They are Akshay Shetty, fresh from the teeming metropolis of Bombay, India, and Haroon Ullah, the Canadian-born son of Pakistani parents.
They are a pair of 19-year-old Whitman College sophomores whose prowess and skill as a doubles team belies the conflict that divides their ethnic homelands.
A year ago as freshmen, Shetty and Ullah joined forces midway through the spring season and stormed their way to a Northwest Conference doubles title and a ticket to the NAIA national tournament. Unfortunately, their stay at the tourney was all too brief, due in part to a case of food poisoning that drained Ullah of energy and contributed to their opening round loss.
The twosome is back with a vengeance this spring, however. They opened the season in late February with a convincing victory over a nationally-ranked team from Seattle University, knocked off their first three conference opponents and by late March had boosted their won-loss record to 7-2.
"As a team, we are definitely stronger than we were a year ago," Shetty said. "In doubles, the more you play together the better you become. I think we're going to be hard to beat by the time the conference championships are here."
Friendship plays a key part in their strength as a doubles team, Ullah said. "Akshay and I understand each other, and we get along well. Chemistry is absolutely essential for a doubles team in tennis. To be a good doubles team, you must first be friends."
Given their backgrounds and ethnic origins, their friendship is evidence that not all hard feelings can be passed from one generation to the next.
Relations between India and Pakistan have been strained, to say the least, since the separation of British India at the end of World War II. More than 500,000 people died in conflicts in 1947, and there was more fighting in 1965 and again in 1971. "The two countries get along as well as you could expect for two countries that are so different from one another in terms of ideology, culture and religion," Ullah said.
One problem that continues to fester is India's claim on Kashmir, a lush and agriculturally productive state inhabited by a Muslim majority sympathetic to Pakistan. "Kashmir has been a thorn in the side of the two countries ever since the separation at the end of World War II," Ullah said. "The United Nations and the United States have tried to get involved at times, but it's very complicated."
Shetty describes Kashmir as "one of the most beautiful places in the world," and he decries the fact that ongoing conflict has placed the region off-limits for most travelers. "At one point tourism was the main source of income in Kashmir," he said. "I don't think there is any tourism now."
The politics that separate India and Pakistan has had little or no bearing on their friendship or tennis partnership, both players say. "We've joked about it at times, but I don't think we've ever had a serious conversation about it," Shetty said.
"Those issues don't govern us as much as they might our parents," Ullah said. "If we were still living in that area, or if we had grown up during the separation, it might be a bigger concern for us. It's not that we want to forget or ignore the situation, but we also don't want to let it interfere with our relationship here. That wouldn't be very constructive."
Their individual personalities also play a part in keeping their relationship on an even keel, Shetty added. "We respect each other's views and convictions," Shetty said. "I think we are both very accommodating people who have other things to worry about. At the same time I know a lot of people back home (in Bombay) who probably wouldn't get along so well with a Pakistani doubles partner."
Shetty and Ullah followed decidedly different routes before their paths crossed at Whitman.
Shetty had lived his entire life in Bombay, a sprawling city of 15 million people, before enrolling at Whitman a year ago. His father works in a stock brokerage firm and his mother teaches math at the high school level. As do many young people in the larger cities of India, he attended English schools and speaks the language as well as his native Hindi.
Shetty, an economics major, decided to attend college in the states because higher education in India leaves little or no time for other activities. "I wanted to play tennis and be involved in other activities, too." At the same time, he steered clear of NCAA Div. I schools because of the heavy emphasis they place on athletics. "I made the right decision in coming to Whitman," Shetty. "I also like the fact that I'm not surrounded by 15 million people. There is so much space and so few people here."
Ullah's parents left Pakistan as young adults when his father began graduate studies at Leeds University in England. They later moved to Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, where Haroon was born, and settled in 1981 in Richland, Wash., where Haroon graduated from high school. His father, a mechanical engineer, continues to work on clean-up efforts at the Hanford nuclear reservation and to teach part-time at the Washington State University branch campus in Richland.
Ullah, a bio-chemistry major with his eye on medical school, said his father grew up in a very poor, rural village in Pakistan. "It was always his dream to become better educated and provide more for his family," Ullah said. "That was his motivation. His goal from the start was to come to the United States."
A family wedding was the occasion a few years ago when Ullah, his parents and younger sister traveled to Pakistan to find a country in a state of transition. "Resources and new technology are increasingly available in the larger cities, but the rural villages and poor sections of the cities really haven't changed much since my father left," he said. "There is no running water, no electricity, no refrigeration. There are no cars, schools or luxuries. It is easy to distance yourself from those conditions when you see them on television. It isn't so easy in person. You understand how grateful you should be for the life you have in this country. You thank God twice."
What Ullah appreciates most about America, however, has little to do with its relatively high standard of living. Of more importance, he says, is the simple freedom to step onto a tennis court with a friend from a different ethnic background.
"That is the greatest thing about America," Ullah said. "Everyone has the opportunity to put aside their differences and go on with their lives."
Shetty also values a climate that allows him to enjoy his sport free of the politics and violence that has plagued athletic competitions between countries on the Indian subcontinent.
"I think the competitive spirit that exists back home between teams and countries is great," Shetty said. "But when you cross the line (into violence), then it's not a game anymore. It's not fun anymore. You start to wonder why you should even play sports."
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information, (509) 527-5902
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