September 16, 2002 12:00 PM

They enter flanked by six security guards to cheers befitting a couple of rock stars. Not an unusual reception at the raucous U.S. Open, but Amir Hadad and Aisam ul-Haq Qureshi—a low-ranked and until recently unknown doubles team—seem surprised by all the fuss. “I guess our pairing looks weird,” says Hadad, 24. “But to us it’s natural. We’re good friends, and we play well together.”

What makes them such a remarkable twosome has nothing to do with tennis: Hadad is an Israeli Jew, while the Muslim Qureshi, 22, hails from Pakistan. In a time of strife, in an age of terror, their partnership has made them popular symbols of goodwill. “It’s a ray of hope,” says tennis analyst Bud Collins. “It’s not going to change the world, but it’s a nice step.”

The two decided to team up while practicing together at Wimbledon this summer and played well enough to make it to the third round. During the tournament, Pakistani tennis officials condemned Qureshi, the country’s best player, for pairing with Hadad, but “they found out there is no law against it,” says Qureshi, who picked up the sport from his mother, Nosheen, Pakistan’s top-ranked female player for 10 years. Hadad, the son of a hair-dresser and a housewife, began playing on his own as a child and honed his game while serving three years in the Israeli army. “He’s the more aggressive guy,” says Qureshi, “so I make jokes to keep his temperature down.”

At the U.S. Open, where the security detail was precautionary, they lost in the second round. Still, “we plan on playing together again,” says Hadad. “If we stick together, we’ll beat these guys.” Their score so far: love-love.

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