Tennis never gained a foothold in Pakistan, a cricket-mad country that once also produced iconic squash players and legendary hockey teams that won multiple Olympic gold medals and World Cups.

But Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi did manage to defy the odds and brought some attention to Pakistan tennis with his awe-inspiring performances in Grand Slams as a doubles player.

Winner of 18 ATP titles, Qureshi’s greatest moment came in 2010 when he reached the US Open finals in both doubles and mixed doubles, an achievement of epic proportions for a tennis player from Pakistan.

At 43, Qureshi, in his own words, is now beginning the final year of his memorable career as a professional.

During an interview with the Khaleej Times, the veteran doubles player, who played at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, opened up about his old partner Rohan Bopanna’s age-defying heroics and why he became the president of the Pakistan Tennis Federation despite being an active player.

Q. Your partnership with India’s Rohan Bopanna lasted several years and it was one of those feel-good stories in life. Now you don't play with him any more, but you must be so happy for him that he has finally won a Grand Slam doubles title after so many heartbreaks…

Whatever he has achieved, it’s highly commendable, I am really happy for him and his family. We both started our doubles career together, and I still remember in 2009, when we both spoke to each other and said, ‘Let’s go and give doubles a shot’. And to see him grow, his tennis and everything, it’s unbelievable. The day he became world number 1 (in doubles), I called him and his wife, and after the Australian Open, I messaged his wife, my father called his father as well. I take a little bit of credit also that somewhere along the line, I also had a small part to play in him becoming the world number one. Now, yeah, I am super happy for him.

Q. While India has produced a few Grand Slam-winning doubles players, you have single-handedly carried the flag for Pakistan tennis for so many years. Now you have started your tennis academy in Pakistan. Is this your way of trying to produce more Aisam-ul Qureshis in Pakistan?

The only thing I was able to figure out was that I needed to be part of the system, I needed to change the mentality of people, that’s why I started the Ace Tennis Academy last year, we are focusing on Under 14 and Under 18 kids.

Q. Also it was a very big decision to contest for the president’s post in the Pakistan Tennis Federation…

Yes, I thought that in order to grow the sport, it's time maybe to contest for the elections. I never thought that I would be winning it this year, it was a first step, it was either this year or I had to wait another four years. By the grace of Almighty, I did it this year. I think also this is one way or the next step for me to do something for tennis in my country. I have been on the Tour for almost 30 years, I have been to so many different countries, and I have seen so many different ways how to promote the game, whether it’s China or Japan or even India (among Asian countries). Tennis has been growing in India, they have so many doubles players who are in the top 100 now, it’s something we need to do in Pakistan also.

Q. What's your first task as the tennis federation president?

My first task is to make the infrastructure a bit better, to have better courts, better locker rooms, and better cafes. We don’t even have a proper restaurant in the national tennis centre, we don’t have a gym, so I have already passed the budget for that. The work is in progress already.

Q. You will also probably need a lot of help from the ATP and ITF…

One of the main goals this year is to have a really healthy and good relationship with the International Tennis Federation and the ATP, we don’t have any ITF Futures (tournaments) happening in Pakistan, and the ATP Challenger (tournaments) has never happened in the history, so this is one of my main goals, to bring the tournaments here. It’s not easy to send everybody abroad. But if you can bring international events to Pakistan, it's going to help our players a lot. This is what I see in India also, they have five-six challengers, and it’s very easy for the players to build up the rankings and go into other tournaments. This is something I really want to push for. In the past, we can understand, we had security concerns as the ITF and the ATP were not allowing us to host any international events, but things are much better now. There is political stability, we just had our general elections, and on top of that, the Indian Davis Cup team came to Pakistan, which I think sends a very strong and positive message to the international tennis community. Hopefully this year around October and November, I am going to push for some Futures and, maybe, first Challenger, ever to happen in Pakistan history, which I am really going to push for because, if I retire this year, I would like to retire playing that Challenger event in Pakistan.

Q. Obviously you are putting your heart and soul into tennis in Pakistan. Maybe it’s time for other sports heads in Pakistan to make some right moves. If you look at India, they have made some reasonably good progress in Olympic sports, Neeraj Chopra (Olympic and world champion javelin thrower) being the greatest example. Pakistan have Arshad Nadeem (javelin thrower) who won a world championship silver and came so close to winning an Olympic medal. Neeraj, of course, has a strong system backing him up in India. But Nadeem literally had no support in Pakistan...

I totally agree. That’s the only way we can produce champions, everybody has to be on the same page, whether it’s the federations, the sponsors, the coaches, trainers. In Pakistan, we have this culture, where everybody likes to shake your hand and hug you once you achieve something. I can say that about my career as well, nobody ever cared about what I was doing to reach the top level, but when I reached the US Open (in men’s doubles) final, everybody tried to meet me and shake my hands. It took me 15 years to get recognised in my country. This is something I am trying to change with the Ace Tennis Hunt programme, I want the corporate sector and the sponsors to be part of the junior players’ journey because my first financial sponsor in Pakistan was when I was 27! I never had any financial support from anyone in my home country, it was always my parents and my family. So I only got support outside of my family when I was 27 after I qualified for the Wimbledon main draw in singles in 2007. So this is something I want to change. As you said, Neeraj had a system backing him up in India for a long time, also it has produced results. And this is something I want to implement in Pakistan tennis as well. Obviously in our country, we can never challenge cricket which is always going to be the number one sport. But it does not mean that we don’t have multinational companies that cannot support other sports as well. I think in tennis we have some youngsters who are really talented, they just need the right guidance. So my main goal is to have Grand Slam level players from Pakistan.

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