KARACHI: It was at a young age that Aqeel Khan made the then difficult decision of choosing tennis over his more preferred squash, becoming a ball boy at the Modern Tennis Club upon the insistence of his father despite having a family history in squash.
Now, nearly three decades later, he has made enough of an impact in the sport to have his name forever etched in Pakistan’s tennis history, with the centre court of the Dilawar Abbas Tennix Complex in Islamabad being named after him.
The 35-year-old Aqeel is the country’s most successful Davis Cup player, representing Pakistan in 44 ties in a career spanning more than 18 years.
His recent performance at the Davis Cup Asian-Oceania zone Group II semi-final against Indonesia, where he won a singles rubbers, proves that Aqeel is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.
“I’m shocked more than anything,” Aqeel told The Express Tribune. “It’s surreal to be playing at the centre court in the country’s biggest facility and have it named after me. I believe I’m the only player to have received such an honour during his playing career.”
The right-hander expressed his happiness at the recent recognitions he has received. “The pride of performance award last year and now this,” he said. “I look to my father now and thank him for pushing me into tennis.”
Aqeel wanted to pursue a career in squash, following in the footsteps of his father’s second cousin, the legendary Jehangir Khan. The 35-year-old revealed that his father, who was a tennis coach himself, would force him to focus on tennis, and stay at the tennis court and work as a ball boy.
“It was my father’s way of ensuring that I don’t develop any unwanted habits,” said Aqeel. “I initially started playing tennis just so that I wouldn’t have to pick stray balls in other people’s matches. I knew that if I start playing tennis, my father will help me. I was seven at that time; I observed the game and learned techniques along the way.”
The Karachi-based athlete said that tennis comes naturally to him and he found that out at an early age, becoming the country’s top-ranked U14 player. However, it was only after winning the national U16 title that he started considering taking up a career in the sport.
“I think it was the smartest decision I have ever made,” he said. “Squash focuses on stamina but tennis demands more than just that. It comes naturally to me and senior players at that time started praising my game.”
Aqeel revealed that he trains at least three hours every day, and is delighted that his hard work has paid off, adding that this will also help attract young blood into the game. “New players will see that players are rewarded during their careers as well,” he said. “I am glad that the Pakistan Tennis Federation is open-minded now. They named the centre court after me regardless of my humble background.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 5th, 2015.
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