The first ever tennis player to become an ambassador for Peace and Sports, Aisam-ul-Haq’s coaches refer to him as the Prince of Pakistan – someone who shows good results in sports but is also a great person. When Pakistan’s top tennis player was in Singapore a few weeks ago, FUCHSIA grabbed the opportunity to chat with him about the struggles and triumphs of going from being Pakistan’s top under-16, to Asia’s top under-16, and then world number 7.
FUCHSIA: You have partnered up with Russian, Indian and Israeli players on the court – any ulterior motive of a message to spread?
AuH: Since there are no other Pakistanis on the tour, I have to play with someone from another country. It never crossed my mind that I was playing with a Jew, a Hindu or a Christian; tennis has taught me to judge a person as a human being, not by colour, caste or creed.
Being Pakistani, the easiest way to participate in a tournament was to play in India. Rohan was India’s top Junior while I was Pakistan’s. We practically grew up together. Our language and cultures being similar added to our discussions of Bollywood, Lollywood, cricket and other common interests.
It’s only once I realised how the media was covering it that I decided to turn it into something more meaningful.
FUCHSIA: How did you influence the mind sets of people through this?
AuH: Rohan and I were known as the Indo-Pak Express; the Indians and Pakistanis all over the world knew about us. At the finals of the US Open there were Indians and Pakistanis sitting together with both flags painted across their faces, cheering for the same side. Both countries, ambassadors to the UN sat side-by-side and watched us, which led to us receiving The Image of the Year Award from an organisation called Peace and Sports from Monaco, which featured Rohan and I as ambassadors.
I think people were able to look beyond the political barrier and understand that while this partnership was helping both of us, it was also sending out a very positive vibe.
We then started the campaign called Stop War, Start Tennis in association with Peace and Sports.
FUCHSIA: Is there any resentment at never having been sponsored by Pakistan, despite doing Pakistan so proud?
AuH: I won’t deny that there never was, but not anymore. Ever since I became a professional tennis player I wanted to be a role model. For 10 years, nobody really cared about my achievements. In 2002, I qualified for doubles with Amir; I qualified for Wimbledon in 2007 for singles, and I always received negative publicity. The newspaper read that Pakistan is going to ban me from representing them playing with an Israeli … In 2009 I beat Roger Federer, and although I had some really good wins under my belt, no one in Pakistan seemed to care. I felt disheartened at those times.
It wasn’t until 2010 when I made it to US Open … the reception I received upon my return was unbelievable. That’s when I realised one should never give up on their dreams. These hardships only make you stronger.
FUCHSIA: Is there anything you aren’t good at?
AuH: I still don’t believe I’m that good at anything. I just try to involve myself in everything. That’s the reason I’m here in Singapore as well to better myself as a tennis player.
(FUCHSIA insists on getting an answer!)
Well … I can’t cook! The only thing I can prepare is Meetha Andda (sweet egg). I can’t ride a motorbike either. I had an accident when I was younger, and that has completely put me off it.
FUCHSIA: Why not cricket, why tennis?
AuH: I wanted to be different! I was always different from others and I wanted to prove a point that one can do well in other sports as well. Cricket is a cheaper sport so it’s more popular; all you need is an open field, a bat and a ball. I’m sure once we establish a system which I am working on, tennis will be more widespread.
FUCHSIA: With little infrastructure in place for tennis in Pakistan, is it destined to remain a sport for the “privileged-kid”?
AuH: One should never say never; in fact I’m trying to take a few initiatives to make it a public sport, you will see in a few years, a tennis centre in Pakistan, the first of its kind. I’ve travelled all over the world and I have a pretty good picture in my mind of what a world-class facility can do. I feel it is my obligation to give back to my country and our people.
There are those who use obstacles as an excuse to give up, and then there are those who use them as an opportunity to better themselves. For me, that’s the case with Pakistan too. Although there are no facilities, I make the most of what is there. Otherwise I wouldn’t get anywhere.
FUCHSIA: Your most awkward moment on court.
AuH: I was delayed at a match after a severe back spasm, and had to change my shorts on court in Pakistan, while being televised live, in front of all the dignitaries, my family and in a country where everyone knows me! That was the most embarrassing moment of my life!
FUCHSIA: Was there ever going to be Aisam-ul-Haq, the lawyer, the banker, the doctor?
AuH: I always wanted to be a pilot! I used to dream about flying fighter jets. However, at school, I was a really good swimmer, and took it very seriously … but I started tennis at the age of 12 and I felt I was leaning more towards that. When I won my first tennis match, that feeling of making my parents proud was it for me.
Tennis flows in my blood. It’s been in the family for generations starting from my grandfather, my mother and passed down to me.
FUCHSIA: A moment you can never forget?
AuH: I can never forget the day I beat Federer in Switzerland. I shook his hand and said “It was an honour to be on the same court as you”, and he replied, “Bro, we played 13 years ago as well in Juniors!” I obviously knew that but didn’t expect him to remember me; and even if he did remember me, I would have never thought he would mention it!
FUCHSIA: Who do you idolise?
AuH: As a player I was always a big fan of Stefan Edburg. As a person, my father.
FUCHSIA: Who do you attribute your success to?
AuH: Most of the credit, without a doubt, goes to my parents. In Pakistan nobody ever sponsored me. It was a huge risk for my father not to send me to college. In Juniors, I was sponsored by ITF for 2 years so my parents did not have to worry about expenses. Once you become a professional tennis player, you have to look after your own expenses. I started from zero. There were loads of ups and downs. My parents had to make a lot of sacrifices in order to support me.
All the coaches who I have trained with are a part of who I am now, and I can’t thank them enough.
Aisam believes that sports can change a person’s life, and that parents should encourage their children towards it, but never force it on them. FUCHSIA couldn’t help but be endeared to this wise young sportsman with a big vision who has his sights set on meaningful tasks – not just in developing tennis into a mainstream sport accessible to everyone in Pakistan, but also in championing the message that peace is the only way forward.
Good move in choosing tennis over flying fighter jets, then, wouldn’t you say?