KARACHI (Reuters) - For a nation devastated by floods, rocked by terrorism and embarrassed over a cricket corruption scandal, Pakistanis are pinning their hopes on an unlikely sporting star to give the country something to cheer.
After a month of fasting for Ramadan, Pakistani Muslims will celebrate Eid this weekend and also pray that Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi can add to the festivities by becoming the first tennis player from his country to win a grand slam title.
Tennis tends to slip under the radar in cricket-mad Pakistan but Qureshi has already raised the sport’s profile by breaking new ground for his country after reaching the U.S. Open mixed doubles final and semi-finals of the men’s doubles event.
“I know how important my performances are right now for my countrymen. I am eager to give them something to celebrate about after the floods and cricket scandal,” Qureshi told Geo Super channel from New York.
“I am really proud to become the first Pakistani to reach the knockout stage of a grand slam event but my job is still not finished as yet,” he said.
Pakistani cricket fans have been left disheartened by the latest controversy to befall the side, a spot-fixing and betting scandal in England that has led to the suspension of test skipper Salman Butt, and pacemen Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif.
Qureshi, who is ranked 34th in the ITF men’s doubles rankings, is also no stranger to controversy but has shaken off the problems to flourish as a player.
In 2002, he faced the wrath of his countrymen and national tennis federation for partnering Israel’s Amir Hadad in the doubles event at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
He was also criticized when he started his current doubles partnership with India’s Rohan Bhopanna three years ago, but Qureshi remains unbowed by any negativity and has always maintained that sport was above caste, creed or politics.
“He has always been a strong character and once he makes up his mind he will not change it,” his mother Nausheen Ehtesham told Reuters, adding that her son had the ability to triumph in New York.
“We all need some good news and I am confident my son can do it,” she said.
Pakistan Davis Cup coach Rashid Malik acknowledges that Qureshi’s strong tennis background, his grandfather Khawaja Iftikhar was an all-India champion, and his parents have been a source of great support.
“I think Qureshi always had talent but also had the advantage of parents who supported and financed him. In Pakistan, tennis is not taken seriously as a career although we have talent,” Malik said.
For the last three years, Qureshi has concentrated on a doubles career after attaining a highest ranking of 125th in singles but Malik believes it is still not too late for the 30-year-old to make an impact on his own.
“He just has to work on his fitness and raise its level to do well in singles,” Malik said.
Qureshi is partnering Czech Kveta Peschke in the mixed doubles at Flushing Meadows
Reporting by Waheed Khan; Editing by John O'Brien