Story of Pakistan’s tennis misery in Aqeel Khan’s words
US Open — the last Grand Slam event of the calendar year — kicked off on August 30 in New York where the world’s leading stars are competing for the ultimate prize.
Pakistan’s Aisam Ul Haq Qureshi participated in the doubles category with Britain’s Jonny O’Mara but was eliminated on Tuesday after losing to the Spaniard Marcel Granollers and Argentine’s Horacio Zeballos in straight sets with the score of 7-5, 7-5.
This year, like many others in the past, no Pakistan player has graced the competition in the singles category.
Only two players in the history of the event represented Pakistan in the singles event — Khawaja Saeed Hai and Aisam.
However, both failed to leave a mark when it comes to competing at the highest level.
Not long ago, Pakistan’s tennis arena was buzzing with hopes after seeing Aisam making it to multiple Grand Slams, mostly in the doubles category, and there was another who was hoping to make it big with the name of Aqeel Khan.
The Karachi-born remained the most prominent local tennis player for the majority of the last 20 years, winning the national championship on multiple occasions.
Talking to Bol in an exclusive interview, Aqeel revealed the reasons for deciding to play tennis, that too at a time when Pakistan was dominating in other sports like cricket and hockey. “I decided to play tennis instead of hockey or cricket because I just love this sport,” he said.
Aqeel’s potential was evident from the beginning but the 40-year-old stated that the lack of sponsors and funding remained the biggest obstacle for him in progressing in his career.
“When I was playing tournaments in India, I achieved my career-best Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) ranking of 349 on October 4, 2004,” he said. “However, I [still] could not cover my travel expenses for major international events and had to stop participating in them due to lack of funds.”
Aqeel became number one in the U18 side by winning a couple of Pakistan Tennis Federation (PTF) Player’s National Ranking tournaments and earned a spot in the Pakistan Davis Cup team where he was only 17-year-old.
Discussing the reason why he could not qualify for any significant international tennis event, Aqeel stated that a player needs sponsors to cover the expenses for international trips.
“We do not have a single proper infrastructure of the sport in the country,” said Aqeel. “If a player wins all the tournaments in a calendar year, he will save only Rs400,000, which is nothing against the investment he will make for merely playing tennis.”
Talking about difficulties faced by other tennis players in the country, Aqeel was of the opinion that he managed to survive because of his association with the WAPDA department.
“The minimum cost of playing this game in Pakistan is Rs150,000 a month,” he said. “That’s if the person is aware of how and where to get things from otherwise this can increase even further.”
How will the situation improve?
Talking about the prospects in the country, Aqeel believed that other than having facilities to play the sport, athletes need proper training to succeed at the highest level.
“If a child watches the sport on the television, where will they go to play [if there are no public courts]?” he questioned. “I think the government needs to make courts in such places that are easily approachable to the general public so that our future generation is inclined towards playing tennis.
“If they [kids] start playing the sport at an early age, it will be easier to spot the talent and nurture them into world-beaters. International players continue their training regularly even after the events. However, on the other hand, when our players return after a campaign, they can’t train due to weak infrastructure.”
Aqeel also announced that he, in partnership with Aisam, are trying to establish academies to pass their knowledge to the youngsters.
“We want to transfer our experience to the next generation, which we gained by travelling and competing at different events,” he pledged.
The 40-year-old, despite missing out on any international glory, is satisfied with his journey so far and will not change the script even if he gets a chance.
“It’s the Almighty’s blessing that no one could accomplish what I have achieved in Pakistan tennis in the last 40 years,” he reminisced. “I have won every local tournament at least a couple of times. I have won the gold medal in Islamic Games in Saudi Arabia, won a silver medal in Baku, won a medal in SAF Games as well. To top it all, I have received the Pride of Performance in 2016.”
The national champion further revealed he had received numerous lucrative offers to play for other countries and coach in the foreign lands, but he refused them all. “My heart never allowed me to accept any of those opportunities,” Aqeel claimed, mentioning that had he accepted those offers, the achievements he has in Pakistan won’t be there.
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