NEW YORK: Taking the biggest steps yet in their quest to inspire peace between their homelands, Pakistan's Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and India's Rohan Bopanna reached the US Open men's doubles final on Wednesday.
With United Nations ambassadors from their countries sitting side-by-side to cheer them on, Qureshi and Bopanna beat Argentina's Eduardo Schwank and Horacio Zaballos 7-6 (7/5), 6-4.
"I always believed we would have to do well in the Grand Slams to get the message across," Qureshi said.
"Them coming to watch us here, it's a big step. They were very encouraging. They said what we are doing is a great thing."
"It just feels like us doing well on the bigger level is getting the message across throughout the world - if me and Rohan can get along so well there's no reason the Indians and Pakistanis can't get along with each other."
In a breakthrough on the court, they will face US top seeds Bob and Mike Bryan in Friday's final.
"I'm really looking forward to the finals against the Bryans," Bopanna said.
"To be the best you have to beat the best."
The ambassadors will be back to watch and so will India and Pakistan fans, cheering together for once.
"They're all mixed together sitting in the crowd. You can't tell who is Pakistani and who is Indian," Qureshi said.
"That's the beauty about sports. Before our pairing you would never see that in any sports, fighting for one cause. It's really good to be part of it."
"Solving political issues between governments is less of a goal than bringing people together."
"We're not looking into any political part or anything to do with whatever is happening," Bopanna said.
"If even two or three percent of people say, 'If they can get along why can't we?' that's what we're trying to do."
Qureshi hopes he can change US perceptions regarding Pakistan and the Muslim faith. "Today was a small step toward (peace)," Qureshi said.
"We always said sports can reach places where no religion or politics can reach. I think it's above all the religion and politics.
"The western world and America, they have a very wrong perception about Muslim and Pakistan," he said.
"Their perception of Pakistan being a terrorist country is definitely very wrong.
"We do have terrorist groups. We do have extremists. But I feel like (in) every religion there are extremists. It doesn't mean the whole nation is terrorist or extremist.
"The only reason we actually are getting so many terrorist attacks is because we are allies with America and the western world in fighting this cause."
Qureshi, who will also play in Thursday's mixed doubles final with Czech partner Kveta Peschke against Americans Bob Bryan and Liezel Huber, dedicates his efforts to the 21 million flood victims in Pakistan.
In addition to the deluge devastation of the past six weeks has been the disgrace of cricket stars Salman Butt, Mohammad Aamer and Mohammad Asif, who were suspended by the International Cricket Council (ICC).
The three allegedly conspired to deliberately bowl no-balls at specific moments during last month's fourth Test against England at Lord's. International cricket in Pakistan was effectively suspended following an armed attack on Sri Lanka's team bus in Lahore last year.
"Pakistan has been going through a lot from all the terrorist attacks and the flooding now for the last few months and the cricket scandal," Qureshi said.
"I'm very happy and proud that I can send positive news back home. "I just hope I keep winning matches for Pakistan and can get either one of these titles or both titles back home. That would be a great thing."
Aisam-ul-Haq makes Pakistan proud
Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi became the first Pakistani to reach the final of any grand slam event, after he qualified for the final of the mixed doubles on Tuesday.
Aisam and his partener, Kveta Peschke of Czech Republic, reached the final after defeating Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany and Mark Knowles of the Bahamas 7-6(5), 7-6(4).
Aisam is also in the semi finals of the mens doubles alongside partner Rohap Bopanna.
Something to celebrate
"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.
A controversial career
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 criticised 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.
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