For years, Pakistan tennis has yearned for recognition. Having seen its sister sport – squash – attaining the status of a major game in the country on the back of record-breaking performances from the great Khans of Nawakilli, tennis has also tried to attract mass following. But it has failed despite repeated attempts. There have been occasions when players like Saeed Hai, Haroon Rahim and more currently Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi made their presence felt but more often than not Pakistan tennis has managed only false shots.
Salim Saifullah wants this sorry script to change, once and for all. A businessman and politician from KP, Saifullah has been in love with tennis since he first hit a volley as a ten year old. Saifullah has four brothers and all of them have also played tennis at various levels. He captained his college in Peshawar and later in Pittsburg in tennis. Saifullah’s brother Anwar served as president of the Pakistan Tennis Federation on two occasions and his family has been involved in developing tennis infra-structure in various parts of the country.
Boasting a “50-year-old attachment” with Pakistan tennis, Saifullah wants to do “something great” for the sport. And his intended platform through which he is eyeing to reach that goal is the Pakistan Tennis Federation (PTF). With the federation’s elections set to be held on November 28, Saifullah is hoping to get elected as PTF president and then launch a “concrete and comprehensive” campaign to lift Pakistan tennis.
In an interview with ‘The News on Sunday’, Saifullah revealed the reasons why he decided to contest for PTF presidency and shared his plans for the promotion and development of Pakistan tennis. Following are the excerpts.
The News on Sunday: How good is your tennis background?
Salim Saifullah: Basically, I have been playing tennis since I was ten years old. I was in the same batch as players like Zulfiqar Rahim back in the sixties. From the very start, tennis was a like passion for me. All of us five brothers played this great game. We were inspired, in fact forced, to take up tennis as kids by my uncle Yousuf Khan Khattak. We would play on grass in Peshawar and then switch to clay in Abbottabad in the summer. As a junior, I used to make the cut for the semi-finals and mostly Zulfiqar Rahim would win titles. Haroon Rahim was still very young at that time. I still remember how he would play with a double-handed backhand as a 12-year-old. One of the high points of my tennis career came when I was captain of Edwards College and as part of the Peshawar University team we won the All-Pakistan Universities title beating Lahore in Hyderabad in 1963-64. Then I moved to USA for my studies and earned an engineering degree from there. I was captain of my college tennis team and played various tournaments there. I even tried my hand at coaching. I resumed playing tennis after returning home. By the way my wife is also a former national clay court champion.
TNS: Why did you decide to contest election for the post of PTF president?
SS: The thing is that tennis has given me a lot over the years. I have made a lot of friends all over the world on the tennis courts. I believe that it is time now that I give something back to the sport. I also believe that I have the credentials to so something great for Pakistan tennis. I was a vice president of the federation. I have a 50-year attachment with Pakistan tennis. My family has made various courts in Pakistan. In the past I was busy with various projects but now I have enough time to devote to Pakistan tennis. I’ve been in politics and also in family business. Over the years many people attached to Pakistan tennis have requested me to join PTF and help the sport. Previously I couldn’t spare enough time but now I can. I’ve always believed that you should first deserve then desire. I’m confident that with the credentials I have I deserve to get elected as PTF president. I also believe that I have a lot of support within the national tennis community.
TNS: Do you think that tennis would benefit if you get elected as PTF president?
SS: I think so. That’s the reason why I’ve decided to contest the PTF elections. In February this year, some ministry people talked to me about forming an ad-hoc committee to run but PTF but I refused. I wanted that there would be fair play in Pakistan tennis. Our image has already taken a hit in recent times. Tennis can help us give some soft image. I’ve received a lot of support from various stakeholders. Pakistan tennis is like a small family. And we have a lot of work to do. Small countries like Serbia are churning out world champions. We can do that too but that will be a long journey.
TNS: Tennis has shown potential in Pakistan over the years but we have failed to actually realize it. What do you think are the reasons behind this failure?
SS: The biggest reason is that we lack facilities and opportunities. We have so many talented youngsters but we can’t transform them into world class players. We need to improve on courts, training and other necessary things. The standard of our tournaments is also very low. We have to have more events with substantial prize money. Our limbs are the provinces. Our job at the PTF would be to raise funds and to liaison with the ITF and the sports ministry. I believe that PTF should raise 100 million rupees annually so we can run tennis professionally. We have to invest more on our players, our coaches and our umpires. We want to catch our players young. We should have a comprehensive U-12 programme. We need talent hunt projects.
TNS: If elected, what sort of steps do you plan to take to lift Pakistan tennis?
SS: We can do so much. The first thing we can do is to package Pakistan tennis. We have to make it attractive for youngsters, for sponsors, for media and for the general public. There is no dearth of money in our country but tennis will have to deliver to attract funds and sponsorship. If I’m elected, we would gather all stakeholders on a single platform. We will have ex-champions and the media and seek their support. The thing is that when a player like Aisam-ul-Haq wins an international title it is Pakistan that is winning it. We have to see it as a national cause. We are confident, motivated and positive and want to work to achieve several goals. One such goal is to help bring back international events to Pakistan. Personally I believe that we can hold South Asian level events in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad in the near future. My request to the national tennis family is that we need a united effort. By serving tennis we will be serving Pakistan. We will turn tennis into a major sport.