Davis Cup: Yuki Bhambri makes winning return from injury for India, targets a healthy 2017

Slow down you crazy child
You're so ambitious for a juvenile

Well perhaps not crazy crazy, but certainly tennis crazy. How could Yuki Bhambri not be, growing up in a household that raised two professional tennis players before him, his sisters Ankita and Sanaa. The youngest in a family where talk of strings, shoes, and sweet spots is common at the dinner table, Yuki got the best of all worlds. He was able to benefit from growing up in a sporting environment, where hard work was the mantra that resounded every morning. At the same time, his family could use the experiences of raising his two sisters in tennis and avoid making rookie mistakes with their youngest son.

“I used to travel with my family for tournaments. My sisters would come back with trophies and then we would celebrate it, which motivated me (to play),” Bhambri recalled.

File photo of winner of 2009 Junior Australian Open Yuki Bhambri holding his trophy along with his mother Indu Bhambri. AFP

File photo of winner of 2009 Junior Australian Open Yuki Bhambri holding his trophy along with his mother Indu Bhambri. AFP

It could have been very different though. The story of how he almost never played tennis — told beautifully here by Sharda Ugra — is well known. Frustrated with the demands of the abattoir that is professional tennis — primarily the need for long term funding — his parents wanted to keep the youngest Bhambri away from the game. It was only at the insistence of Aditya Sachdeva, his sisters’ coach, and his offer to coach the boy for free, that Bhambri took up tennis.

You got your passion, you got your pride
But don't you know that only fools are satisfied?

Bhambri rose up the junior ranks quickly, and in 2008, turned pro at the age of 15. The same year, he played in all four junior Grand Slams. In 2009, he had a breakthrough moment, when he won the Australian Open junior boys' singles title, which made him the first Indian to win that tournament, and only the fourth Indian to win a Grand Slam in the junior singles category. Then, he was just 16 years old.

Bhambri did not stop there. He started notching up more wins on the tour, picked up a silver in the Youth Olympics, won his first ever ATP Challenger tournament in 2012. He won two bronze medals for India in the 2014 Asian Games, picked up two more ATP Challenger titles, and by 2015, broke into the top 100 in the world for the first time. The same year saw him achieve his highest ATP ranking of 89.

Where's the fire, what's the hurry about?
You better cool it off before you burn it out

2016 was a tough year though, as a serious injury caused him to miss a number of tournaments. Just as he was in a position to be a regular at Grand Slams, he had to withdraw from his first tournament of 2016, the Chennai Open, due to tennis elbow. The condition is caused by overuse of the muscles and tendons leading to pain and tenderness. Despite this, Bhambri played in the Australian Open, losing in the first round. He played a few more tournaments till March, after which he sent his career into abeyance for six months. He only returned to the tour in September, a month after picking up a racket again. A year from the day he achieved his highest ranking, he had slipped to 546. He also missed India’s last Davis Cup tie against Spain, and a chance to play against his favourite, Rafael Nadal.

“I would have liked to make full use of my ranking by playing some of the higher-level tournaments and build on last season. I never got the chance to do it. That was hard," Bhambri told Sportskeeda.

Slow down you crazy child
Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while
It's alright, you can afford to lose a day or two

On his comeback, Bhambri went back to playing ITF Futures as well as ATP Challengers, and slowly worked himself back into form and up the rankings. He ended 2016 with a win, claiming the ITF F4 Hong Kong title. This year, he has played the Chennai Open, where he beat compatriot Ramkumar Ramanathan, and the Australian Open qualifiers.

Despite being ranked below Ramanathan, he was India’s best singles bet coming into the Davis Cup. Non-playing captain Anand Amritraj admitted as much, when the draw had Bhambri play the first rubber. “The draw has come out just as I wanted it to. Hopefully Yuki can put us on the board and then Ram can play more freely.”

And you know that when the truth is told
That you can get what you want or you can just get old

On Friday’s opening rubber, against New Zealand’s Finn Tearney, Bhambri showed glimpses of the top-10 potential he has. He took the court wearing an elbow support, the kind Tendulkar sported after his own tennis elbow, but his shots showed no sign that it was holding him back.

After both players traded breaks in the first set, Bhambri played his forehand with more confidence; initially, he had as many unforced errors as outrageous winners, but he settled down as he then held on to a break in the first set, and the winners starting to find the corners after leaving the middle of his racket. Bhambri finally won the rubber 6-4, 6-4, 6-3.

Yuki Bhambri plays against New Zealand player Finn Tearney during the Davis Cup in Pune. PTI

Yuki Bhambri plays against New Zealand player Finn Tearney during the Davis Cup in Pune. PTI

“It was up and down, but what was important was that I didn’t let the lead slip," he said after the game. “When he broke me, I broke back. I didn’t let him run away with the game. At times I did lose focus, but I always felt that the match was on my racquet and in my control, so that was a good thing.”

In cricket, young players are taught to bowl and throw with ‘both hands’, using the non-leading arm as much as the leading arm. Bhambri played his forehands the same way: the extension of the left arm towards the ball — almost as if to catch it — as the right took the racquet head away. Then, the switch of positions, with the pivoting hips driving the racket forward. There are double-handed backhands, sure; Bhambri showed what a double-handed forehand can look like.

“It was controlled aggression," he said of his game plan. “It’s not just going out there and blindly hitting every ball. Every ball that I played I was in position to hit.”

His aggressive game meant that that he was rarely pushed deep in the court in his straight sets win. Amritraj touched upon this nuance after the game. “The way Yuki plays, he plays on the baseline. So there is less margin for error. When you’re standing on the baseline in conditions like this, it is extremely difficult to control the ball.”

The conditions he spoke of were the court in Pune, which had been resurfaced leading into the tie. “In Places like Pune, and Bangalore, at a slight altitude, even the shorter balls that look easy, are more difficult to hit.”

Dream on, but don't imagine they'll all come true
When will you realize... Vienna waits for you?

Tearney, ranked 414, did not provide Bhambri any real trouble. But the Delhi lad will need to cut down on the loose ends in his game if he wants to make a return to the top 100.

He wasn’t focusing on the numbers though. “For me, I just want to play a lot this year, try and get as many matches and play in as many tournaments as I can. That’s always been key for me. Rankings take care of themselves when I’m playing.” He was seen with an ice pack on his elbow after the game, but swatted away worries about his fitness. “It’s just for soreness. Everything is OK.”

More than his indisputable skill, the recovery from injury will determine where Bhambri stands at the end of this year. "Hopefully I’ll have a healthy 2017," he said. If he does, the youngest scion of the Bhambri clan could be giving the family more trophies to celebrate.

The words highlighted are from the lyrics of Billy Joel’s hit song ‘Vienna’, a song that Bhambri once said fitted the theme of his life.


Published Date: Feb 04, 2017 01:27 pm | Updated Date: Feb 04, 2017 02:30 pm


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