When Mumbai hosted an epic Pakistan-India Davis tennis battle

While a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the scheduled Pakistan-India Davis Cup tie in Islamabad, Ajay Kamalakaran looks back at a thrilling encounter in India’s largest city in 2006

When Mumbai hosted an epic Pakistan-India Davis tennis battle
Ask a Bombayite about their favourite month of the year in the city and chances are low that April will be the answer. At the start of the Alphonso mango season, the two-headed monster known as heat and humidity can suck every ounce of energy out of even someone going for a leisurely stroll. Imagine what it does to those who are running on a tennis court and hitting and defending against powerful forehands and smashes!

The venue of the 2006 Davis Cup Asia-Oceania Group 1 tie between Pakistan and India was the Cricket Club of India, which is a stone’s throw away from the stadium where the

Pakistani hockey team won the 1982 World Cup. While Pakistan had traditionally done well against its eastern rival in cricket and hockey, tennis was another cup of tea.

India had defeated Pakistan in each of the five Davis Cup ties that the countries played till that point. Starting from Lahore in 1962, in five ties in the prestigious tennis competition, Pakistan had only managed to win two matches against a country that produced world-class players such as Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj and Leander Paes.

2006 was the best chance for Pakistan to defeat India. The best player in this tie was 26-year old Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, an athlete who had courted controversy by playing with an Israeli doubles partner and then would later on go on to unite Indians and Pakistanis like never before when he played with Rohan Bopanna.

In 2005, Qureshi’s beautiful serve and volley game helped Pakistan defeat Thailand and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) and make it to the Davis Cup world group playoff, where they’d lose to Chile.

A year later, the team seemed confident to take on India in Mumbai.
Qureshi expresses his disappointment with the fact that the politics between the neighbours has been affecting sports

A seesaw battle

Like most teams playing India in the Davis Cup at that time, Pakistan had little hope of defeating the duo of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi in the doubles, so they put all their energies on winning the singles matches.

Qureshi defeated his future doubles partner Bopanna in straight sets to give Pakistan a 1-0 lead, but Prakash Amritraj fought back a spirited and much-lower ranked Aqeel Khan to even things up. When the obvious happened in the doubles match with the Paes-Bhupathi duo easily winning, India held the 2-1 advantage.

Sunday, the 11th of April, was the most humid of the three days. Both teams had to face Mumbai’s notorious April conditions at their worst. Qureshi started off well taking the first two sets off Amritraj but the weather started to get to him and he lost the third set.  Using every single ounce of energy, Pakistan’s best tennis player of all time fought back to win the match and even the tie at two matches a piece.

The 26-year-old gave it his all and had to be hospitalised because of dehydration and cramps. “It’s a part of the game,” Qureshi says. “It was really hot and humid…I had problems with body cramps in the past as well, but I was happy that I ended up winning both matches.”

Qureshi had to watch most of the decider on television in the hospital. I ended up missing the first four sets of the fifth match between Aqeel and Leander,” he says, adding that he came back for the last set.

Prakash Amritraj

Final heroics

It wasn’t just the Mumbai crowd that was worried after Qureshi’s victory. The Indian team felt the nerves as well. Although Bopanna would have been the favourite in the decider against Khan, Leander Paes, who had almost stopped playing singles matches, decided to play in the fifth match.

The 32-year-old Indian captain felt he’d be able to handle the pressure better than the relatively inexperienced Bopanna. Paes coasted along to win the first two sets, but Mumbai’s two-headed monster, which had sent Qureshi to hospital now set its sights on the Indian captain. There was no breeze from the Arabian Sea, which was just across the street from the Cricket Club of India. The heat and humidity got to the 32-year-old who even sought medical attention.

Khan managed to win the third and fourth sets. A cramping Paes lost the fourth set 6-0. Mumbai had never been quieter than this. The crowd was even tenser when Leander took a break of almost 30 minutes. “I wasn’t there at that moment…I was at the hospital at that time,” Qureshi says. “I would have definitely complained about it. But that’s the home advantage and he got away with it[…] The referee would not have allowed Leander to have such a long break if he was playing anywhere outside India.”

Pakistan, at that point, was on the verge of defeating India for the first time ever in a Davis Cup tie. Paes recovered after the break, and like a time-tested champion, fought back and won the fifth set with relative ease to give India the tie.

“Unfortunately we lost a very close tie, but definitely it was one of the most memorable ties I have played, even if we ended up losing it,” Qureshi says. “It was a tie played in very high spirits and the level of tennis was very high as well.”

The Pakistani tennis team, especially Qureshi, won the respect and admiration of the true tennis fans in the city that is better known for its cricket stars such as Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. “We had a great time as a team, and the Indian team was a very good host,” Qureshi says.

The teams celebrated Paes’s birthday together and even attended a reception at the Maharashtra Governor’s residence, where they had what Qureshi calls a “spectacular dinner.”

Clouds over the 2019 tie

India and Pakistan have not met in a Davis Cup tie since then. The Indian team was scheduled to visit Islamabad in September for an Asia-Oceania Group 1 tie, but the International Tennis Federation, on August 22, decided to postpone it to November.  The All India Tennis Association had made a special request to keep the upcoming tie in a neutral venue or postpone it.

Qureshi expresses his disappointment with the fact that political problems between the neighbours have been affecting sports. He happily calls Paes, “Bops” and Mahesh Bhupathi his friends. “I really hope this tie takes places and India comes to Pakistan and it gives us an opportunity to host them and show them the hospitality that Pakistanis are known for,” he adds.

Nine years ago, Qureshi and Bopanna reached the men’s doubles final of the US Open. “Seeing the Pakistanis and Indians cheering for us, cheering for one cause, that rarely happens… I am so glad that we were able to change few minds on both sides of the border and could show the world and Indians and Pakistanis that we could do well together.”

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist based in Mumbai. He tweets @AjayKamalakaran