Roses among barbed wires

Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi...odd couple riding high.-AP

Rohan Bopanna and Aisam Qureshi captured the imagination of the world with their brilliant doubles performance at the U.S. Open. Here they were, two 30-year-olds from mutually antagonistic nations, virtually waging an unspoken war, playing as comrades in arms with a common cause, writes Kalyan Ashok.

After Wimbledon, Rohan Bopanna ended his interview to ‘Sportstar' on a balmy afternoon, at Bangalore's KSLTA Stadium, with a wish. “After Wimbledon, I believe we can win a Grand Slam. That's my dream and I hope it comes true one day.”

That dream almost came true, much sooner than expected, on September 10, as Bopanna and Aisam Qureshi came within a hair's breadth of winning a historic Grand Slam at U.S. Open 2010. The Indo-Pak Express, as the duo is fondly called, did not drop a set in the entire tournament until the final, and lost in two heart-breaking tie-breakers 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4) to the Bryan twins — Bob and Mike — undoubtedly the world's best pair. But make no mistake about it, the world now has a great new doubles team which, according to Bob Bryan, “will knock at the doors of more Slam finals.”

The dream journey did not happen overnight. They had known each other as juniors since 1996, shaping their career at different levels. Joining forces in 2007, they played on and off, in several Challengers, and later ATP Tour events, in the next couple of years. Together, they made five ATP Tour finals, winning one — the SA Tennis Open — in February this year, before making their mark in a Grand Slam, reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals in June. As a pair, they have been consistently together since this season.

“Wimbledon indeed gave us the confidence that we were capable of beating big teams,” Bopanna reflected, on the pair's stunning success story. They went into the U.S. Open with the great reputation of having beaten the Bryan brothers in the quarterfinals of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic at Washington DC last month. The U.S. Open was pure magic as they demolished every pair, including second seeds Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic in the third round, en route to the classic summit clash against the Bryans.

The American duo, which currently holds a record 65 titles including nine Grand Slams, was pushed to the limit by Bopanna and Qureshi, with neither team dropping serve till each set was decided on tie-breaker. As Qureshi observed later, “just a few points here and there made the difference.” The Indo-Pak team played its natural game, with Qureshi executing his volleys to perfection and trading some sizzling backhand returns whereas Bopanna pounded down his big serve and hammered fierce forehands. It needed experience and cool courtcraft from the Bryans to douse the South Asian fire and once they did it, the relief on their faces told the story.

“We had won a lot of tie-breakers on the ATP Tour, it is just that they (the Bryans) played with sharp reflexes and came up with some amazing shots on big points,” said Bopanna. But the defeat has only strengthened the Indo-Pak pair's resolve to learn and do better.

The duo's U.S. Open performance captured the imagination of the world. Here they were, two 30-year-olds from mutually antagonistic nations virtually waging an unspoken war, playing as comrades in arms with a common cause. They sported T-shirts with the message, ‘Stop war, play tennis,' during the tournament. Their aim was indeed very evident.

It was a fascinating sight for the world media — and American in particular — that an Indian from Bangalore and a Pakistani from Lahore, were playing as a team and winning. “Actually, we are not intentionally making any political statement. Both of us are Ambassadors of Peace and Sport (an initiative under the patronage of HRH Prince Albert II of Monaco) and spread the message of peace through tennis. Our partnership transcends political, religious, cultural and other factors. I have been playing with Aisam since we were teenagers and we have always got along well. In fact we are great friends and that matters a lot. The on-court chemistry is due to that,'' said Bopanna.

“He is right, it never crosses my mind that I am playing with an Indian. Rohan is a great friend and he has stuck with me through some bad times and has been very supportive, and the fact that we complement each other well on the court makes things even better,” said Qureshi.

“By far, the most important thing is that we believe in ourselves and we believe in each other, we know that we can stay with the big teams at the big tournaments; we know we can compete and beating tough opponents at this level is a great confidence-booster. The last two weeks have been great, I mean we took out the No. 2 seeds, the No. 10 seeds played a close semifinal, so I guess we know that if we stick to our game and play to our strength we can beat anybody across the net,'' said Bopanna. “Yeah, I think every loss makes you stronger, I mean they say what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, so this has been a great learning experience for us as a team. To push the best team in the world all the way in a Grand Slam Final is a huge achievement for us and to lose on tie-breaks by a few points proves that we can compete with the best.”

“We started taking doubles seriously only this year, the Bryans have been playing together for years, so I would say to push them all the way in our maiden final is a great achievement. I hope, Inshaallah, the Indo-Pak Express keeps on rolling with many more victories,” said Qureshi, echoing Bopanna's sentiments.

To be at the very top of world doubles, they need to keep working harder as a a team and as individuals. C.G. Krishna Bhupathi, Mahesh's father and an early mentor of Bopanna, is quite optimistic that they would just do that. “Now they cannot afford to relax. They should keep the momentum going and play in as many tournaments as possible. They can possibly pick and choose when they are in the top 4 or 5. Age is also on their side. If you see current doubles teams, most are around 35. And given a couple of years, Bopanna and Qureshi can be at the very top as most top teams would fade away including the Bryans, Mahesh and Leander. Game-wise, I have noticed a lot of improvements. Rohan is showing much better reflexes at the net and Aisam is solid with his backhand. Their serve is also rock steady. Yes, there is scope for fine-tuning, which I am sure they will do in due course,'' said Bhupathi Sr.

With their one tour win and six finals (including the U.S. Open) coming on hard courts, this seems to have become Bopanna's favourite surface, replacing grass. “Well, we wouldn't put it that way. The grass season is too short, with only four weeks in the whole year. The majority of the tournaments are on hard courts or clay courts. So you know it's very tough to say hard courts have replaced grass as our favourite. I guess we need a longer season on grass to make a fair comparison. Right now we play a lot on hard courts and I guess it's really suiting our game,” said the duo.

Bopanna was flooded with congratulatory messages from fans, his peers Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi and Indian tennis diva Sania Mirza. “These people always inspire me and have been a role model to us,” he added.

Qureshi hoped that for scandal-tainted Pakistani sport, his performance would bring some cheer. “At least they had some good news from me in these trying times,” said Qureshi who also hoped that the Indo-Pak Express saga at the U.S. Open would help resume the cricket links between the two nations. “I wish if we keep politics out of sport, it would be all right.” The Pakistani star is the first from his nation to figure among the top 50 in doubles.

Bopanna was looking forward to carrying on the momentum generated at the U.S. Open. “It's going to be hectic. The Barclays Masters doubles and the Shanghai Open after that.”

There were several moments that made the U.S. open unforgettable for the pair. “The crowds were fantastic… New Yorkers, Indians, Pakistanis and the UN Ambassadors of India and Pakistan all sitting and rooting for us, made it feel that we were at home,” said Qureshi.

Bopanna was delighted to have his parents (father B. G. Bopanna and mother Mallika) court-side during the final. “All were cheering except dad, he was calm as ever and focussing, it was such a good feeling,'' said Bopanna.

Indeed the feel-good mood generated by these two sporting ambassadors has percolated to the men who matter. “The two boys have done a magnificent job and if they can do this together why not India and Pakistan?,” Sports Minister M.S. Gill wondered aloud on a National network.

Indeed, why not?