LAHORE: Enough has been said about the relationship that sports have with nationalism. The love that a country may have for its champions, the history of its bouts with its rivals—sports have potential to espouse the most patriotic feelings in the people. So much that our own country Pakistan is, at times, called a cricketing nation. This unity between an international sport and an autonomous cultural and political community implies a deep relationship, suggesting that cricket is something we not only have a great passion for but also excel at.
Having said that, unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other sports that Pakistan participates in. Hockey is our national sport, the state of which continues to be in ruins. Squash is another sport which Pakistan is historically linked with, but how many young people today would say that it is a significant part of their lives? Not many.
Sports aren’t simply tied to nationalism in Pakistan but also class. This is most evident in our engagement with tennis, which persists today as a niche activity in the country, enjoyed by a few who have the means to afford the sport and also have a taste for it.
Allow me to recount a personal experience of mine in which I observed this intersection between class and tennis first-hand, and which led me to believe that the future of the game is perhaps not so bright in Pakistan. A couple of years ago I was able to force my way into a sports club in Model Town – a well-designed cooperative association of Lahore, home to some of the wealthiest people in the city, big houses, symmetrical blocks and 10 PM barricades. If you look at it on the map, the whole town is a square comprising of alphabetised shapes (blocks) which surround a big circular Model Town Park in the centre; and among other things you’ll find that it is big on recreation, with gyms, clubs and grounds spread all across it.
I said I forced my way into one of its clubs, which had three tennis hard courts and a few grass ones as well, because I couldn’t afford the membership. My father always questioned how I got into lawn tennis in the first place. “It’s a lord’s game” he’d always say. But putting aside the expenses of buying a tightly strung Wilson racquet and a pack of Dunlop balls that is useless after three drills, and getting a shirt that has one tick somewhere saying it’s by Nike, and paying for the courts with additional charges if you’re going to use the lights, and hiring a coach—if you’re lucky enough that he’s willing to train you—and then after all of that if you manage to get on court, tipping the ball boys so they stick by the net side and not fiddle around with each other, I had no reason to believe why I couldn’t play the game. So we talked to one of the patrons of the club who was a distant family friend and a former mayor of Model Town. He got me in without the fees, much to the chagrin of the manager who began making my life difficult from day one.
This club taught me a few things about…clubs. And class. And what happens when different classes meet in one club. Every day on the court started with the expectation that you had to wait for the “seniors” to get done first. These seniors were aged above 50, retired and rich gentlemen of the Model Town, and were also on the board of the club. These “seniors”, much surprisingly, were pretty good at tennis. Their game, of course, wasn’t about agility and immense power, but they’d played for such a long time—and they would often tell you that they started at a younger age than you did—that they were pretty accurate in their shots, with accuracy being the most essential thing in tennis. And, sometimes, they were unbeatable. And when these seniors were in their element, you knew better than to walk behind them when they were serving, or to not throw their ball back in time when it came flying at you. They would mostly play doubles, which meant less exertion and more in-fraternity engagement, but if they felt like it, they would also play a set or two in singles, and spend whatever amount of time they wanted to on court.
The ball boys got it pretty rough. Most of them were sons of the coaches. And the only thing that didn’t give away at first that this was a case of child labour was the respectable uniform that the kids were wearing. And the seniors would blame the kids for being lazy, when, in fact, they were just kids who weren’t supposed to do the job; perhaps, ideally speaking, ones who should be playing on the court and maximising their learning opportunities.
The reason I mentioned this personal anecdote is because it highlights how tennis has been ensconced in the bourgeois culture, without it being accessible to the lower classes in a meaningful way, whose labour, in fact, is employed to run errands off-court and bring the thirsty players a drink or fetch the balls, or be the old disgruntled underpaid coach who has been doing it for so long, so tirelessly and thanklessly that all the joy of the game has been sucked out of it for him. Myself, I had all the love for tennis but I would always get distracted by all these other things in the club. Besides, the manager had these creative and subtle ways of letting me know that he didn’t really want me there—one of which was to give me a brief slot on court. I withdrew within a year because I knew that playing tennis here wasn’t just about tennis.
Perhaps our most established player in tennis, Aisam-ul-Haq, also began his formative training in one of Model Town’s clubs. Aisam, 37, has reached the finals of a Grand Slam in men’s and mixed doubles, which, safe to say, is our biggest achievement in the sport. Tennis is a part of his heritage. Both his grandfather and mother found success in the game and had a talent for it which Aisam clearly inherited. Whatever success that Aisam has found in his professional career, it will always be closely linked to his ancestry which pushed him to pursue the sport more seriously. Otherwise, it is hard to come up with names of Pakistani players who have made a mark in international tennis. Another prominent player, Aqeel Khan, who once made it to the top 300 of world rankings, has been unable to maintain a presence in the men’s tour and is mostly occupied with contesting Davis Cup ties for Pakistan and local tournaments.
This reveals a clear lack of institutional support to our players to hone their talents and make their mark in tennis, prominently and on a consistent basis. What has happened as a result is that the sport is mostly a recreational engagement between rich bureaucrats and club patrons, who frequent the courts, while arguing over the head-to-head between Federer and Nadal and who the better player is. They end up having a good time, and then they head back home, withdrawing their momentary investment in an exhibition of class and burning some of those calories, as the day ends with the lights being turned off on court, while Pakistani tennis makes no real progress, whatsoever.
If there is a future for tennis, it looks bleak. Some serious backing would be required from our government to uplift the sport and provide it the infrastructure it needs so that young, fresh talent, can access tennis and excel in it.
That’s what is most important for tennis to grow in Pakistan—access, which seems to be really limited at the moment.