Aisam Qureshi has been the sole trailblazer for Tennis in Pakistan. Carrying the flag of the nation for years, Aisam, in his own words, has learnt a lot by the virtue of being able to meet people from different backgrounds, caste, color, etc, while on tour. He’s also been able to forge solid relationships with Indian players, starting from Rohan Bopanna to Ramkumar Ramanathan. He’s all set to partner Ramanathan at the ATP 250 grass court event in Newport, USA.
Aisam spoke to me on the sidelines of the Hall Of Fame Open in Newport. Excerpts below:
Q) This year you are partnering with Ramkumar Ramanathan at Newport, how did this partnership come about?
It is very easy for me to play with Indian players. Obviously they are one of my closest friends on the tour, all the Indian guys. I follow them even if I am not playing. I do know Raja and Jeevan are playing in Bastad, I know Balaji is playing in Hamburg, Divij is also playing in Hamburg. So I am always following them even if I am not playing with them. They are a good sport and it’s very easy, being from Pakistan, to hang around with Indian guys.
Ram asked me during Wimbledon if I have any plans of playing at Newport. I was not so sure then but I told him if I play we can give it a shot. He is a good friend of mine and he plays well on grass as well. I didn’t have any partner also, so I thought let’s give it a shot. He has been playing well, had a very tough exit in the Wimbledon last round qualifiers. He is a good guy and I really like him. Looking forward to it and hopefully we will have a good run here this week.
Q) You are also playing with Divij in Los Cabos. How did that partnership with Divij come about?
Same thing during Wimbledon time. He was not sure if he is going to Olympics or not. I was also not sure if I was going to play after Wimbledon or not. So I didn’t ask any players. And then Divij told me there is a good chance he is not going to go to Olympics. Still he is not sure because somebody is saying they are two out, somebody is saying they are four out, somebody is saying they are six out. So they are in between.
So far we have entered Los Cabos also. He has won it, I think, few years back and it is one of his favorite tournaments and he was looking for a partner as well. I said, yes let’s give it a shot. I am playing with a Indian anyway at Newport so let’s give it a shot for Los Cabos also. If they don’t end up going to Olympics then I think I am going to play Atlanta with him as well.
Q) We witnessed a mini reunion of Indo Pak express earlier this year. How was it to play with Rohan again and any plans of reuniting in the future?
It was fun obviously, we have shared a lot of great moments on the court. We had a tough draw also, playing Murray and Soares first round. We took them to the super tie breaker. This was a close match and obviously would love to play with ‘Bops’ once again if we can. But I think we have different schedules right now and he is a little bit higher ranked than me as well. But I am always open to play with him. I think we can still do really well together. Hopefully in the future we can get back again and play a little bit longer.
Q) Even at this age, I mean you have been playing for a very long time, you still put your hands up to play singles for Pakistan in the Davis Cup. In fact in 2018, in Islamabad, on grass, you beat Korean Soonwoo Kwon, who has gone on to make the top 70 now. Any thoughts about your singles game and how you still manage to keep competing in singles.
I have to take care of my body obviously. I think it’s very very important, I have always done that. Being in the gym, spending time in the gym is like brushing my teeth. I can’t spend my day without being in the gym. That has been the key to the longevity of my career also. For Pakistan, for some reason, I think I give more than hundred percent every time I step for my country. I am very patriotic and, I think, thats why. I don’t play singles all year long. For some reason when I am playing at home for Pakistan there is the extra fuel in me or the fire in me. I just play for my country and I play my heart out.
But this time around I did announce that its my last singles, but unfortunately we lost to Japan and it was not a very happy moment for me. I really wanted to win it for Pakistan. But now at the age of 41 it’s very difficult to keep playing singles against these young guys. Especially when I am not playing singles all year long. It’s not good for my body as well because I feel it takes me a long time to recover after playing Davis Cup, singles, doubles. I told my Federation and my players also that I put my racket down for singles but obviously I would do my level best to carry on representing Pakistan in doubles as much as I can.
Q) Outside of tennis we saw that you were deeply involved in philanthropic activities in Pakistan during the pandemic and lockdown. Can you share details about those efforts and the impact that you were able to create?
I always believe, my parents also made me learn, and through sports also I think we were very lucky, we were very blessed to be doing something we love. Not many people can do that, I can say that. It’s an obligation as a human being to help others in any way possible, help people who are a little bit less blessed than us, are not as lucky as us. Being a Pakistani, and a Muslim as well.
I have a charity called ‘Stop War Start Tennis’, I started it in 2011. The main focus was to help people who have been affected by war, natural disasters. I have done 5 projects so far in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri lanka, Cambodia and Myanmar. This time around during the pandemic, I just felt like, obviously we were not allowed to go anywhere else anyway. So I wanted to do something for my own people. I think it’s the second calling for me after tennis. I also want to build my charity, my organization, my foundation even bigger and help as many people as possible. Not just in Pakistan but all over the world.
Because, who I am right now, the whole world has a big part in making of Aisam-ul-haq Qureshi. Traveling all around the world, meeting so many different people, lot of different people from different races, colors, religions have a big impact on me. I try to relate myself as just a normal human being and consider other people also and human life also as very very important. We should respect all the religions and cultures and all the beliefs. That’s the essence of sports as well. My foundation does not focus only on Pakistan, it’s basically a global foundation and I try to help as many people as possible all over the world.
Aisam on a ‘Stop War Start Tennis’ tour to Africa in 2017
Q) These are extremely good words especially for young aspiring kids who are aspiring to play tennis at your level. Very good words from a champion like you.
Thanks! Lot of it has to do with, I feel lucky to be playing in the era of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray. All of them have their charities, all of them have their foundation. Unbelievable work all over the world and that inspires me also. Obviously I am not doing at their level but I think if we can make a difference in anyone’s life, even one human life I think one should take it and that’s what I am trying to do.
All the abilities or capabilities or the position that I have, I can help people inspire people I would carry on doing that. I don’t want to be remembered as Aisam Qureshi from Pakistan was a good tennis player. I want to be remembered as a good human being. Hopefully it can happen like that.
Q) On a lighter note, you attended Instagram shows hosted by your good friends Purav Raja and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan during the lockdown. If you can talk about that experience also please?
It was nice, it was great to see them also. They are both really good hosts. Those were really fun initiatives. To both of them, Jeevan and Purav, I wish them all the best. I think they have their second careers already. They know what to do once they are done with tennis. I wish them all the best and that’s what friends are for also. To help out each other. They help out with my charity work as well and I wish them all the best and like I said even if I am not playing the same tournaments I am always following them.
I will know who they are playing in Bastad, I will know who Jeevan is playing, I will know who Balaji is playing, I know who Divij Sharan will be playing. I will follow their results as well. I wish them all the best and I think it’s not easy being a Pakistani on my own for the last 20 years. I think Indian players are one of my closer friends. Wish them all the best and hopefully our friendship will carry on even once we are retired.