Cultivating pact on grass, Muslim, Jew join rackets

`Here to play the game,' pair falls in 3rd round

Wimbledon

July 02, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England - They wanted to talk of doubles and tennis, not politics and religion.

But the off-court topics were unavoidable for the Pakistani Muslim and the Israeli Jew, the remarkable tennis partnership of Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and Amir Hadad.

They came to Wimbledon unheralded and unknown except to those in a tiny fraternity, journeymen who joined up last month for the simplest of reasons - they wanted to get through qualifiers and into the main draw.

They did it, and they caused a stir, not because of the way they played but because of who they are, the countries they come from, the religions they believe in.

And yet, when they left the tournament yesterday, in the men's doubles third round, they somehow came to represent something more than a game.

Call it a dash of hope in a turbulent world.

Qureshi of Pakistan and Hadad of Israel lost to the No. 7-seeded Czech pair of Martin Damm and Cyril Suk, 6-1, 7-6 (5), 6-4.

But the outcome didn't matter much in a match under gray threatening skies on a court near a restaurant, surrounded by about 200 spectators.

The players didn't have a point to prove, but they proved one anyway.

"We're not here to change anything," Qureshi said. "Politicians and governments do that. We're just here to play the game and enjoy it."

They said they really didn't think it would be that big a deal.

"There are some people that maybe want to make some headlines, say some bad things about this," Hadad said. "But I see it only positive that two guys from different nationalities can play together. We are good friends, and I think we're going to keep playing together in the future."

In Israel, the story hardly merited a blip.

In Pakistan, it has been different, with reports that the Pakistan Sports Board wants an explanation from Qureshi over the partnership. Strange, but few noticed before that Qureshi has partnered with other Israeli players in smaller events.

Saeed Haj, a former top Pakistani player, was quoted as saying: "Due to bloodshed in the Middle East, Qureshi's pairing with an Israeli player is wrong."

"There's going to be negative and positive," Qureshi said. "But nobody has contacted me yet, so I can't say anything about it, you know. I'm going to go home after two months. We'll see what happens."

He trains with a coach in the Netherlands, and his home is in Lahore in Pakistan. He comes from a tennis family. His grandfather was the All-India No. 1 before the 1947 partition, then Pakistan's top player. His mother, Nosheen Qureshi, was Pakistan's top women's player for 10 years, and, even at 41, ranks No. 3.

Nosheen Qureshi and her husband, Ehtsham, were courtside for yesterday's match. She sat on a bench, he stood in a corner and watched most of the match through the viewfinder of a video camera.

"This young guy from Pakistan is taking Pakistan's good name across the globe," Ehtsham Qureshi said of his son, adding, "For us, it's just sports and tennis."

David Harnik, president of the Israel Tennis Association, watched from the other side of the court, behind the players. He said he was thrilled to see an Israeli player get into the third round at Wimbledon and stuck to a line that "politics and sports" don't mix.

Could he see a time when an Israeli and Palestinian player would form a doubles partnership?

"If they have a good player, why not?" he said.

After the match, the players were brought into a big conference room, and they had a glow about them, smiling in front of themedia.

Someone asked them if sports is more important to them than religion.

"For me, it's tough to be as religious as I want to be," Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi said. "Tough to pray five times a day."

Hadad then took up the theme and talked about the difficulty of remaining kosher on a global tour.

"I don't pray at all," he said. "But I practice a lot."

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