New Delhi: From arranging vegetarian food to booking practice courts without asking and beefed up security, Pakistan is “going out of their way” to make the eight-member Indian tennis contingent feel “special” in Islamabad, which is playing host to the Asian U-12 ITF regional qualifying event.
A few Indian junior tennis players have competed across the border in an individual capacity in different ITF Grade events but it is the first time that a junior national team has travelled to Pakistan for a multi-nation tournament.
The Indian Davis Cup team has not travelled to the neighbouring nation since 1964 and no senior player has competed on Pakistan soil since the friendship series between the two nations in November 2007 in Lahore.
Obviously, Pakistan is glad to host Indian players even if they are just 12-year-old boys and girls.
Aarav Chawla, Ojas Mehlawat and Rudra Batham feature in the boys’ team while the girls’ team has Maaya Revathi, Harithashree Venkatesh and Janhavi Kajla.
Incidentally, former national champion Ashutosh Singh, who was part of the 2007 friendship series, is with the boys’ team as a coach.
Ashutosh says having the India flag on their official jerseys had started to attract attention even before they landed in Pakistan.
“At the Doha airport, a few people noticed the tricolour on our jerseys and they got interested in our group. They belonged to Pakistan and were happy to know that we were headed to Islamabad. If you are an Indian player, they want to talk to you,” Ashutosh told PTI from Islamabad.
“Before we reached the immigration desk, the Pakistan Tennis Federation had all the clearances in place. It was clear, they were happy to have us as guests. We also had an escort vehicle to the hotel.”
“There were no security concerns. Even the parents of the kids were pretty confident. All the top players of Pakistan like Aqeel Khan are our good friends. They always keep tennis away from politics.”
Namita Bal, who is the coach of the girls’ team, was overwhelmed by the special treatment they are receiving.
“They are taking care of our tiniest of things. Janhavi is the lone vegetarian in our group but they are arranging vegetarian food for her every day. We are supposed to book our courts and arrange for water but they are taking care of everything,” chuckled Namita.
“Not only this, we arrived a day earlier (Saturday) than the scheduled time and were supposed to pay for our hotel but we were told that we don’t need to pay. We are overwhelmed by the warmth, love and respect we are receiving in Pakistan,” added Namita.
“They are making sure we don’t feel as if we are enemies. They are calling us 10 times a day to ask if we need anything. They are going out of their way to make us feel comfortable.”
The Indian boys and girls are favourites to win their respective events at the ITF Asia 12 & Under Team Competition, which is a South Asia Regional Qualifying event. The top two teams will make it to the next round, which will be held in Kazakhstan in November.
The Indian boys’ team blanked Nepal 3-0 and the girls’ team beat Pakistan 2-1 to start their campaign on a good note on Monday.
Pakistan Tennis Federation (PTF) President Salim Saifullah Khan told PTI that they would “love to host the senior Indian teams as well.”
“India has some really strong players and playing with them will benefit our players. It will be a good experience for our boys and girls to play against these Indian kids.
“Our agencies, the special police force are alert and taking extra care of the Indian squad. All we want us is that they inform us, if they are going anywhere. They must inform us,” he said.
“The junior Indian players used to come here for ITF Grade 4-5 events but now they don’t come. We want that Indian players come here and Pakistan players to compete in India,” said Khan, who last came to India in 2005 when her mother underwent eye surgery in Mumbai.
India’s number one U12 player Aarav’s father Jitender Chawla, who works in the corporate world, said he had no apprehensions about sending his son to Pakistan.
“People say a lot of things but when the players are there as national guests I don’t feel there should be any problem. If something has to happen can happen anywhere. Aarav was pretty excited to go there.
Aarav trains with Aditya Sachdeva, who heads the training program at Round glass sport in Chandigarh.
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