela is something I’m truly proud of. Being the only Pakistani, probably the only Muslim to be on that list, and not just once but twice. [Qureshi was awarded the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year, sharing the recognition with Amir Hadad in 2002 and Rohan Bopanna in 2010.] That is something I’m super proud of, and I’d have to say, is one of my most significant achievements.

Beating Roger Federer in 2009 in Basel has to be one of the most memorable moments of my life, of my tennis career.

The third one is reaching the finals of the 2010 US Open doubles and mixed. The kind of reception that I got when I came back home, and the love, admiration and support I received form my compatriots—that was the first time I felt that the people of Pakistan recognized me as a tennis player in Pakistan. Throughout my career, I wanted to be identified as a tennis player; just like when you talk about squash you think of Jehangir Khan, when you talk about cricket you think of Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Wasim Akram, and when you talk about hockey, you think of Shahbaz Ahmed Sr and Hassan Sardar. That was how I wanted people to know me—when they talk about tennis, my name comes to their mind.