Tennis pair promoting peace through sports

Bob Bryan and Liezel Huber beat Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and Kveta Peschke 6-4, 6-4 to win the U.S. Open mixed doubles title at Flushing Meadows on Thursday, the match offering a sort of preview to the duel everyone is talking about -- Friday's men's doubles final.

Not because the amazing Bryan twins will attempt to win yet another Grand Slam crown and move closer to establishing themselves as the most successful pairing of all time but, rather, because their opponents will be making history of a very different kind.

Until Qureshi, who comes from Pakistan, started playing with Rohan Bopanna, who is Indian, about seven years ago at the ATP Challenger level, the idea of Indians and Pakistanis sitting alongside each other, cheering for the same team, would have been quite unthinkable.

Without getting too deep into the history of it all, when the exiting British colonialists set up partition in 1947, the result was a bloodbath. The creation of Pakistan was supposed to divide and safeguard Muslims from Hindus but the wounds have never really healed. Both nations acquired nuclear weapons and have been bristling at each other ever since.

Over the decades, the only thing that has brought the two nations together in close proximity is Britain's best legacy -- cricket. On and off -- depending on the political climate -- the nations have played each other at either five-day test cricket or the shorter form of the game and, with the fairly recent expansion of television viewing for the masses, it is estimated that about one billion people watch these contests.

But the current Pakistan cricket tour of England has been ruined by allegations of match tampering by betting syndicates. The uproar has reached such a pitch back home that one member of the team has applied for political asylum in Britain, fearing for his life.

The scandal could not have come at a worse time because cricket provides this impoverished, embattled country with its outlet for joy. But, after a terrorist attack a couple of years ago on a team bus, Pakistan has been unable to play matches at home. That was bad enough, but then the floods came -- and then the betting scandal.

All this has put even greater focus on the exploits of Qureshi who, by reaching his first Grand Slam final, has probably become, just for the moment, the most popular sports personality in Pakistan.

The impact his pairing with Bopanna has made can be gauged, in part, by the fact that the United Nations Ambassadors from India and Pakistan came to watch their semifinal and sat next to each other chatting, instead of arguing at the U.N.

"They were both sitting together, clapping for the same cause, wanting us to win," said Qureshi. "It was a beautiful thing to see."

Both players speak from the heart and speak eloquently. Both are obviously fully aware of what they are achieving and what they believe they can achieve if they continue to improve.

"We know that to do well in big events is the only way to pass on that message," says Bopanna. "We are trying to promote peace through sports. Even if, you know, two or three perfect of people change their minds, saying if we can get along why can't they ..."

Qureshi picks up the theme.

"I would have to say today, getting to the final, was a small step towards it. We always said sport can reach places where no religion or politics or politician can reach. I think it's above all the religion and politics. I am seeing every day the crowd is getting better. More Indians and Pakistanis coming. They're all mixing together in the crowd. You can't tell who is Pakistani and who is Indian. That's the beauty about sports. That's the beauty, I guess, about our playing."

Both players insist they have had very little negative reaction.

"For myself, I think most people realize that Rohan is helping me popularize this sport in Pakistan," says Qureshi. "He probably doesn't know but he is very popular in Pakistan. Every time my news comes up, his name is right there next to me. And I'm very happy and proud that I can send positive news back home and good news for the people to cheer about. Pakistan has been going through a lot in the past two or three years from all the terrorist attacks and the flooding and the cricket scandal, also."

So, to put it mildly, Friday's men's doubles final has a little more riding on it than usual. The Bryans are aware of that and have nothing but good things to say about their opponents.

"Those guys are great guys," said Bob after his mixed doubles win. "Everyone in the locker room likes them."

The Bryans' father, Wayne, a lawyer and a tennis coach, shares his sons' views.

"What they are trying to do for world peace is just amazing," said Bryan. "Our sport is just so international and, like no other, it can draw people together from all over the globe. And now we have an Indian and a Pakistani playing together. They deserve enormous credit. Let's hope people get the message."