His grandfather was a champion tennis player for India before partition, his mother a champion for Pakistan. Now Aisam ul Haq Qureshi is a champion in his own right as a finalist in the men's and mixed doubles of the U.S. Open this week.
Qureshi is the most successful professional tennis player Pakistan has ever produced -- the first to reach one, let alone two Grand Slam finals -- and while his exceptional skills on the court continue to be admired, it is his nationality that has drawn the most attention when he plays abroad.
"It's okay. Everywhere I go I represent Pakistan and I always tell everyone that I'm proud to be Pakistani," Qureshi told me after his historic semi-final men's doubles win this week. "All Pakistanis are not terrorists, we have terrorist groups and extremists. Even in America there are extremist groups -- I read a few days ago that someone is planning to burn the Quran. I think this is also extreme behavior."
He doesn't mind the attention to his nationality. Quite the contrary both he and his Indian doubles partner Rohan Bopanna have embraced the political novelty of their partnership and work with the Peace and Sport organization to highlight their role in bringing people and nations together.
The 16th-seeded duo, dubbed the Indo-Pak Express by a member on a fan website, understand the novelty of their alliance but are also confused by it. "With Indians it's the same as playing with a Pakistani: the same culture, the language is pretty much the same and we share the same hobbies pretty much as well," Qureshi says.
"Rohan is by far my best friend on the tour. I want to tell people that they shouldn't be surprised that me and Rohan get along with each other on and off the court. There's no reason why other Pakistanis and Indians cannot get along well."
For Qureshi, these aren't idealized statements, they are rooted in a personality of bridging political conflicts through sport. In 2002 he won the prestigious Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award along with his then tennis partner Amir Hadad of Israel for overcoming political conflict in the name of sport and sportsmanship.
In Pakistan, he is only the third sportsman in the nation's history, after squash champion Jahangir Khan and cricket champion Imran Khan, to receive the Setareh Emtiaz which the government awards to Pakistanis who represent their country at its best. He says he feels proud and honored to "receive these laurels" and hopes they "give tennis the recognition it deserves in Pakistan."
At the same time, he hopes that the attention he receives will have an impact on the Pakistani people, as well, at a time when the flood disaster, the wars, and the cricket match-fixing scandal have compounded to bring down the nation's morale.
"You know, there's some really sad times in Pakistan now and I'm just glad I can send some positive and good news back home for the people, for them to smile a little bit."
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