It was difficult to tell the ambassadors from the tennis players Friday when it came to the U.S. Open men's doubles final.
An Indian-Pakistani partnership was on court, flying in the face of a historic national rivalry, matched against American twins who have committed themselves not only to saving their specific tennis discipline but to causes beyond the sport.
And in the stands, in what was much larger than the usual doubles crowd, were the United Nations representatives from India and Pakistan, incongruously cheering for something like a winning passing shot from either Rohan Bopanna or Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi. Which could redefine heretofore bitter Khyber Pass references.
Bob and Mike Bryan, the 32-year-old Californians who have won the most pro doubles titles (66) in history, eked out the victory, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), in a caffeinated blur of reactions and power typical of doubles. It was their ninth major championship and third U.S. Open title.
Then the goodwill flowed.
The Bryans praised Bopanna and Qureshi for their efforts to further Indian-Pakistani relations as tennis teammates. Qureshi thanked the Bryans for fundraising efforts to aid flood victims in Pakistan and addressed the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd, "on behalf of the Pakistani people," to say that "we are a friendly, loving and caring people and we want peace in the world as much as you do."
Whereupon the official UN ambassador from Pakistan, Abdullah H. Haroon - joined by India's Hardeep Singh Puri - appeared at the Bryans' post-match news conference to present each twin an ajrak, a unique block-printed shawl from Pakistan.
The progress of the so-called Indo-Pak Express - Bopanna and Qureshi, both 30, were seeded 16th but are enjoying a breakthrough season after making the Wimbledon quarterfinals - brought significant international attention. Bob Bryan said he "could see a bunch of Indians and Pakistanis out there at 10:15 a.m. when we were warming up" for the noon match.
Qureshi had gotten a phone call of good wishes Thursday night from Pakistan prime minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani. "Those guys are rock stars back home," Mike Bryan said of Bopanna and Qureshi. "It's great to see another marquee team out there."
Close friends now, Bopanna and Qureshi originally teamed up out of necessity. "There are hardly any Muslims on the tour anymore," Qureshi said, "so I'm either going to be playing with a Jew or a Hindu or a Christian."
And although Qureshi said he gets "more trouble in immigration here than anywhere else in the world," he was thrilled with the crowd's evenhanded involvement in the match. "A great feeling," he said. "That's what makes America such a great country, freedom of all the religions. I will never ever forget [this] in my life, ever."