When word spread that Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi had decided to team up again, there was a bombardment of messages on social media. Nothing negative, instead an array of heartening posts which claimed that the Indo-Pak combination was something fans wanted to see on the tennis court again. That wait will end on March 15, when the pair will take to the courts of Acapulco at the ATP 500 Mexican Open.
“Ever since we decided to team up, I didn’t even think it would be that big a deal, but people have been posting so many positive messages to me on Twitter and Instagram,” Qureshi tells The Indian Express.
“I feel everyone is looking forward to it. People here (in Pakistan) understand that Bops helped me get a lot of laurels for my country. And hopefully we can help each other again and get back to winning ways.”
The sentiment and reception, Bopanna explains, has never been different than what the pair of 40-year-olds (born just two weeks apart in March 1980) have experienced before.
“When I’ve played with Aisam, the majority of the time it’s been only positive,” Bopanna says. “There’s been great support, and it seems like people from the two countries like to support that one team. So a majority of the messages have been good.”
Immediately memories of the 2010 US Open come rushing back. The ‘Indo-Pak Express,’ as they were called, had proven to be a powerful and effective combination. They were within touching distance of winning their first Grand Slam title – a moment even Ambassadors of both countries to the United States had come to witness. But they fell at the summit to the World No 1 team of identical twins Mike and Bob Bryan in two tie-break sets.
Till date, it remains the closest either has been to winning a men’s doubles Grand Slam title. And they cherish the fact that their best moments on the tennis court came together.
“Our greatest years came together at the US Open 2010,” Bopanna says. “We went through the tournament, playing well, enjoying the quick courts. And when we faced the Bryans in the final, we were the only team to have beaten them in the past few weeks.”
And now that they’re back together, for the first time since competing together at the Shenzhen Open in September 2014, they’re looking to “do more damage.”
The duo decided to get together for another swing while they were at the Australian Open. Both were looking to find a partner for upcoming events, and it just so happened that doubles World no 40 Bopanna and World No 49 Qureshi’s combined rank was good enough to get into the main draw at Acapulco.
At that stage they had long cleared the air about what happened in 2019, when they were expected to face each other on opposite sides of the court. India was expected to travel to Pakistan for a Davis Cup tie, but political tensions saw India pushing the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to shift the tie to a neutral venue. Qureshi did not hide his disappointment, and instead chose to boycott the tie that eventually took place in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.
“We sat and had a chat about it over dinner when we met later,” Bopanna says. “He told me his side of things, and then I told him what actually happened on my side. Those differences aren’t there because our friendship is much bigger.”
Qureshi explains further: “He told me that it was not in his hands, it was the federation and the government’s call. He’s been to Pakistan many times before, he came for my first wedding, and he’s been there when we played the India-Pakistan League. Unfortunately it didn’t work out because of political reasons. But we have to keep it in the past and hope things get better between both countries.”
The friendship is their biggest strength, and the foundation of their team.
“But now we are much more mature and also experienced athletes,” Bopanna adds.
Their rankings however have dropped over the past few years. Bopanna was once ranked as high as third, and Qureshi eight. But the veterans continue to pursue that path back up the ranking ladder. And it’s with each other that the Indo-Pak Express hope to make the journey back to where they once were.