Indo-Pak: Tennis over diplomacy?

BANGALORE, India — At sunset every evening along the India-Pakistan border, guards from the two countries stomp their feet and march around. Spectators jeer as the guards bellow their way through a 45-minute-long, choreographed routine of exaggerated hostility.

This display at Wagah, the only road border crossing between India and Pakistan, is a symbol of the hostility between the antagonistic Asian neighbors. They routinely accuse one another of spying, they deny one another's citizenry visas and they ban each other's films. Recently, India accused Pakistan of supporting terrorist attacks on Indian soil.

After many rounds of peace talks gone bad, India and Pakistan are still very much at odds. But now, an unlikely duo of sports-loving 30-year-olds is aiming to see if a tennis match can solve what diplomacy has been unable to.

The tennis doubles pair — Rohan Bopanna, a Hindu Indian, and Aisam ul-haq Qureshi, a Muslim Pakistani — have proposed a friendly tennis match to take place at none other than, you guessed it, Wagah. The pair has sent a request for the match to the governments of India and Pakistan and is now awaiting a response. Bopanna wants to play on the Pakistani side of Wagah, while Qureshi would play on the Indian side.

The idea would have been preposterous had it not come from Bopanna and Qureshi. But these unexpected ambassadors for peace have become the toast of the subcontinent — not just for almost clinching a recent Grand Slam victory, but also for their off-court camaraderie.

Since 2007, the pair has teamed up on the ATP World Tour circuit. But since coming within a whisker of winning the U.S. Open Men’s Doubles title in August (they lost in the final), Indians and Pakistanis are hailing them as humanitarians and champions of peace.

Their “Stop War, Start Tennis” and “Love India, Love Pakistan” T-shirt slogans echo a growing sentiment on the subcontinent.

“Their partnership demonstrates that enmity is the loser and harmony the victor,” said die-hard sports fan Krishna Prasad, a Bangalore-based quality analyst.

The two have been named peace ambassadors by the Monaco-based not-for-profit Peace and Sport. Facebook fan pages idolize the duo, dubbing them “Indo Pak Express.”

There is a groundswell of mass support for the pair, and governments on both sides of the border are feting them with cash prizes. Their doubles matches have gathered an expanse of fans in the two countries where the game of cricket overwhelmingly dominates the sporting scene.

“Tennis provides you the big picture and the rivalries seem to fade into the distance,” Bopanna told GlobalPost during an interview at the swank restaurant and bar he co-owns with three friends in Bangalore. 

Bopanna listed all that he and his "Pakistani brother" have in common. They were born in the same year, under the same Zodiac sign, Pisces. They are both crazy about Bollywood films. On the court and off it, they speak in Hindi, India’s national language that is quite similar to the Urdu spoken in Pakistan. During a game, they often yell "shabaash!" (well done!) and "chal" (let’s go) to each other.

Such parallels have captured the collective imagination of Indians and Pakistanis and underscored their shared culture. The two countries were partitioned in 1947 at the time the British exited the subcontinent, the cleave leading to much violence and bloodshed. They have fought two wars since, and have come within brushing distance of a third.

Indo-Pak politics have not cramped the tennis duo's style on the court. “We play tennis, not politics,” said Bopanna, adding that their styles are perfectly complementary. Qureshi is stronger at the net whereas Bopanna plays hard ground strokes from the back of the court.

Millions of Indians and Pakistanis turn hysterical when the two countries play cricket against each other. In India, where some Muslims back the rival cricket team, the game quickly turns divisive.

However, there is also evidence that sports can help transcend the subcontinental divide. Earlier this year, Shoaib Malik, a former captain of the Pakistan cricket team wed India’s top ranking tennis player Sania Mirza in a union hailed as a cross-border love match.

The Bopanna-Qureshi pairing is spontaneous, sincere and worth applauding, says Indian historian and social commentator Ramachandra Guha. “It is an endearing, large-hearted partnership,” he said.

But, he said, the two may not have the large impact on the Indo-Pak relationship that some are hoping for. The politics of India and Pakistan are complicated by issues like terrorism and the dispute over the state of Kashmir that both claim as their own.

That hasn't kept fans from being optimistic. Prasad, the tennis fanatic, said he hopes the partnership will force politicians to pay attention.

The sunset ritual at the Wagah border routinely ends with both sides lowering the flags and slamming the border gates, but Prasad said, “Bopanna and Qureshi offer hope that the gates could stay open in welcome.”