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Q&A with Saba Aziz, Pakistani tennis star

Posted by boston.com  December 18, 2013 03:30 PM

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Carolyn Bick/Globe Correspondent

Fulbright scholar and top Pakistani female tennis player Saba Aziz

Saba Aziz is from Lahore, Pakistan. Aziz is ranked as the top female tennis player in Pakistan. Aziz was listed in Newsweek Pakistan’s ‘Top 100 Women Who Matter in Pakistan’ in 2012, and gave a TEDx talk February 2013. She is a Fulbright scholar studying print journalism, with a concentration in sports journalism, at Boston University.

Carolyn Bick: Does anything in your background have to do with your focus on sports writing?
Saba Aziz: Yes, in fact, it does. I played national tennis back home. I was -- I don’t want to boast or anything -- I was number one for quite a while, so yeah, I mean, sports is pretty much something I’ve been passionate about. Tennis runs in my family, I’ve been playing since I was, I don’t know, about four? So, it’s been a while. So, I guess the fact that I love to write, and then I love sports, so sports journalism just kind of brought me here.

CB: So, was it then -- I mean, because you said you played nationally, you were number one in the country -- does that mean you represented the entire country?
SA: Yeah. In fact, there’s this competition called Fed Cup. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it.

CB: No.
SA: It’s team competition, basically, so I was on the team for the past three years. In fact, went to Khazakhstan earlier in the year. So, it’s always fun, playing for your country, representing, wearing the national colors, has always been a dream of mine. So, to be able to do that for three years -- it was a blast.

CB: Don’t you miss it, being here?
SA: It’s been hard, obviously, because, before, back home -- I took a gap year before coming here, because I was still applying to places, trying to get a scholarship, and whatnot. I would basically play full-on. I would have a five-hour routine playing tennis, and then in the afternoon, I was pretty much full-on, in it.

CB: So, you were a professional athlete.
SA: Yeah, kind of, yeah. I pretty much devoted a lot of my time to it. Even when I was doing my undergrad, I actually did self-study, so I could travel around Pakistan, and try to juggle more things. But, you know, I mean, there’s only so much you can get from a place, I guess. Being in a country like Pakistan, it was not easy to pursue something like tennis, because it wasn’t that big, and then, you know, you don’t get a lot of opportunities, people don’t sponsor you, you pretty much have to do it out of your own pocket, so … The only reason I was doing it was not for money or anything. It was because I love the sport, I love competing, I love winning. I’m really competitive, so … But, you know, there’s so much you can get from a place, and I felt like -- not move on, I still play, I still have that competitive desire inside me, maybe Wimbledon one day, I don’t know. But I felt like this was something I really wanted to do, getting a Master’s in something I was passionate about, so, that’s what brought me here to Boston.

CB: That’s really awesome. That’s so awesome. Then, I guess -- how did your life -- aside from not playing tennis competitively for a specific country anymore -- how did your life change when you got here? Was anything really jarring, or surprising?
SA: Well, I wouldn’t say it changed, not a big change, but, obviously, coming here, living independently -- because I’d been living with my parents -- that’s how it is, in Asian countries, you pretty much live with your parents until you get married off. It was my first time coming to America, first time in Boston, so it’s definitely been a transition, but I think I’ve pretty much settled in nicely, and it’s been, I guess I could say, a nice change. Getting a quality education, getting hands-on experience when it comes to reporting, because I did not actually have a journalism background. My undergrad was in Maths and Economics.

CB: Wow! Not even sports!
SA: No. [Laughs] It’s been a great transition.

CB: Have you had any issues getting along with … other students? American students or international students.
SA: Not so much, but I feel like -- I’ve been here for, what, three months? People, they’ve been nice, but I don’t feel like I’ve made friends with someone, like, ‘Oh, we hang out and stuff.’ I wouldn’t relate them to someone back home, my closest friends. I would just call them, maybe, I don’t know, acquaintances, for now. I mean, we meet in the classroom, we talk and stuff, but, it’s not like … I haven’t been very close to anyone. There are a few international students that I feel like I can, maybe -- because, I guess, you’re both foreign, and you feel like you can relate to them, even though you speak different languages. [There’s a girl from Colombia], I get along well with her. And there’s a girl from Lebanon, she’s doing PR. There are a few people I am friends with, but I don’t know if they’re my best friends, B-F-Fs forever. But I haven’t made any enemies so far!

CB: That’s good! So, what’s it like doing sports journalism, instead of actually doing sports?
SA: It’s different. It’s definitely different, because, back home, when I was playing national tennis, I would get interviewed by my national newspapers, so to be on the other side of it, and go and stalk around people and ask them questions -- it’s funny. I was doing a story on this squash team just the past week, just to ask them questions. And then you’re like, the answer they’re saying, you’re like, ‘I can totally relate to that, I know what they’re going through,’ if they have a bad loss or something like that. A lot of the time I feel like it help, because I feel like I’ve been in those positions, and I can understand them better than somebody who’s not been in that position. So, it’s been fun. At times, I miss it, too, playing professionally, getting interviewed. I mean, this [interview] is good, this has been fun, being on the other side, for once! I could get used to this.

CB: Instead of being the one with the recorder?
SA: Yes, and transcribing later.

CB: Oh, man, transcribing.
SA: That is the worst.

CB: I love the conversation, but when transcribing comes along …
SA: I know! Especially if it’s a one-hour, two-hour long interview, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God.’

CB: Has your sports background and knowledge of how the players are crafting how they are feeling, what they’re thinking, into words for you -- has your background helped you get deeper into how they feel, or what they’re thinking, instead of just the stock answers they give reporters?
SA: Yeah, I think so, because, for one of my classes, my sports journalism classes, we weren’t actually going out and getting stories. We’d watch games on TV, and then write game stories, columns, stuff like that. I’ve watched tennis for as long as I can remember, I was in diapers or something. I think I feel like I have a good feel for what’s going on, and then, obviously the technical standpoint, the mental and physical. I’ve known these players for a really long time. So I feel like I am able to not just describe the players, I probably go deeper. That’s why I’ve been able to do well, too. My professor has been pretty impressed by that. You know, being a reporter, and then being someone who’s actually played the sport, it does give you an advantage of some sort. But then, on the other side, I’ve had to -- in Boston, you have to know about the Red Sox, you have to know about the Patriots, and back home, we don’t get ESPN! So, that’s been a transition to actually know what the [heck] is going on over there, because you have to know, because that’s what they talk about in class. So, I guess I’ve had daily challenges, but, then I’m comfortable with tennis. I can cover it, and a few other sports.

CB: Has there been any challenge for you academically? I mean, you speak English perfectly, so, I’m guessing understanding isn’t a huge issue, though ... a lot of international students tell me Americans speak too quickly.
SA: I don’t think English has been much of a challenge, but just the journalism part -- writing … straight-up hard news stories, it was something I was not used to. I was writing for this national newspaper back home. I was writing Sunday editions. I would write a column for tennis, basically. I would put in my own twist into it, give my own opinion about it, rather than do a straight-up hard news story. So, that has been hard, I think.
When you’re writing for sports, I’d like to think you have that leverage where you can kind of put your own opinion into it, but that’s not the way it works when it’s [hard news]. But I don’t think it’s been hard in terms of the language. Because, in Pakistan, I’ve been in an English-speaking school throughout, from Grade 1, and English is the official language in Pakistan.

CB: I did not know that.
SA: It’s spoken widely, so I’ve never … in fact, I think I’m more comfortable expressing myself in English than in Urdu. That’s bad.

CB: Really?
SA: Yes. I feel like I write better in English than in Urdu. The entire time, our focus is on English, speaking English in school, because that’s what they want us to know, but it’s sad that my national language, I’m not as fluent in it as I’d like to be.

CB: Has there been anything in Boston, specifically, that you’ve been like, ‘Why does this exist?!’
SA: Hmmm, the obsession over Red Sox? [laughs] No, that’s cool, I get that. Well, I’ve only been here for three months. I cannot complain and say I am tired. Maybe after a year, I might say that, but, I guess, maybe, if I talk about COM and BU, per se … when you’re in a classroom, especially with a lot of international students, so, when we’re in a sports journalism class, the focus revolves around baseball, or football, and the fact that they don’t want to go out of their own little Boston bubble, which is, I feel like, at times can be unfair. This other girl, Rafael, who’s from France, we’re always looking at each other like, ‘What? Why Red Sox? Can we talk about something else?’

CB: Like, what about European soccer teams?
SA: Exactly! ‘Cause soccer is not just European, it’s all over the world. It’s international, it’s an Olympic sport. Baseball is not an Olympic sport.

CB: Much to the chagrin of the U.S. and Japan.
SA: They call it the ‘World Series’, when the entire world isn’t even playing! I don’t want to be offensive, but it’s sometimes funny. Other than that … everything is new for me, so I haven’t gotten sick of anything. But one thing that’s interesting, the first week, the first two weeks -- random strangers like to do small talk! Because, back home, that would be counted as creepy. But over here, it’s kind of like … I don’t know know if that’s part of the American culture. I’ve had to adjust, I don’t want to be rude, I should talk. I know it’s harmless, normal small talk, you don’t have to follow it up with anything. That’s been interesting.

CB: Do you remember your first experience with someone coming up to you and just talking to you?
SA: Nothing in particular, but just walking around. I guess maybe on the T? Or, maybe, you’re in a grocery store, and people just come up to you and talk to you and talk about life.

CB: You mentioned, actually, the class not talking about any other sports besides American sports, and American issues.
SA: But, even in other classes, I feel like … you cannot ignore the fact that you have international students in your program, as well. But, I guess, when you’re in Boston, you have to restrict yourself to The Boston Globe, The New York Times, it kind of comes with the territory. I feel like, in that way, I guess I’m getting to experience this part of the world, as opposed to back home. So, that’s been one thing, if I can pinpoint.

CB: That’s been an issue, you mean?
SA: Not an issue, but I feel like, why is that? It’s an international school, there are international students, they should diversify, and talk about something other than Thomas Menino, and the elections. I know that it’s a big deal, you’re in Boston, but there’s other stuff going on, too, in the world.

CB: Have you found that a lot of your American classmates are really ignorant of what’s going on in the rest of the world, if you try to talk to them about it?
SA: Well, it varies. Not so much. I feel like in my sports journalism classes, yes, they are very ignorant, they have no idea what the rules of cricket are. They’re like, ‘What’s cricket?’, and I’m like, ‘It’s an amazing sport! Don’t say that!’ But, I guess, in others, because they’re Master’s students, they know what’s going on around the world. I guess it does, it varies. Some people are so ignorant of what’s going on. In my sports journalism seminar, there are a lot of undergrads in that, so they are pretty ignorant. Like, what the [heck]? Like, ‘America, this is it. This is our world.’ One of my friends, he’s in my sports journalism class, again. He’s never traveled outside … I feel like Americans don’t -- I don’t want to generalize -- I feel like they don’t want to travel outside of America. They feel like, ‘Okay, we’ve got 50 states, I want to see all of America, first.’ But I feel like us international students, we want to travel out, we want to see other cultures. I don’t want to generalize, but that’s the perception I’ve gotten, how they want to pretty much stay here.

CB: So, it’s not that just don’t … even seek out the information, they’ve never thought to travel outside the U.S., too?
SA: Yeah, because who wouldn’t be curious about other cultures, exploring the world? No, let’s stay in America, go to all the 50 states here. But I get it, it’s a big country. You’ve been living here, you haven’t seen all of it. But the fact that they don’t even want to venture out, don’t feel the need to, that kind of baffles me a little bit.

CB: Has there been anything you want to try here? Like, food, or experience, or go to a show?
SA: Yeah, there are a lot of things I haven’t done in Boston yet. I went down to one of the Red Sox games, but, because I have been so busy in my work, I haven’t seen all of Boston yet. So, I want to definitely …

CB: Over break!
SA: Yes, definitely. I’m actually going to do a road trip with my friends … there are about 10 of us. We’re going to do a road trip across the East Coast. We’re going to go to D.C., Orlando, and all around.

CB: That’s so fun!
SA: I really want to see all of America while I’m here, as much as I can. I’ve already been to Austin, TX. I went there for my scholarship orientation. So, that was nice. Got to see a little bit of the South. There are still a lot of things I haven’t seen. I mean, I went to New York, but I didn’t get to see a Broadway show, because I know it’s crazy-expensive.
I really want to watch a Patriots game, if the season is still going on. I want to see the Bruins play once. And, yes, because I am a huge tennis fan, I missed out on watching the U.S. Open in August, because the week I was here, it was just ending that week, so I couldn’t really go up to New York and do that. So, next year, that’s on my diary: go to New York and watch Rafael Nadal play. [Laughs]

CB: Speaking of sports -- I meant to ask -- did you have to do a lot of work to familiarize yourself with specifically Boston sports, before fully understanding what’s going on in the classes, or what people were talking about?
SA: Yes. I should have done that before coming here, you know, looked up the rules, but it’s different in person. Actually going down and watching the Red Sox - Yankees game, that was informational. But then sitting in class, listening to them talk, reading up on articles, I’ve had to make an effort. I actually don’t feel like I’ve mastered the art of baseball!

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