Pakistan’s Fed Cup team went to freezing cold Astana earlier this year to take part in the Asia/Oceania Zone, Group II competition. It was the team’s third straight appearance in Fed Cup, after a long lapse of 11 years. I’ve been lucky enough to have been on the team for the past 3 years, and as my fellow team mates would concur, it is a thrill each time. In an individual sport like tennis, the importance of team competition like Davis Cup and Fed Cup has often been overshadowed by the hype around Grand Slams and Masters Series, but it is a big deal nevertheless. And why shouldn’t it be? You’re playing for your country after all.
This year, our squad included, apart from me, Ushna Suhail, Sara Mansoor, Iman Qureshi, Nosheen Ehtesham (as the non-playing captain) and Inam Ul Haq (coach). Having gone through the Fed Cup experience the past couple of years, we had a fairly good idea of the format, the potential opponents, the routine etc. But nothing from our past experiences had prepared us for the extreme weather conditions we faced in the capital city of Kazakhstan. Averaging a lowly -10 degree Celsius throughout our stay there, the temperature, more than the tennis became a big talking factor for us.
Luckily, we came prepared or, from the expressions of the onlookers, a bit over prepared. As we would diligently wrap ourselves from head to toe with layers of warm clothing before heading out, there was no escaping the quizzical stares of the locals. Now that we recall, it was a funny sight to say the least. Fortunately enough, we were playing indoors. Quite a spectacular, temperature-controlled indoor facility it was. Having already played indoors a few times in Doha, I had an idea of what to expect. The ball tends to travel a bit quicker through the air and, with no external interference, the playing conditions are pretty perfect. However it takes time to adjust the eye to the closed surroundings and roof. I still remember our first day at the practice courts. Coupled by the tiredness from all the travelling, the unfamiliar indoor setting threw us all off a bit. After a good half hour of shanked balls and mishits, we finally started to feel at home.
As a precursor of what followed for the most part of my trip, I would like to mention the food here. Kazakh cuisine, as we discovered, predominantly revolves around horse meat and mutton. Having never tasted horse meat before, none of us were inclined to experiment. The food at the tennis facility did not exactly arouse our palates either. Soggy rice, bland pasta and oily soups were obviously not going to cut it for someone born and bred in Lahore, a city famous for its mouthwatering cuisine. We had to make do nevertheless and it was a heavy price I paid. Halfway into our second day, I caught a bad stomach flu and a high fever. Not the ideal preparation before our first tie I must admit. Fortunately enough, I was treated by the “miracle worker” as I’d like to call him, Dr. Ruslan. A funny, pleasant, heavy man, he was onsite throughout the tournament.
It took me three days of frequent visits to the medical room before I was fit enough to compete again. Pakistan lost their opening 2 ties against Kyrgyzstan and Indonesia. The Indonesian girls were top quality but the Kyrgyzstan team relied on just one world class player, who singlehandedly carried her team through. With defeats in the first 2 ties, the 3-0 win over Iran the following day felt like a mammoth achievement at the time. We had people from the Pakistani embassy with the ambassador himself supporting us courtside that day. The few Pakistani families settled in Astana also dropped in to cheer us on for the remainder of the week. It was a nice gesture. Moreover, the ambassador and the first secretary extended their kind hospitalities by holding a fancy reception in the team’s honor.
The local Kazakh people were generally warm and friendly, a departure from the general misconception about the “Soviet bloc”. Not very fluent in English, more often than not we would see them going out of their way to help us out. Since we were busy with practices and matches the whole week, we only got one day to properly explore the city. Covered entirely with thick, white snow there was a certain charm about the place. At times, we felt like we were on the set of “Hunger Games”. Bold architecture, elaborate ice sculptures, loud colors and the largest mosque in Centre Asia, Astana had a lot to offer.
On the tennis side of things, there wasn’t a whole lot to cheer about. We lost to Singapore, a team we had seen success against last year, in the 9th-10th playoff. If anything, it was a stark reminder that professional tennis is by no means child’s play. We returned home with some pleasant and some not so pleasant memories, but on the whole it was an invaluable experience. So, another year gone by, another chapter in our Fed Cup diary!