n September 17, Pakistan were a set away from dropping down to Group II in the Asia/Oceania Zone in the Davis Cup. They were simultaneously a set away from Group I promotion, as veteran Aqeel Khan bagged the fifth set of the fifth rubber against Thailand to give Pakistan a 3-2 win in the playoff.
Not only did the win over Thailand give Pakistan the entry into Group I, it also meant that the team would remain unbeaten in home grass ties since 1998 — when both Aqeel Khan and Aisam-ul-Haq made their Davis Cup debuts.
Over these two decades, Pakistan have undergone a lot, both on and off the courts. This has been discussed in detail in the piece, ‘Pakistan tennis comes full circle with Davis Cup win over Thailand’ published in this space on September 24, 2017.
The punchline of the piece was the fact that ‘Pakistan head into Group I in the year 2018 as dependent as ever on two middle-aged legends, 12 years later’. And both Aisam and Aqeel proved why exactly that’s the case in helping Pakistan to a 4-0 sweep against South Korea.
The year 2018 was going to be the one in which Pakistan were to be found out against the top sides in the world, and Group I was supposed to be a step too far for Aqeel and Aisam even though they had made a home there for the side 15 years ago.
Even on the home grass, where Pakistan haven’t lost a tie for two decades, South Korea were supposed to be a catch too big for the two veterans. And yet they proved that Aisam, Aqeel and home grass courts remain an impregnable fortress for Pakistan even if its two longest serving sons approach the 40-year mark.
The foundation for Pakistan’s win was laid by the ageless champs on Friday as both of them won their tightly contested singles matches.
First up it was Aisam who edged out Soon Woo Kwon 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (8-6). The tie-break especially was an absolute humdinger, with Aisam trailing 5-2 and then down a match point at 6-5, before winning three straight points to take the match in the third set breaker.
Earlier, Aisam had been 3-0 up in the set, only to let his opponent back in the match. But even when he had his back against the wall, Aisam called up all his experience, to dig to the very deepest, knowing fully well that a first singles defeat for him might’ve been a slide too big for Pakistan to recover from.
But of course, the job wasn’t done after the first singles alone, Aqeel had to win a thriller of his own against Seong-chan Hong 4-6, 7-5, 7-5. Hong got an early break in the first set, and even though he was broken back, he sealed the set 6-4, after breaking Aqeel again as he served at 4-5.
A similar exchange of breaks took place in the second, but this time it was Aqeel who got the decisive break in the 12th game to level the match with a 7-5 win in the second set.
The early games in the decider were tangibly tentative, with both players knowing exactly what was at stake. A 1-1 scoreline would mean that the younger and higher-ranked South Korea would head into the second day as the favourites — just as they had started the tie — while a 2-0 lead for Pakistan would’ve meant the home side would need just one more win to qualify for the next round.
Hence, both players held their serves till the very deep end of the set, and the match, with Aqeel breaking the 12th game with tie-break looming, to give Pakistan a 2-0 lead.
Unlike September, when Pakistan almost let a 2-0 lead slip against Thailand, the team decided to go for the kill by fielding Aisam and Aqeel as the doubles team on the second day as well. The move paid dividends as Aisam and Aqeel beat their South Korean rivals Soon Woo Kwon and Lim Yong Kyuin in another thrilling encounter 7-6 (8-6), 6-4.
Like the deciding tie-break in the first singles, the Koreans held a 3-1 mini break in the first set in the doubles clash as well, but it was Aisam who brought his doubles’ expertise to the fore and helped Pakistan claw bag in the breaker, eventually winning the first set, then the match and with it the tie that booked Pakistan’s place in the second round.
Keeping up with the overall trend of the tie, Abid Ali Akbar also edged out the fourth rubber 7-6, 7-6, in two tightly contested sets, to give Pakistan a 4-0 sweep after the two teams had decided to play out the solitary dead rubber.
Pakistan would now hold Uzbekistan in April, with Aisam, Aqeel and home grass remaining as the two-decade-old recipe for success in Davis Cup. The new Davis Cup format, with best of three matches, works in Pakistan’s favour, allowing the team to field Aisam and Aqeel in the maximum number of ties.
But it goes without saying that Pakistan need to look for replacements for the two veterans, before age forces them into calling it a day. However, till that day comes, the old war horses remain as dependable as ever, ready to give the best the world has to offer a run for their money on home soil.