After seven years, the Indo-Pak Express is back on the circuit. And once again, Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, the pair that championed the ‘Stop War, Start Tennis’ slogan, are spreading the message of peace and appealing for the decoupling of sports and politics.
Early on Wednesday, the eve of their first-round match at the ATP 500 Mexico Open in Acapulco, in an Idea Exchange with The Indian Express, they spoke about their reunion and the excitement among their fans on both sides of the border.
Qureshi lamented the snapping of sporting ties between India and Pakistan. “It is disappointing that for political reasons, these things are not happening and sports are getting affected. Sports and arts, that’s the beauty about it that we don’t rate people because of the culture or religion or which country they belong from. And it should be left like that,” he says.
“For me, it’s disappointing that Indians can’t come to Pakistan to play, or Pakistanis can’t go to India to play either.”
Bopanna, 41, recalls a pleasant incident he experienced when he had travelled across the border to attend Qureshi’s wedding.
“The function finished pretty late. I was heading back to the hotel when suddenly we were stopped at a check post. The cop recognised who I was and wanted to take selfies. And this was at 3 AM and they were ready to say ‘let’s sit down and have a cup of tea’,” he recalls.
“It’s always been such wonderful things.”
Sports and politics
Bilateral sporting ties between the two countries have been suspended for a while. The last time the two countries played a bilateral cricket series was in January 2013 in India. Even the Davis Cup tie in 2019, for which the Indian team was expected to travel to Islamabad, was shifted to neutral Kazakhstan by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). But just as it has in the past when the ‘Indo-Pak Express’ teamed up, the message of peace has started to resonate.
“We have to, as individuals, work towards peace in this world,” Qureshi said, a day before his 41st birthday. “I really believe that peace is the only way to move forward. Not just between India and Pakistan, but throughout the world.”
That message of peace had rung loud and clear back in 2010 as well, when the pair reached the US Open final. Recalling those heady days of Indo-Pak bonhomie, Bopanna said: “There were two ambassadors from our countries who came together to watch the semi-finals and then the finals. It was a big moment for everybody out there. For friends, families, the countries, to support one team was really huge.”
Reigniting old chemistry
But amidst the promotion of peace through the friendship of the two players born just weeks apart in March 1980, is the ambition to continue their pursuit of greater laurels on the tennis tour.
“We both wanted to play this week. I met Aisam in Australia, he came up to me and asked if I had a partner,” Bopanna explains their latest reunion. “I’ve done well with Aisam in the past, it’s not a new partnership we have to figure out. And this made things much easier. We weren’t thinking about anything else.”
The duo, both of whom have been top 10 doubles stars, are expected to compete for just this one week together before their rankings (Bopanna on 42 and Qureshi on 48) force them to seek higher-ranked partners to enter other competitions. But this latest reunion comes at a time when their respective countries have experienced a thaw in political tensions.
A ceasefire at the start of the month has provided hope for peace. Yet Qureshi asserts that the border issues would never have influenced his decision to pair up with the big-serving Indian.
“God forbid, even if things are not good between India and Pakistan, I have said no to my country (before),” says Qureshi. “I have had political pressure before as well when I’ve played with Bops and when I played with a Jewish guy (Amir Hadad of Israel). But I still carried on playing with my friends. And I would have done the same this time around as well.”