ISLAMABAD: On the tennis courts of a posh Islamabad country club, veteran coach Mahboob Khan drills his charges, but they aren’t dreaming of the pristine lawns of Wimbledon.
For these young Pakistanis, taking up tennis has a more practical application — as a ticket to a top US university on a sports scholarship.
In a 36-year coaching career Khan, still a striking, athletic figure at 65, has produced dozens of players who have played on the pro tour and in satellite events and represented Pakistan at the Davis and Fed cups.
But he says in recent years the trend has been for even the most promising youngsters to lower their ambitions and see the sport simply as a springboard to a college education they might otherwise struggle to afford.
His own daughter Sara Mahboob, 24, was number one in Pakistan for six years but quit competitive tennis to look for a job based on her sociology degree — from James Madison University in Virginia, US.
Her rival, Pakistan’s former number two Natasha Afridi followed a similar path, as did several other of their contemporaries.
The big hurdle is money. Financial support is crucial as a player tries to make the step from promising youngster to tour professional.
“The reason they are opting for college is because we did not have the money to play the professional circuit,” said Mahboob Khan.
“Lots of money is needed to play the circuit.”
‘College was a better option’
Tennis is the preserve of the tiny elite in cricket-mad Pakistan and as such is a poor prospect for sponsors and government funding.
“They play the national circuit for sometime, they also try some international tournaments such as junior and other tournaments, but when they feel that they don’t have the needed financial backing then they opt for college tennis,” Khan said.
For Sara Mahboob, the lure of financial security offered by a scholarship and degree proved too great. “It’s not very easy to get sponsors in Pakistan, especially for a female tennis player,” she said.
“So I had to make that tough decision on whether I was going to go pro or go to college, and going to college seemed like a better option.”
Pakistan’s best player is doubles specialist Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, who reached eight in the world doubles ranking in June 2011 but now lies 57th.
He reached the US Open doubles final in 2010 with Indian partner Rohan Bopanna, but a new generation of youngsters at the Islamabad Club courts show little interest in following in his footsteps.
“I don’t want to become a best player or something, but just to play tennis for some school scholarships in a good university abroad,” said Ammar Dhaga, 12, the son of a top bureaucrat at the water and power ministry.
His friends Sachal Ali Mirza, 11, and Shehryar Khokhar, 10, share his ambition.
“I am playing tennis because I like it and also because I want an international scholarship in America for tennis,” said Khokhar.
Khan says Pakistan has tennis potential, but a major injection of funds is needed to stop the talent heading to college instead.
“Right now we have the talent, the question is whether the private sector is robust to come forward and sponsor these players,” he said.
“At least 40 million rupees are needed to give a push to tennis and that’s a lot of money for Pakistan.”