INTERVIEW-Tennis-Open-Friendship not politics behind pairing

PARIS, May 29 (Reuters) - Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi said the positive response to their doubles partnership suggested there has been a softening of views towards sporting relationships, at least, between India and Pakistan.

India’s Bopanna and Pakistan’s Qureshi received a tennis lesson from Mike and Bob Bryan in the French Open at Roland Garros on Thursday, losing 6-1 6-4 to the top seeds in their grand slam bow in Paris.

But far from being downcast, the two said their performance and the good response back home to their alliance would spur them on to compete for success in the grasscourt season.

“There have been no problems at all, we have been playing for a while now,” Bopanna told Reuters. “We’re representing two different countries, playing together.”

Qureshi has particular first-hand knowledge of the backlash when sport crosses the rubicon and enters the political and religious fray.

He raised the ire of the Pakistan Tennis Federation when six years ago he paired up with Amir Hadad of Israel, a state Pakistan does not recognise.

The two reached the third round at Wimbledon and scooped an ATP Humanitarian award for their on-court relationship as Pakistan authorities urged Qureshi to end the pairing.

The Asian neighbours have had a simmering relationship after years of conflict over the disputed region of Kashmir.

“(The tie up with Hadad caused) Not a few problems, but a lot of problems,” said Qureshi, who has also briefly teamed up with India’s Leander Paes.

“But I think everyone got the message that you just can’t mix politics, religion and culture or anything into sports.

“They learnt a lot from it. Now the IPL (cricket’s Indian Premier League) has started, a lot of Pakistanis and Indians are playing in the same team.

“So I am happy that people have realised that religion and politics you should not mix in sports.

“If cricketers are playing together I am sure they have no problem with tennis players playing together.”

The two insisted that friendship rather than any political motivation lay behind their decision to team up.

“He is like my best friend on the tour and on the court so I’m really happy that we’re both doing really well,” Qureshi added. “We get along so well and we decided to play with each other.

“Everyone is happy (with the partnership). They root for both of us and a Pakistani playing in a grand slam everyone is very excited.

“They actually have very high hopes of us and thought probably we were going to give a tough time to the Bryans, we disappointed a lot of people there.”

The two will now focus on Wimbledon.

“We’ve got to turn things around on grass later in the year and the more tournaments we play together we are going to improve,” Bopanna said.

Editing by Justin Palmer