NEW YORK – Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi’s Israeli professional tennis playing friends have invited him on several occasions to come to Israel to play an exhibition match. He is a good candidate. Qureshi is the world’s No. 41 doubles player, he once reached a high singles ranking of No. 125, he has traveled the world since turning pro in 1998, and he was the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award – twice.
Qureshi spoke openly with The Jerusalem Post in the media center of the US Open on a wide range of topics including playing tennis with Israelis, choosing doubles partners on the tour, and doing good in the world. He spoke following his first round loss in mixed doubles. He had lost his first-round men’s’ doubles match with partner, Jonathan Erlich, a day earlier.
“Certain things, even if I want to do, I can’t,” says Qureshi matter of factly and without resentment in his voice, referring to the fact that he will never be able to travel to Israel to play in a tournament or just visit his Israel friends.
“There is nowhere in the world where I would be able to get on the plane! No matter where I try it from, I can’t get on the plane. The Pakistani passport – it is probably the same with Israel –says ‘Valid for All Countries But Israel, on the first page of the passport.’ We don’t recognize Israel as a nation. There won’t be a Pakistani consul in Israel. That’s the way of the world we live in.”
Qureshi, a Muslim who grew up in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-most populous city after Karachi, doesn’t let this reality get him down; he immediately looks on the bright side: “It does not mean I can’t make friends with Israelis or Jews or whatever.”
Qureshi has been connected to Israeli players from his days as a junior. “I have known Johnny [Erlich] for so long – I grew up with them [Israelis]. I still remember when I was 17 and played Andy [Ram] all the time in juniors. Johnny obviously is three years older than me and [Amir] Hadad, so we were not playing juniors at the same time. I used to focus on singles a lot but Andy converted to doubles very early in his career and I have known all of them for a long time – from being on the tour. We have a good relationship. I respect them, they respect me. They have their own beliefs and I have mine and I respect them.”
Qureshi spent the first part of his career playing singles and occasional doubles. He then turned his attention exclusively to doubles.
“I just started playing doubles and calling myself a doubles specialist in 2010. I still feel like I am new at doubles.”
Qureshi reached a high ranking in doubles of No. 8 in 2011, has won 18 tournaments, and has reached the quarterfinals or better in each of the four Grand Slams. This was his eleventh consecutive year in the US Open doubles draw; his best performance was reaching the US Open men’s doubles finals in 2010. Qureshi has also reached the quarterfinals or better for mixed doubles in six Grand Slams.
Qureshi patiently explained how doubles players choose partners, noting that doubles players outside of the top twenty or thirty tend to change partners very often.
“If your combined ranking is not strong enough to be in the main draw, you don’t get in. It is not easy to have a consistent partner with the ranking system.”
At Wimbledon in 2002, Qureshi found himself in need of a doubles partner. Qureshi teamed up with Israeli Amir Hadad. They didn’t give their decision a second thought. His choice of partners helped him advance to the third round. It also drew a great deal of attention around the world and got him in some trouble in his native Pakistan.
For Hadad, teaming up with Qureshi made practical sense.
“We played a lot of the same tournaments, we practiced together and even played against each other few times, so we knew each other well. We practiced at Wimbledon together and Aisam asked me if I have partner I told him no and let’s play.”
Hadad liked Qureshi’s style of play.
“Aisam plays classic serve and volley and it’s always great to team up with a natural serve and volley. We clicked immediately because we had similar games and we were a tough team to beat.”
The two teamed up again at the US Open.
“We never saw a problem with playing together, we are good friends and that’s it,” recalls Hadad.
Many fans and media outlets found it inspirational that, during a time of Middle East tension, a Pakistani-Muslim and an Israeli Jew teamed up. The story was reported widely.
“After all the media, we understood that there was something more than just tennis and we tried to send a message that sport should be clean from politics and we all the same and should get along,” Hadad continues. “We hope people can learn that it doesn’t matter where you are from and what is your religion – we all can get along in sport and in other things.”
Qureshi agrees but admits, “I was a little shocked how people at home reacted to it. Not all people, but the governing bodies. My family members, my friends, my tennis friends and most Pakistanis who I met were very happy that I qualified for Wimbledon – I was the first Pakistani in 40 years to do that. So I was a bit surprised when my government and sports authority and my federation took that stance.
Khawaja Saeed Hai, senior vice president of the Pakistan Tennis Federation (PTF) official advised Qureshi to end his partnership and not play with Hadad in the future.
He told Reuters, “I think he can be forgiven for playing with the Israeli in the Wimbledon championships, but he should not repeat the act in the US Open in August.”
Qureshi did team up with Hadad for the US Open. Fourteen years later, Qureshi has again teamed up with an Israeli player, his old friend Erlich. This time, there has essentially been no reaction in Pakistan.
“I guess they learned from it,” reasons Qureshi. “Now they have a better understanding and I don’t get any negativity. Haven’t heard anything from back home when I team up with Johnny. I won the tournament last year with Johnny in China, it was a big one – and never got any negativity from back home which is good.”
Qureshi thinks social media may contribute.
“At that time, there was hardly any social media in 2002. Now things are different – people are more modern in their thinking. And the Federations have changed, there are different people.”
Qureshi makes a distinction between “regular Pakistanis” and government officials, noting that “regular Pakistanis all praised me.”
He did not receive “threats or negativity from regular Pakistanis.”
“The government officials, they have their own reasons and own criteria and egos and politicians… so I don’t try to get in to that.
Qureshi offers useful perspective and advice.
“Obviously, we are living in a tough world, but peace is the only way to move forward. And just try to love each other, respect each other and just take care of your own business.”
In 2002, Qureshi and Hadad received the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award, an accomplishment Qureshi repeated in 2010 as part of the “Indo-Pak Express,” teaming up with India’s Rohan Bopanni they reached the US Open men’s doubles final.
Qureshi is charming, well-rounded, and quite interesting on and off the court. He played cricket and soccer and was a swimmer before he began playing tennis at the relatively late age 14. He enjoys listening to music, watching movies, playing soccer (he supports Liverpool and Real Madrid fsoccer clubs), and spending time with his nephew. He was voted “Most Stylish Sportsman” in Pakistan in 2011, and he has been recognized for his charitable pursuits. He was runner-up for the 2003 Anne Frank Award for Moral Courage by the Anne Frank Trust and was selected as a 2010 “Champion of Peace” by Peace and Sport World Forum in Monaco.
Qureshi sees tremendous potential to use sports to foster peace and understanding around the world. He has been inspired by other professional tennis players like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer who have foundations, and he has been deeply touched by the accomplishments of wheelchair tennis player, Esther Vergeer.
“I see Roger, Rafa, all these guys have their own foundations. They are helping so many people out. I want to help with whatever capacity I have.”
Qureshi traces his involvement in starting a foundation and supporting athletes with disabilities to an article he discovered quite by accident.
“The idea came in 2010, the first time I read about Esther Vergeer. I felt super bad I had been playing tennis professionally, at the time, for 12 years. I am sitting at the Australian Open in Melbourne and this magazine is there and I start reading it and it has three or four pages on Vergeer and her career and how she had never lost.”
Vergeer was the world No. 1 wheelchair tennis player from 1999 until 2013. She retired with a winning streak of 470 matches had been undefeated since January 2003.
“We brag about Rafa’s record, then we see this girl who never lost a Grand Slam match in her life. I just felt so bad that being a tennis player, I had no clue about her for 12 years, so I asked the ATP if they could somehow make me meet her. I was really inspired by her.”
Qureshi not only met Vergeer, but he got to play wheelchair tennis with her.
“I got to hit with her, speak with her, learn how she lost her legs in an accident. That just kind of inspired me.”
Qureshi is now committed to helping athletes around the world who use wheelchairs, hearing aids and other assistive devices. According to Qureshi, his “Stop War Start Tennis” Foundation focuses on people who have been affected by wars or natural disasters.
“I provide them with specific tennis wheelchairs, people who have lost their limbs and legs, and I give them tennis equipment. I meet their federations – so far, I have done five projects – Afghanistan, Iraq, I was in Africa last year, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. This year, I will start doing it in Pakistan as well.”
Qureshi pays the International Tennis Federation $1,000 per wheelchair (“since they have their own stock of wheelchairs”), and they ship them to the addresses of the Federations he tells them to.
“I went to Africa and saw there were 10 people in Uganda using them. I also learned there were 45 deaf kids and was told it would be great, would hear if I gave them a hearing aide. So I did.”
His “Stop War Start Tennis” Foundation received an ATP ACES For Charity grant for $15,000 in 2018.
“Fifteen thousand dollars goes a long way!”
He is now focusing on building a tennis court at a school in Rwanda.”
He notes modestly, “I think everybody who is in a position to do something should be doing it. We should feel blessed and lucky if we are in a position to do something.”
Qureshi manages to balance a busy life of service with his professional tennis career. And he enjoys connecting with fellow players and finding common ground – regardless of background, religion or county of origin.
For now, Qureshi is having a good time playing tennis with Israel’s Erlich. While the two lost their recent first-round US Open match, he reflects proudly on a situation which came up during the tournament they ultimately won together in China. Their commitment to their respective religions actually united them and had a very positive outcome.
“It was funny, last year when we played the Chengdu Open, we were supposed to play the semifinals on Saturday, and the finals on Sunday. But Sunday was a day of fasting for Jewish People. Johnny requested of the ATP to have a day off and have the semis on Friday instead of Saturday. I was surprised that we also had a Muslim fast scheduled for that Sunday, but I opted to fast after the tournament. I did it on Monday. We won on Sunday, I fasted on Monday.”
Qureshi believes passionately in the healing power of sports.
“One thing I feel: If every single person on this planet – I don’t care what religion or what country they are from – associated with some kind of sports, the world would be a better place. Sports teaches us that!”