Islamabad: Pakistan has paid a huge price in the absence of international sporting events in the last decade, and the tennis fraternity is hoping that the arrival of the Indian Davis Cup team for the "historic tie" will inject fresh enthusiasm and provide a big boost to the game in the country.
The last time an Indian Davis Cup team travelled to Pakistan was way back in 1964. The All India Tennis Association (AITA) was not keen on sending its team this year too, but the ITF rejected its appeal and said categorically that there is no reason to believe that Indian players will face any security concerns in Pakistan.
International sporting events in Pakistan came to a halt after the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team bus in March 2009 in Lahore. Consequently, the country was barred from hosting world-level tournaments across sports.
The Pakistan Tennis Federation (PTF) could not host either junior ITF events nor senior men's Future tournaments. There were no women's events and no Davis Cup team travelled to Pakistan till 2017.
It badly hit Pakistan tennis which was nowhere near cricket in terms of popularity in the country as many promising players were forced to quit the game for lack of growth opportunities and exposure.
The ones who were playing at the U14 level did not graduate to the men's level and competing abroad for ITF events is not easy either for Pakistani or Indian players considering the huge cost involved.
Things began to change in 2017 when Iran sent its teams to Islamabad. The arrival of Asian powerhouse Japan in 2021 also had a positive impact.
However, nothing matches the excitement and anticipation when India and Pakistan compete in Pakistan.
The reactions of Pakistan's top players, Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi and Aqeel Khan, best summed up the excitement. They are even hoping that this tie could pave the way for the arrival of the Indian cricket team in Pakistan.
"We are very, very excited and happy, finally the Indian Davis Cup team is here. I have always believed that we should keep politics, religion, and culture away from sports. That's the beauty of the sport and being a sportsman. I have always vouched for that," Aisam, the only Pakistan player competing on the ATP Tour, told PTI.
"For me, it's the most historical tie, probably. I am super excited to be part of it. I think it is going to promote tennis in Pakistan, definitely.
"Already, it has created hype that the Indian team is there officially. Hopefully, it will break the barriers. In this tie, the security measures you will see, I don't think there will be any problems or issues related to that.
"I would be happy if this Davis Cup tie pushes the Indian cricket team to come to Pakistan and help us see India-Pakistan cricket matches as well. Inshaallah, there will be a good atmosphere and a memorable tie for both the teams." Asim Shafiq, national development director and also head coach of Pakistan's National Tennis Centre, shared how the country suffered in the last 12 years.
"In 2018, we had less than 2000 junior players registered with us. After international tennis restarted, the number went to 50,000 from 2000 and the challenge was to retain them. There is no concept of public courts in Pakistan," Asim, who was part of the Pakistan Davis Cup team that competed in Mumbai in 2006, said.
In Pakistan, one has to be a member of gymkhanas, clubs or clubs within the Forces to be able to play tennis, unlike in India where a player can pay money to book a court and play. However, there are several football and cricket academies, which are easily accessible.
"Only 10 per cent of those registered players can enjoy the benefits of memberships. So, how to retain those players after the age of 10, that's a challenge," he said.
How India-Pakistan tie will help?
"The eyeballs that we are expecting to generate through this tie will be the best ever in history. We used to run after the sponsors and now we are being chased," claimed Asim.
It has been learnt that there is an internal battle going on between the contenders, like oil companies and banks, as they seek to outbid each other to get the title sponsorship.
"We were in the wilderness in those 12 years. But now, when a huge team like India is in Pakistan, it will give that boost. There is no PSL and no match of the national cricket team scheduled, so timing is also great," Asim said.
Better coverage than expected
Aqeel Khan firmly believes that this tie is different from other matches.
"We have competed against the best Asian teams like Japan and Uzbekistan but the Indian team is different. When India is here, media gets involved, fans get more excited and I am sure there is huge interest among sponsors also because more people will follow.
"It will help Pakistan tennis overall because it will popularise the game further. Tennis is not that popular in Pakistan, so when matches will be against India, it should fill that gap," he said.