In the blistering heat and humidity of Lahore in March, it’s the Shehryar Malik memorial national tournament men’s final. On one side of the net is Aqeel Khan, a practically unbeatable national legend, hero, and Pakistan’s Davis Cup pride alongside Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi. On the other side of the net is a boy with an inspirational journey. It is Muzammil Murtaza, born and bred in Jahanian and raised on the clay courts of PTF.
Aqeel has snatched victory in every encounter between the two before it could ever get too close to scare him. However, this time the unthinkable has happened. Muzammil has won the first set 6-3. Not many people have been able to take a set off of Aqeel Khan, let alone defeat him. The same scenario in the second set gives Muzammil match points at 5- 3, 40-15. However, does Muzammil believe he’s one point away from the biggest achievement of his career? The hard work done in the past several years is about to pay off. A boy with no tennis background at all is about to achieve what many players in Pakistan can only dream of.
Then Aqeel brings all his skills and experience into play and saves three match points and eventually wins the match. Aqeel is ecstatic, and Muzammil is disappointed as ever.
The question remains: can Muzammil ever beat the best in Pakistan? Pakistani tennis fans continue to wonder if there will be players good enough to replace Aqeel and Aisam.
One week later, the Faisalabad Governor Cup’s semi-final showdown between the two gives Muzammil another chance. Has he recovered from the trauma he suffered because of the defeat in their previous match? Muzammil wins the first set 6-2. However, as always no one can write off Aqeel just yet. The second set gets remarkably close with six games apiece, meaning a seven point tie-breaker will decide the result. Muzammil gets his first match point, but Aqeel defends it. The crowd and fellow tennis players watching are tense, intrigued, and nervous as ever, beginning to believe this may be a repeat of last week. Match point number two for Muzammil, and Aqeel hits the ball long. Muzammil has won! He’s done it! His face is hidden behind his hands. He kneels down on the court. He doesn’t seem to know how to express his joy.
Has Pakistan finally found what it was searching for many years? Do we now have a player who can keep Pakistan’s flag high at Davis Cup?
It began in 2006. Yaseen Murtaza appeared on a tennis court in Islamabad wearing chappals. The clueless guy was eager to take part in the Davis Cup trials. He soon realised that this racket-and-ball sport was a lot tougher than cricket, the most popular sport in the country. He was told that he was too old now to learn this sport.
He decided that if he could not make it big in this sport, his younger brothers must, although they too did not have any idea about tennis like the rest of their village folk. He gained knowledge from various people on the Pakistani tennis circuit, and watched videos of professional tennis players. He would travel for hours to watch tennis matches on television, to observe every detail. Yaseen observed the technique to teach his brothers.
They were conned by sports shops which sold them fake rackets which would break themselves after playing a few times, making them travel to Multan to purchase new ones.
They made an imaginary court in their court sized lawn, using charpais as nets. Or they would practise against a wall. They now have a real clay court at home.
When it came to learning tennis, they had the advantage of having a fresh perspective. The other children could not learn the way they did because of their coaches, because they were exposed to tennis politics, and in some cases, because of their tennis crazy parents.
Muzammil and Mudassir just had to ingrain in their minds what they were being told by Yaseen, developing their brain to only think about tennis in the most positive way. We all know the importance of positivity.
One of their first sacrifices was when Muzammil, an eight-year-old boy, had to leave the home and live in Pakistan Tennis Federation in Islamabad from time to time.
Initially, the focus was on Mudassir as Muzammil showed little interest in the sport. It was only when Mudassir began traveling further miles to compete in nationals that Muzammil got excited.
Muzammil followed the footsteps of his brother, but was always behind him by a few numbers in the ranking. Nationally, Mudassir had been No 1 in 14 and under, and then in 18 and under.
But Mudassir was forced to take a long break due to an illness. Therefore, Yaseen directed all his attention towards Muzammil. Muzammil’s tennis results started getting better with the passage of time because of his physique, confidence and hard work.
Much of this hard work was done in their village.
Then Muzammil began playing international 18 and under events not just in Pakistan, but also abroad, being the first player in their family to do so. His drastic improvement over two years drew people’s attention towards his potential. He succeeded in almost every tournament he played abroad with flying colours. He aimed to play a Junior Grand Slam but lack of sponsors which is a common obstacle in our tennis-unaware country prevented him from achieving that goal.
His ethic and dedication since then has only become stronger, and his vision to become the best even clearer.
Muzammil will be representing Pakistan in the tie against India in November, alongside Mudassir.
Getting sponsors is a very difficult task for a tennis player in Pakistan. This is one of the reasons players in the past that could’ve advanced a lot further were not able to do that.
Aisam, who has reached men’s and mixed doubles finals in the US Open, was financially stable enough to rise internationally. Help of sponsors can not only make Muzammil’s dream a reality, but it will also make Pakistan’s name rise and shine globally.