MAG THE WEEKLY | INTERVIEW
Game, Match, Aisam!
by MARIAM KHAN
12 - 18 Dec, 2015
#content
Game, Match, Aisam!

The level-headed tennis star who plays with elan and finesse

He lost his first match 6-0, 6-0 the day he smacked his racket the first time on a grass court returning home in tears. That was a 13-year-old Aisam ul Haq Qureshi for whom the recollection is still afresh: “It is one memory that I would like to forget, but is still there; it was a match that changed me in many ways and made me work harder.”
Work harder it surely was, for this genetically inbred tennis born – his maternal grandfather, Khawaja Iftikhar Ahmed, being all India No. 1 before partition and mother, Nausheen Ihtesham, Pakistan No. 1 for 10 years – ended beating the tennis maestro, Roger Federer, some years later.
“I grew up watching my mom on the courts and can’t really say that I enjoyed watching her play or going to the tennis courts. Mostly boys in Pakistan want to play cricket, but when I was younger, I happened to be a jack of all trades and master of none, playing almost every sport that was offered in my school (Crescent Model High School) from badminton, squash, swimming, athletics, cricket and you name it,” Aisam says, expounding on his fondness for outdoor activities.
The sporty guy’s journey into the game was a tale of a fine day when his mother took him to a tennis court to see if he had the ‘tennis germs’ and boy! It turned out that he had the genes, for “The level I played on the first day didn’t seem like a beginner’s,” he recalls.
He believes that sports can help churn a country’s image; 15-20 years back, there was a lot of competition in Pakistan, especially in this game. “Unfortunately, in Pakistan tennis is a sport which is linked with families. I remember the Rahim family, and a few girls from Faisalabad who participated in the game. Sadly, the standard of the game has dropped now with no international events taking place here,” he projects dismally.
“I always thought I'm going to use tennis as a tool to get a scholarship and go to the US, never thinking I could be a professional tennis player,” he speaks, as we talk about his decision to drop the idea of availing the scholarship at an Ivy League school. “There were a few universities who were interested in me. It was in 1998 that I was Asia's No. 1 and world No. 7 in Juniors.” Aisam makes it known without any hint of arrogance. “I got scholarships from Yale, Stanford and University of Texas.”
Scoring scholarships from world class institutes, Aisam was left in a quandary. But with a strong support system, he was able to make his decision. “My father and I had a long conversation, whether I should continue playing the game or opt for studies,” he speaks, as he recalls the decision which was a life-changer for him. “My father told me that I have all the years to study but limited years to be a sportsman. My coach at that time was Sean Cole, a Brit and he too, was of the same opinion.”
With a firm heads up, Aisam wasn't left with room for second thoughts. He now holds a Bachelor's in Statistics, Economics and Political Science from Punjab University and tried pursuing an online Master's degree but due to his hectic schedule, the venture hasn’t been fruitful as yet.
Growing up watching Wimbledon, the most prestigious Grand Slam title which now he dreams on winning, on the unparalleled PTV, Aisam idolised the German tennis master, Boris Franz Becker. Being from Lahore where 80 per cent of the tennis courts are grass ones, this top order Pakistani tennis-man has been awarded the astral accolade which very few sportsman of the country have received.
“It was probably the greatest achievement when I got Sitara-e-Imtiaz in 2010 and got recognised in my own country,” he tells me square-shouldered.
November 4, 2009 was the day that Aisam outclassed the world tennis beau ideal and that too in his hometown, Basel – Roger Federer, who is known for his grace and attitude to people who don’t even follow the game. What is it about him that makes RF the person he is? “I can tell you one small story. In 2009, when I played against him and by the grace of God I was able to beat him, I shook hands with him sharing that I felt honoured playing on the same ground as him. ‘Bro, we played 15 years ago as well’ is what he had to say. Now I remembered that pretty well, but I didn’t expect him to do the same and even if he did, I wasn’t expecting him to tell me that. That speaks how much of a bigger person he is.”
At 35, Aisam feels he has a good four to six tennis years in him. “I feel I am stronger now and in my best shape,” someone who practices about 320 days in a year, pronounces. “I dedicate six to seven hours to tennis everyday and at this point in time, it is becoming more of a physical sport. Before it was all about the skills, now it is about power and stamina and that is why we see the younger lot taller and stronger.”
After retirement, what does he plan to do? “It is a good, but a tough question. I used to think a lot about the time that is to come, but with life experiences, I have realised that we should not think too much about the future, instead give the best to our present.”
However, he believes that it all depends on the sport. “If I win a Grand Slam I think it is going to open lots of doors for me. I would want to build a tennis academy to give something back to Pakistan, do humanitarian work and write a book to inspire kids,” as the scribe interjects, for he has penned already, he verbalises while he laughs, “That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be writing anymore for that isn’t an autobiography.”
Have personal upheavals of the past taken a toll on him? “Obviously, but if you are talking about my marriage, then at the end of the day I know I gave in my best shot,” declares someone who gives in his best in everything he does, personally and professionally, he talks about his marriage which lasted a few months with Faha Akmal. “It was hard but moving on, I wish her all the best.”
As a kid, Aisam started off with a wooden racket. “Donnay was what I started with, but since the last 12 years I’ve been sponsored by Wilson and that is what I play with.”
Having played with an Indian counterpart, Rohan Bopanna, is it that players get to choose their doubles partner themselves? “Yes, you get to choose. I chose Bopanna myself as unfortunately there was no other Pakistani on tour and him being an Indian, it was easy for me to communicate and then we also have a similar culture,” Aisam says, always taking him as a friend and not a citizen of our eastern neighbour.
It wasn’t always plain sailing for this man who has brought a number of laurels for the country. Was it ever that he lost the love for the game? “Never for the game. But I did think of quitting a few times, not that I didn’t have the willpower or motivation but I felt that whatever I was doing, people would not care about me. But then 2010 changed everything and after 15-16 odd years I was able to swing my dreams,” he reminisces about the years when he had been demoralised.
Aisam repudiates that tennis is an expensive game. “It is the federation’s responsibility to sponsor the kids who have talent. We need public courts so that anyone interested in the game does not need to sign up for memberships of private clubs. I want the government to change a few cricket grounds into tennis courts for it’s all about putting a few lines and you can have about 10-15 courts in a single ground!”
For all the aficionados of the sport, Aisam has a tip-off. “My advice to anyone who wants to do anything in life is to not give up on dreams. Many a times, especially in Pakistan, I feel people stop before they even start by assuming the negatives. If you love something, pursue it!” After all, the result only lies once the shot is taken. •


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