Note: This story by Dr Balraj Shukla was originally published in February 2019 on Troll Tennis.
In the 1920s, Chakwal, a city located 270 kilometers away from Lahore saw a son accompany his father at a local club daily. While his father would hit the courts, the young kid was only supposed to watch his father rally out with his opponents. Khwaja Iftikhar-Ahmed often developed an urge to play tennis just like his father. But sadly, his father didn’t even allow his to touch the wooden tennis racquets. But the 10-year old Ahmed’s desperation crossed its limits. One fine day, he took a wooden slate which was used for educational purpose and faced himself against the wall. This wooden slate is known as a takhti in local dialect. Ahmed would make the wall his opponent and for minutes together rally against the wall with his “racquet.”
One fine day, an uncle of Ahmed saw the young lad hit the ball against the wall with the wooden slate. Though it seemed a casual leisure time for Ahmed, his uncle was mightily pleased with the boy’s skills. He immediately took Ahmed to his father. After a long discussion, Ahmed’s father finally gave him his first racquet. Little Ahmed was in ninth grade when he held his first tennis racquet. The transition from the takhti to the racquet was vastly mesmerizing. Ahmed quickly gained mastery over the swings and was able to stun even the most veteran players of his time.
The wall practices with his takhti paid off and Ahmed made his first main draw appearance at Wimbledon in 1939. In the first round, he was up against Irish player George Lyttelton Rogers. Rogers would go on to become a three time runner-up at Monte Carlo. In his first round match, Ahmed lost in three sets. The idea of the tiebreak was not even proposed back then. Though Ahmed lost in straight sets, the set scores tell a different story. Rogers won the match 6-3 9-7 10-8. An year later, Ahmed became the No.1 tennis player in undivided India. He held on to the top spot of the Indian rankings up until 1947.
In 1947 at Wimbledon, Ahmed made his second main draw appearance at the grass court slam. Ahmed was a vastly improved player now. He breezed into the third round and dropped only a combined total of 12 games from his first and second round matches. Robert Abdesselam was Ahmed’s third round opponent. The Frenchman quickly took a two set lead over the Indian. However, Ahmed fought back valiantly, and took the next two sets to force a decider. The fifth set went in Abdesselam’s way and he won the match 9-7 6-4 7-9 4-6 6-4.
A NEW NATIONALITY
Around seven weeks after Ahmed’s third round run at Wimbledon, the partition occurred. India and Pakistan were now two separate nations. Ahmed and his family decided to stay back at Lahore. He now represented Pakistan. Though, he would often come to India and play the various tournaments held there. It didn’t take him much time to conquer the tennis circuit of Pakistan. He soon became the National No.1 there as well and held on to that spot up until 1956.
As Pakistan was carved into a new nation, it also became a Davis Cup playing nation from 1948. Ahmed was one of the key members of his team. In their first ever Davis Cup tie, Pakistan were drawn against Switzerland. The Swiss won the tie 3-2 but Ahmed did his part faithfully by winning both his singles ties. Ahmed was the only player who reached the finals of the All India Open both as an Indian (1941,1943) and a Pakistani (1952).
Pakistan’s run at the Davis Cup in the next three Davis Cup ties were anything but forgetful. From 1950 to 1956 it failed to win a single rubber. Winless at the Davis Cup since 1948, Ahmed had now crossed the age of forty. He had dedicated four decades of his life to a sport and represented two nations in the process. The real nonplus moment for Ahmed came in 1962. In the quarter-finals of the Eastern Zone, India was drawn against Pakistan for the very first time at the Davis Cup. Ahmed, playing against his former nation partnered Mohammad Naeem for the doubles rubber. Naeem was making his debut at the Davis Cup that year. Facing them were Premjit Lall and Akhtar Ali.
The Indians were too strong for the Pakistani duo as they won the rubber 9-7 6-2 7-5. The following year, Ahmed returned to the Davis Cup and yet again India faced Pakistan. Ahmed was once again sent for the doubles rubber and this time he partnered veteran player Munir Pirzada. The duo made a strong start winning the opening two sets. It seemed Pakistan would finally register its maiden win against India at the Davis Cup. However, the Indian duo of Jaidip Mukerjea and Akhtar Ali retaliated strongly and made a comeback from behind to win the match 3-6 5-7 6-3 6-4 6-2.
Ahmed never returned to the Davis Cup later. In 1964, India would yet again emerge as the victors against Pakistan in their away tie at Lahore. As for Ahmed, he would soon hang his boots from the tennis world. Nosheen Ihtsham, Ahmed’s daughter would go on to be a national champion. When asked about her father’s best part of his game, she said, “It (the ball) spun so much, players couldn’t handle it. It (his kick serve) would send the opponent out of the court.”