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At 2010 U.S. Open, Indo-Pak Express gives India, Pakistan cause to cheer together

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 12:11 AM

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. - Some of the world's best tennis players sailed through maddening wind Wednesday at the U.S. Open, including five-time champion Roger Federer, No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki, 2008 Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic and top Russian Vera Zvonareva.

But no victors were more elated than Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, who not only reached the doubles final of a Grand Slam event for the first time but were cheered on by their countries' United Nations ambassadors.

The display of unity and common purpose meant as much to Bopanna and Qureshi, natives of India and Pakistan who bill their on-court partnership as the Indo-Pak Express, as any winner's check or silver-plated trophy.

"To see the two countries' ambassadors to the United Nations sitting together, clapping for the same cause and wanting us to win, it was a beautiful thing to see," said Qureshi, after he and Bopanna defeated Argentines Eduardo Schwank and Horacio Zeballos, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, to earn a spot in Friday's final against Americans Bob and Mike Bryan, also straight-sets victors on Wednesday.

"If me and Rohan can get along so well on and off the court, there's no reason the Indians and Pakistanis can't get along with each other."

Bopanna and Qureshi have competed together off and on since 2003 despite the fact that the neighboring countries have been to war three times since becoming independent nations in 1947. Their pairing started drawing notice this year after they launched their "Stop War, Start Tennis" campaign, with the slogan printed on their warmup jackets.

With each match they've played since, they've seen their support grow.

"The crowd is getting bigger," Qureshi said. There are "more Indians and Pakistanis coming. They're all mixed together sitting in the crowd. You can't tell who is Pakistani and who is Indian. That's the beauty about sports. That's the beauty about our playing."

The two U.N. ambassadors congratulated both players after Wednesday's victory at Louis Armstrong Stadium and promised to return for Friday's final, in which the U.S. Open crowd will almost surely favor the Bryans.

For now, the Indo-Pak Express is one victory away from a Grand Slam event title and well on the way to delivering a message that transcends sport.

"We've always said sports can reach places where no religion or politics or politician can reach," Qureshi said.

Wednesday's 30-mph winds were felt most dramatically in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the marquee players compete. The 23,000-seat grandstands rise like the Roman Colosseum above the tournament's featured court, exaggerating the effect of whatever wind is blowing. The gusts blew trash on the court, toyed with the balls' movement and brought the competition to a dead halt at times, as servers refused to toss up the ball until it subsided.

They also proved the undoing of Gael Monfils of France in his highly anticipated quarterfinal against Djokovic, who managed the conditions far better and prevailed, 7-6 (7-2), 6-1, 6-2.

In limited English, the Frenchman explained that he wasn't prepared for the way it wreaked havoc on his game. A tremendous athlete with crowd-pleasing speed and power, Monfils struggled to play the conservative tennis that is best suited to high wind.

"With that wind, you can really find my weakness," Monfils said. "I'm very physical and speed[y], and now we need to be like very focused on every shot. . . . You have to think, 'I need to put the ball here and not too close [to the lines].' On this, I know I need to improve a lot."

Djokovic earned a semifinal date with Federer, who staged a brilliant serving display (18 aces) late Wednesday against No. 5 seed Robin Soderling, turning back the Swede, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5. Like top seed Rafael Nadal, Federer has yet to lose a set this tournament.

For 31st-seeded Kaia Kanepi, the odds of upsetting Zvonareva, the seventh seed, for a place in the semifinals were remote from the start. Kanepi quickly found that her biggest challenge wasn't Zvonareva but the wind.

Zvonareva, hardly known as an emotional rock, proved steadier, defeating the short-circuiting Kanepi, 6-3, 7-5, to advance to a semifinal meeting with Wozniacki, who beat Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova, 6-2, 7-5.

"This felt like playing in a hurricane!" Wozniacki said during her on-court interview.

Kanepi committed a staggering 60 unforced errors (to 18 winners) in the 1 hour 53-minute match. She blamed half her gaffes on the wind; the rest on herself and Zvonareva's superior play.

"The weather was definitely not for the good tennis out there," said Zvonareva, this year's runner-up to Serena Williams at Wimbledon. "The most important thing was to find the right balance between being patient and being aggressive. I think I did it well."

Nearly all tennis pros would rather compete in withering heat than in high wind, which is regarded as an equalizer, forcing players capable of making high-risk shots to attempt pedestrian ones instead, adding hefty margins of error in case the wind yanks the ball wide or long or stops it short.

And most players trudge off the court slightly demoralized in the end, aware they haven't displayed their best tennis under the conditions.

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