2016, Politics & Current Affairs, Sports

Pakistan tennis’ greatest lost talent

This article originally appeared on The Express Tribune Labs.

Pakistani tennis has become synonymous with Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, the international star who earned recognition and fame due to his numerous accomplishments over the past decade. However, there is another iconic tennis player who has been amassing a staggering record on the domestic circuit, without getting due acknowledgements for his achievements. Though many Pakistanis have heard of Aqeel Khan because of his Davis Cup prowess, few seem to know about his indelible mark on Pakistan’s local tennis landscape, his struggle to compete in the international arena and about the cruel hand of fate in determining his success as an athlete.

When Andre Agassi had slipped to 141 in the world during his darkest days, he decided to demote himself from the men’s professional tour to play The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Challenger circuit, which many considered to be beneath him. After all, the Challenger tour as the name implies provided a platform for upcoming stars to earn their stripes before moving up in the hierarchy of the tennis world.

In the case of long-standing Pakistan number two Aqeel Khan, the opportunity to play Challengers largely remained an elusive dream. It’s not that Aqeel was unqualified for it – far from it – but simply because he didn’t have the material wealth or sponsors willing to cover the onerous costs of travelling on the international circuit.

At the peak of his powers in 2004, Aqeel made his mark on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Pro Circuit, which is a level below the Challenger Tour. Victories in three tournaments in Pakistan and India saw his world ranking rise to a career-best 349 within a few months.

“After getting to 349, one has to play Challengers [in order to keep rising in the rankings] as there are many more points on offer. But Challenger events are not usually held in India or Asia so one has to travel far to places like Europe. I tried really hard to find sponsors – but I wasn’t successful,” says Aqeel, reminiscing about his peak.

The story of missed opportunities is a recurring theme in Aqeel’s career, which has been middling or extraordinary, depending on one’s perspective. Like millions of other Pakistanis who are victims of their circumstances, Aqeel has never had the chance to find out his potential, much less live up to it. If the goal of any professional is to self-actualise, fate has been complicit in holding Aqeel back.

Aqeel 1


Unprecedented dominance

Since 2000-2001, when Aqeel first rose to the top of Pakistan’s domestic tennis circuit, he has made the local tennis landscape his personal backyard. Unfortunately, the lack of record-keeping on domestic competitions means that it’s hard not only to accurately depict his dominance, but also to compare it to those of his predecessors. What we can establish is that in the decade or so leading up to the Aqeel era, several players enjoyed Pakistan’s number one ranking for stints of varying lengths.

Meanwhile, Aqeel surged as a junior in the late ’90s when he began upsetting local tennis top guns. But it wasn’t until 2000-2001 that he mounted himself on the summit of local rankings. Like a military dictator who consolidates his position in the aftermath of a coup, Aqeel then set about stamping his authority on the domestic circuit, even if initially he wasn’t entirely successful.

“I might have lost about 8-10 matches [since 2000]. I used to struggle on the clay courts initially because I use to play the same way on clay as I did on hard courts. I would try to end up points quickly. Then after I became number one, I figured out how to play on clay and then became quite dominant,” Aqeel recalls, who grew up playing tennis on the lightening fast hard courts at Karachi’s Modern Club, where his father is a coach.

Over time, the names of players on the ranking chart changed save Aqeel’s place at the top. Initially it was Aasim Shafiq and Nomi Qamar who competed for trophies against Aqeel. Both faded away by the mid-2000s to give space to a new group of contenders including Aqeel’s younger siblings Jalil and Yasir Khan. But although Aqeel was occasionally defeated in a bloody skirmish, the competition hasn’t been able to plot his downfall.

A conservative estimate of 30 match victories in national tournaments a year since 2001 would suggest Aqeel’s record to be 450 wins to 10 losses – numbers that are extraordinary by any stretch of the imagination as Federer in 2005-2006 compiled a 173-9 record.

Aqeel’s younger sibling, erstwhile rival and former Pakistan number three, Jalil Khan, attributes his elder brother’s success to a unique game and exceptional mental toughness. “In the most crucial moments of the match, Aqeel is mentally strong. He is very consistent in those situations and has a lot of self-belief to help him get through,” says Jalil.

In an era dominated by generic baseline play of topspin heavy strokes and reliable two-handed backhands, which allows players to settle into a rhythm, Aqeel’s flat double-handed forehands and backhand slices present a thorny challenge to his opponents. An accurate serve and the ability to hit topspin one-handed backhands make him a complete player.

Under Aisam’s shadow

Ironically, however, for almost the entirety of the past 15 years, Aqeel hasn’t been Pakistan’s number one player. That honour goes to his far more celebrated compatriot and Davis Cup teammate, Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, who by virtue of spending his time playing on the Challenger circuit and then the ATP World Tour, has consequently had a higher world ranking than Aqeel and thus has been Pakistan’s official numero unu despite ignoring the domestic circuit.

Aisam is easily the more accomplished player, having made main draw appearances at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2007, though he deservedly acquired greater acclaim (and fame) upon reaching the US Open Doubles Final in 2010. A prolonged stint in the doubles top 10 further cemented his status as a contemporary great. However, Aisam’s success was predated by his multiple years of toil on the ITF Pro Circuit/ATP Challenger Tour, where relentless pursuit of his ambition helped him eventually breakthrough. In the process, people speculate he spent millions of rupees on coaching and travelling extensively.

But being part of a resourceful family allows one to keep their dreams alive. Aqeel’s were always on life support as he knocked on doors of multiple sponsors, only for them to crunch numbers, sigh and respond: ‘Thanks kid but we don’t see how you can be monetised.’

Unlike Aisam, Aqeel hasn’t been bestowed favours by corporate Pakistan. He hasn’t featured in commercials or won a Lux Style Award for being the most ‘stylish’ sportsperson. His wedding or his marital life has not been the subject of news bulletins; in contrast to the media attention on Aisam’s nuptials, Aqeel’s valima was a low-key affair in a modest wedding hall in Karachi, attended by friends, relatives and members of the local tennis community.

“Quite simply, the difference between Aisam and Aqeel is that of money. Aqeel and I are sons of coaches. We put all our meagre resources into tennis [but it wasn’t enough]. If we had sponsors or our own wealth, we too could have made greater strides,” says Nomi Qamar, former Pakistan number three and Aqeel and Aisam’s ex-Davis Cup teammate. “The difference between the two is not significant. Aisam built his confidence by competing overseas for many years. If Aqeel also played tournaments such as ITF Futures or Satellites throughout the year, then I think he too would have been a player of Aisam’s calibre. He could have gotten to top 100-150 in the world,” says Qamar.

The only time Aqeel got an opportunity to compete against Aisam in a domestic tournament was back in 2004, when he lost to his more celebrated compatriot in four competitive sets on grass. “Sometimes it’s him, sometimes I win,” says Aqeel, when pressed about his record against Aisam in practice games.

Davis Cup success and partnership with Aisam

Though their polar-opposite tennis schedules keep them apart, Aisam and Aqeel join forces a few times a year to form the nucleus of Pakistan’s most potent Davis Cup team. During their era, which essentially began in 2001 when both had established themselves as the country’s top two players, Pakistan has largely excelled and even come close to reaching the Davis Cup World Group – the league where the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic represent their countries.

While Aisam and Aqeel are the nations’ best singles players, it’s their partnership in doubles that provides Pakistan a competitive edge. Their 21-6 Davis Cup record is by far the best record accumulated by a Pakistani pair. “Our doubles pairing is the key to Pakistan’s Davis Cup wins, as without our success in doubles, we wouldn’t have had the success we have had. We can’t rely on singles for victories,” says Aqeel.

The duo’s strong chemistry on the court is based on mutual respect and cooperation. In 2015, Aisam invited Aqeel to serve as his hitting partner at the Australian Open. The pair might have made the journey again in 2016 but for Aqeel’s wedding coming in the way.

The two have partnered with each other for many victories over the past decade or so but perhaps none of them have been as remarkable as the upset over the Thailand team that visited Pakistan in 2005. The victory eventually helped propel Pakistan to within a win of reaching the World Group later in the year.

Aqeel-Khan-AFP crop


High against the Thais

The venue for the March 2005 Davis Cup tie against Thailand was Lahore’s Bagh-e-Jinnah, where the slick grass courts provided Pakistan its best chance of upsetting an intimidating opposing team.

A modest-sized yet enthusiastic and capacity crowd of about 1,000 had assembled under the temporary marquee on the opening day to watch not just Pakistan’s emerging tennis stars but also Paradorn Srichiphan, the star player of the visiting team.

The 6’1”, muscular, stoned-faced Thai, who would be as comfortable being a stand-in at the set of Terminator as he was hitting big strokes on the tennis court, was 33 in the world and had not long ago been ranked in the top 10.

His relatively less menacing partner-in-crime, Danai Udomchoke, ranked six places higher than Aisam at 209, was a fierce competitor and a wily counterpuncher, who had helped Srichaphan thrash an Aisam-less Pakistan 5-0 in Thailand in February 2004.

The tie got underway with Aisam taking on Udomchoke. The Pakistan number one, spurred on by an energetic Lahori crowd, and using his accurate serve and net play to his advantage on the fast surface, edged his opponent in a tense, four set battle.

And then came the match that was perhaps even more hotly anticipated, if just to gauge how one of our local heroes would stand up to the scrutiny of playing the international star. While the crowd was now in a jubilant mood with Pakistan in the lead, Aqeel’s state of mind was considerably less festive.

“This was the first Davis Cup tie where I was truly petrified to play. I was praying that Aisam’s match would never end so that I wouldn’t have to go out on the court. I was just overwhelmed considering that I was about to play such a big player,” recalls Aqeel. “I was under a lot of pressure,” he adds.

His inexperience at the big stage was clearly visible as Srichaphan walked all over him in the first set to win 6-1, breaking Aqeel’s serve thrice in the process. In the beginning of the second set though, Aqeel began to relax and gradually displayed the skills that had allowed him to dominate the local grass court scene. His penetrating slices contrasted with bludgeoned double-handed forehands threw off his more accomplished opponent, allowing him to wrap up the set 6-4.

With both opponents having sized each other up in the opening sets, set three was going to be critical. Both of them perhaps displayed their best tennis in the set, holding onto their serves all the way to the tiebreaker.

“If I had won that tie-break, perhaps the outcome would have been different,” says Aqeel, who recalls leading in that breaker. But the Thai was able to withstand his challenge, eventually winning the tiebreak 7-3 before leveraging his momentum in the next set to wrap it up 6-1.“It was great experience. I think that game taught me how to handle pressure against well-reputed players,” says Aqeel.

The lesson from the loss was quickly absorbed as Aqeel and Aisam paired up the next day to beat Srichaphan and Udomchoke in the doubles match, which gave Pakistan a critical 2-1 lead going into the reverse singles. The following day, Pakistan clinched the tie 3-1 when Aisam produced a thrilling upset over Srichaphan.

To close observers of the game, the tie was another indication of the immense talent that Aqeel possessed, and his ability to transcend from the hall of fame of Pakistan tennis to the international arena. But opportunities to display his skills continued to remain elusive and in fact began to dissipate altogether.

Losing home-advantage and World Group dreams

The inherent beauty of Davis Cup lies in its rotation of home advantage, with each country taking turns at hosting bilateral ties. The hosting team can then choose its preferred surface and be spurred on by a typically raucous, jingoistic crowd to propel them to victory.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, their privilege to host ties was taken away at precisely the time when its stalwarts were entering their primes. Aisam and Aqeel were in their mid-twenties in 2005, statistically the most productive period for tennis players, when they last played a home tie. Since that 4-1 victory over Chinese Taipei, coming on the heels of the monumental defeat of Thailand at Bagh-e-Jinnah, Pakistan due to security concerns has had to play its home ties on either neutral territory, or worst, in their enemy’s den.

According to Aqeel, the setback not only cost Pakistan on the field, but also robbed them of a chance to cash in on the growing interest in the game at home.

“At that time, we [Aisam and I] were around 24 or 25 – right at our peak. Tennis was becoming more popular. There was considerable hype for the tie against Thailand. I remember quite a few of my friends from Karachi travelled to Lahore to watch that match, which was a first at the time. It was a sign that Pakistani people were interested in tennis,” recalls Aqeel.

“I really think that if at that time Davis Cup had continued in Pakistan, the game could have been further promoted, which would have helped youngsters and perhaps now instead of one we would have three or four more academies to groom upcoming players. The media could have also taken an interest and played a role in growing the game but unfortunately we had really bad luck,” says Aqeel.

Unlike in cricket, where Pakistan has an adopted home in the UAE that offers conditions relatively similar to home, the tennis team has not found one single home. Turkey and Sri Lanka have graciously played host on occasion but neither country has Pakistan’s preferred grass surface.

“Regardless of whom we play at home, we would have about 60%-70% chance of winning as we would be playing on grass,” says Aqeel, drawing attention to Pakistan’s 9-0 home record since losing to Iran in 1997. “But the next generation will not have that benefit, if say, Pakistan resumes hosting Davis Cup six to eight years down the road as they don’t prefer grass courts. Their style of play is suited to hard or clay courts but the entire world plays well on hard and clay,” he adds, referring to his and Aisam’s grass court prowess.

“We are wishful that before our [Aisam and myself’s] retirements we will get another chance to play in Pakistan after a long time, in front of our home crowds. But it’s tough – I don’t see it happening.”

While Aqeel generally doesn’t get overly excited when discussing the various aspects of his career, it is clear that the disappointment of not being able to play in Pakistan rankles deeply. “I think ITF is being a bit unjust to us [for not allowing Pakistan to host matches],” he says, with an edge to his tone. “We are offering teams the same security protocol that is offered to the Chief Ministers. We are prepared to take elaborate measures but yet they are not allowing us to play at home.”

Nonetheless, for the first time since 2006, Pakistan has managed to qualify for Davis Cup’s Asia/Oceania Group 1. The top two teams in the league make the World Group playoffs at the end of the season. Pakistan’s hopes of doing so were squashed when they were hammered 5-0 by China in the first round in March this year – in a ‘home’ tie played in unfavourable conditions in Sri Lanka.

A strong record for the rest of the year can still help Pakistan maintain their spot in the Asia/Oceania Group 1 – which will allow them another opportunity next year to qualify for the World Group. With both Aqeel and Aisam in the twilight of their careers, it may be now or never.

Giving back to Pakistani tennis

As his playing career winds down, Aqeel has set his sights on establishing a tennis academy in his native Karachi, even as opportunities beckon overseas.

“I would like to use my experience of playing Davis Cup and local/international tennis for such a long time to produce Pakistani tennis players – hopefully better than myself. Even though I have received a lot of offers from abroad, I would like to contribute to Pakistan tennis,” says Aqeel, who was recruited by the Sri Lankan Davis Cup team to coach them for a tie in 2011.

While he is confident in luring sponsors to fund his project, procuring real estate has proven to be a stumbling block as he continues to seek permission from the state. “Getting land is not easy in Karachi. I have been pursuing the Sindh government for a long time but haven’t been successful thus far,” he says.

When asked about the prospects of local talent, Aqeel is not highly optimistic about the next few years. He attributes the dearth of high quality players in part to the stagnant prize money and the younger crop going abroad for education (based on tennis scholarships) instead of playing on the local circuit. “Until last year the prize money was lower than what it used to be back in 1999. The prize purse for the winner of Salma Noorani Cup in 1999 was about Rs50,000 and until last year the top prize [for winner of Men’s Singles] was Rs45,000,” he says, crediting Pakistan Tennis Federation for increasing prize money in local tournaments over the past year.

“Lots of talented players from Pakistan have moved abroad. You know there is a mindset among the younger crop now – to do well in local tournaments and then [leverage their domestic ranking] to go for scholarships abroad and study in foreign universities,” says Nomi.

But even surveying those who are yet to make up their minds about pursuing tennis professionally, Aqeel is not particularly enthused despite being quick to wax eloquent about a young prodigy, Faizan Khan, who has been playing in the under-12 category in local tournaments. “If Federer sees this kid play, even he would say that, ‘At his age I wasn’t this good’. This kid has all the shots: single-handed backhand, slice, drop, volleys and forehand. He has all the tools and shots that even 16 year olds don’t normally possess. This kid has pure talent,” says Aqeel.

“If he can only get the requisite resources and support, he can go very far. I am planning to make a video and send it to all my contacts and try and get him a sponsorship,” he says. “I am also going to speak to the Pakistan Tennis Federation President about this kid. I think this kid can become a truly world class player.”

Considering Aqeel is selective in his praise for other tennis players, one gets the sense that Faizan must be truly special. But just as in Aqeel’s case, the heights that Faizan – and others like him – can scale will not only be dictated by their work ethic, grit and court smarts but the charity of fickle sponsors who may or may not see a lucrative opportunity in the form of a human.

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