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Can tennis pair pave way to India-Pakistan harmony?

By Sam Sheringham, for CNN
  • India's Rohan Bopanna and Pakistani Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi reach U.S. Open final
  • Indian Sports Minister says success can point way to better relations between countries
  • Bopanna and Qureshi face top seeded Bryan brothers at Flushing Meadows

(CNN) -- When Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi step out on court for the U.S. Open men's doubles final on Friday night, there will be more than just sporting glory at stake.

The unlikely pairing of an Indian and a Pakistani at the highest level of tennis has captured imaginations around the world and fostered a growing feeling that their success can help inspire an era of a better understanding between two nuclear nations with a long and bloody history of acrimony.

"I have one question for everyone: if Bopanna-Qureshi can play together, why cannot India and Pakistan?" India's sports minister MS Gill said in a statement after India's Bopanna and Qureshi of Pakistan defeated Argentine pair Eduardo Schwank and Horacio Zaballos in the semifinals on Wednesday.

The match at New York's Flushing Meadows was watched by the United Nations ambassadors from their two countries -- who sat side-by-side in the stands -- as well as large portions of the U.S. city's Indian and Pakistani communities.

The Rock'n'Roll Grand Slam

"They're all mixed together sitting in the crowd," Qureshi told reporters in a press conference carried by the U.S. Open official website. "You can't tell who is Pakistani and who is Indian. That's the beauty about sports. Before our pairing you would never see that in any sports, fighting for one cause. It's really good to be part of it."

Ever since the division of the sub-continent in 1947, India and Pakistan have been arch-rivals. Tensions over religion and disputed territories have escalated into three wars between the nations and a threatening nuclear arms race.

Relations hit a new low after the Mumbai attacks in 2008, when more than 170 people were killed by Pakistan-based Islamabad terrorists.

Sports can reach places where no religion or politics can. If you can change a few people's minds on the Indian or Pakistan side, I think it's a great thing
--Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi

Amina Yaqin, a lecturer in South Asia at London's School of Oriental & African Studies, believes the "good news" tennis story may help change attitudes.

"After the Mumbai attacks something like this was probably needed to show not everyone from one country is out to injure the other," Yaqin told CNN.

"People are very passionate about sport and this gets a very strong and positive message across."

The animosity between India and Pakistan has frequently been transposed into the sporting arena, making cricket matches between the two nations among the most fiercely contested events in world sport.

Home hopes distant ahead of U.S. Open

With their on-court chemistry and near-telepathic understanding, Qureshi and Bopanna are creating a different vibe and are optimistic about their capacity to influence minds.

"We're just trying to promote peace through sports," Bopanna said. "If even two or three per cent of people say 'If they can get along why can't we?, that's what we're trying to do.'"

"Sports can reach places where no religion or politics can," Qureshi added. "If you can change a few people's minds on the Indian or Pakistan side, I think it's a great thing."

Qureshi and Bopanna, who call themselves "the Indo-Pak Express", started playing together in 2003 after Qureshi left Pakistan in search of a more competitive tennis scene. They claimed their first ATP Tour title in Johannesburg in February.

After their semifinal victory, the duo were congratulated on their achievements by Indian tennis star Sania Mirza, whose border-bridging marriage to Pakistan cricketer Shoaib Malik earlier this year was greeted with a mixture of horror and delight in their native countries.

"Great day for sport and Indian sport today ... big congratulations to Rohan and Aisam for making the finals!" she posted on Twitter. "One more to go boys, and create more history in many, many ways."

Qureshi and Bopanna face a tough task on Friday if they are to claim some silverware. They are up against the renowned Bryan brothers from the United States, who have eight grand slam titles to their name and last month won a record 62nd ATP tournament as a pair.

"To win a Grand Slam you have to beat the best there is," said Bopanna. "That's what we keep telling each other."