ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Samir Iftikhar can pack a tennis racket and his philosophy books and be comfortable just about anywhere.
But this is where he wants to be – in Albuquerque, studying and playing tennis for the New Mexico Lobos.
For some, New Mexico is an acquired taste, but Iftikhar knew immediately.
“I knew straightaway this was the place,” Iftikhar says. “Looking at program, meeting the guys. I like this place, geographically speaking. I like the fact I can wake up to mountains in the background. It’s a hidden gem, this place.”
Iftikhar is from the United Kingdom, where he went to Howard of Effingham in Surrey, England – a school known for its rugby club.
Samir’s father, Tayyab, is from Pakistan. Tayyab played in the Davis Cup for Pakistan, as did his father before him.
And so, too, has Samir. Last week in the Asia/Oceania Group II matches, he represented Pakistan in its 3-2 win over the Philippines in Manila (he lost in three sets). He also played for Pakistan in Davis Cup matches four years ago.
Iftikhar represents Pakistan in part because of pride and part because of duty.
“I was brought up in the UK most of my life,” Iftikhar says. “But (Pakistan) is where my dad is from. By playing the Davis Cup, you represent your roots, if you like.
“At the same time, a lot of my junior career, they helped me out. Their federation funded a lot of my endeavors, my travel, my competition and whatnot. They’ve given me a lot of opportunities, and that is a big obligation, as well as being a great honor to play in an event like that.”
Tayyab Iftikhar met his wife, Lindsay, on a tennis court. That, and given the Iftikhar tradition, would suggest Samir was destined for tennis. But that’s not necessarily the case.
“I played every sport under the sun growing up,” says Iftikhar, who was into rugby, soccer, cross-country and “a lot of cricket.”
But one day when he was 11, he and his mother were walking past a tennis club.
“Hey, I haven’t played tennis in a while,” he told her. “Do you want to go play?”
Iftikhar says that moment was his turning point.
As he progressed, he and his father decided he should base his budding career in Pakistan.
“We made the decision that maybe there would be more opportunities to do well out there and get represented because I would have been one of the better players in the country,” Iftikhar said. “That decision seems to have paid off.”
Iftikhar was in Thailand when he caught the eye of a coach named Doug McCurdy. McCurdy, who played tennis for UNM in the 1960s, knew Lobo coach Alan Dils.
“He called me and said there’s a pretty darn good player here. You ought to talk to him,” Dils remembers.
Iftikhar was an immediate fit, partly because UNM had a history of British players.
“He’s done a good job,” Dils says. “He’s obviously worked really hard. He’s gotten himself as high as 45 in the country. … He’s driven, a good guy to have around.”
Iftikhar, a 5-foot-10, 156-pound junior, has played No. 1 singles for UNM much of this season. Dils likes his progress, but wants more.
“He can be better than 45 in the country,” the coach says. “I think we’re looking for a little bit more consistency from him in his wins. He’s not a giant player. He has to rely on his speed, his thinking, his defense to beat people. He can’t just step up and kill people with his serve because he’s not built that way.
“But we’re adding offensive capabilities to his game, which can certainly improve his top end.”
Iftikhar and his Lobo teammates will close their 2014 home schedule against Utah State today and Nevada on Sunday. He missed last weekend’s match against UNLV to play for Pakistan.
“Obviously, as college athletes, we’re bound by a lot of NCAA rules,” Iftikhar says. “But playing for your national team, it turns out, is allowed – with certain conditions. I can’t get paid like some of the other players. I can’t take any money over and above my expenses.”
Dils says having a Lobo represent his country in the Davis Cup is great and that maybe someday other UNM players will have that chance.
“To see that type of level, to experience the emotions in it,” Dils says. “We’ve always compared college tennis to a Davis Cup match, because you have a lot of fans cheering for you, at least half the time. In the Philippines, maybe there weren’t a lot of Pakistanis cheering. But to be a part of that, those are good experiences for the rest of your life.”
Iftikhar plans to play for Pakistan in its Davis Cup match in Thailand in September. He will see how far tennis takes him, but he is realistic, too. He’s a philosophy major, with a pre-law concentration, and has won an ITA scholar-athlete award. Philosophy has always been a passion of his, but in the fall he will start a master’s in business.
He could eventually go back to the UK or settle in Pakistan, but his plan is to stay in Albuquerque.
“I like it here,” he says. “Yup, I like it here.”