Cross-court shot (Men’s tennis)

Nina Mandell

When a 10-year old Ahmed Wahla saw German tennis star Boris Becker dominating a match at Wimbledon, it was love at first sight.

“Ever since I saw him, I wanted to play like him,” said Wahla, now 22.

Inspired by Becker, Wahla picked up a racket at the country club his parents belonged to in Pakistan when he was 12. The senior captain of the Northwestern men’s tennis team was about eight years behind most of his counterparts, many of whom had been playing competitively since age 4.

The differences between Wahla and most collegiate tennis players in America don’t stop there.

Growing up in Lahore, Pakistan, tennis was not a normal activity. Organized community leagues were uncommon and usually too expensive for many families.

But Wahla’s family was more fortunate than most. He took the opportunities his parents provided to work his way to the top of Pakistani tennis. His talent eventually landed him on American tennis courts.

When he came to NU, Wahla discovered the obstacles to his happiness weren’t just about the game. He used his maturity and previous exposure to the United States to combat the threats of culture shock, racism caused by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and other problems associated with going to an American university far from home.

“I was lucky because my family could support me when I was younger and I could travel to tournaments because a lot of people back home don’t have that,” he said. “There’s no tennis infrastructure back home.”

ON THE RISE

The lack of well-organized competition in Lahore meant Wahla had to look outside his parents’ club to play at the level he wanted. He started playing at Pakistan’s National Training and Coaching Academy for tennis. In 10th grade he traveled to Florida to play at Saddlebrook Tennis Academy for five months.

When he returned he began training with the coach of the then-No. 1 junior player in Pakistan, Sean Cole. Wahla spent time in London perfecting his game and learning how to take care of his body. After returning to Pakistan, he finished his senior year in style, earning national attention as the top-ranked junior player in Pakistan.

He didn’t stop there. Four years after deciding to “take the game seriously,” Wahla culminated his career in Pakistan by making the Davis Cup team.

“It’s unbelievable to play for your country,” he said. “It was one of the greatest things for me and probably will be forever.”

For players in Pakistan who lack the resources and support Wahla had, the national recognition would be the end of the road. But Wahla was lucky enough to have parents who were educated in the United States and coaches to vouch for him.

Michigan, California and NU each pursued him. Without even visiting NU’s campus, Wahla decided to become a member of the Wildcats’ squad because of its academics and proximity to Chicago which reminded him of home.

OPEN ARMS

Wahla credits the five months he had previously spent in America with lessening the culture shock.

But this time Wahla had a new obstacle to face. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred a year after he arrived at NU, and its aftermath brought waves of anti-Muslim sentiment.

Like everything else in his life, Wahla rose above the discrimination against his nationality.

“I have all sorts of friends from different religions, different cultures,” he said. “It’s kind of a joke, I get stopped at the airport all the time and they check my bags, but other than that (discrimination) hasn’t really affected me. I know it has affected some people, but not for me. So I guess I’m lucky or whatever.”

Former teammates Ryan Edlefsen and Joost Hol, both ’02 graduates, point to Wahla’s maturity and friendliness for keeping him out of harm’s way.

“Ahmed has more friends than anyone on the team,” Hol said.

“He looked out for us, if anything,” Edlefsen said. “He’s the most mature person on the team by far.”

Wahla pointed to tennis, his teammates’ support, and the diversity and tolerance at NU as reasons he was able to avoid anti-Muslim backlash.

“If you do well on a court, a lot of people will cheer for you, no matter where they’re from,” he said. “There was always a lot of respect at Northwestern. For the first three years I was the only foreign player on the team and I never felt out of place.”

‘A CLASS ACT’

Despite getting limited playing time throughout his four years at NU, Wahla’s leadership earned him the title of team captain this season. As the only senior and one of a few Pakistani tennis players in America, he’s motivated by the pressure to be a role model on and off the court.

“It’s a big opportunity for me to come to the States,” he said. “It motivated me to do well on the court and in school. It’s important for me to set a good example, so if there’s someone else from Pakistan who wants to play tennis, then they’ll at least hopefully have someone they can refer to. There are a lot of talented players at home, but they don’t have a lot of opportunities.”

Wahla’s teammates and coaches point to his maturity and leadership as an important asset to the team. Last year, he was recognized as the inaugural winner of the Mark Johnson Award, given to the hardest working player on the team.

“He’s been a terrific addition to the team,” NU tennis coach Paul Torricelli said. “He has a great work ethic. At practice he puts in extra time and he leads by example.”

Former NU assistant coach Jay Udwadia, who recruited Wahla, said he knew Wahla would be a welcome addition to the team just from talking to him over the phone.

“He’s such a class act, on and off the court,” Udwadia said. “He’s first class as far as working individually. He’s always on time, he’s a team player and he’s a good leader. You can’t ask for anything but that from a coach’s standpoint.”

After NU, Wahla said he will likely work in New York. But he’s not positive he’s ready to give up tennis just yet. He hinted at the possibility of taking a year off before working to play Davis Cup again. But no matter what, he plans on keeping a watchful eye over his old team.

“Since I’ll probably be in New York, I’ll definitely come back and watch,” he said. “It will be hard to just be watching and not playing though.”