Yuki Bhambri knew he had a chance. Third time lucky? Maybe. The day seemed to dawn bright: Australian Open’s first Monday saw Bhambri climb to 119 in the rankings; his opponent Marcos Baghdatis had slipped to 123. A finalist at the Melbourne Major in 2006, Baghdatis has joined the scrapheap of has-beens in the past couple of years.
Perhaps gripped by the thought of winning his first main draw round, and the pressure and expectation of it, Bhambri played with none of the freedom that a qualifier is usually allowed. He created chances, controlled the rallies, but when it came to finishing off the point, closing out the crucial game, the Indian faltered. He had served for the first set at 5-4, but eventually went down 6-7 (4), 4-6, 4-6 to Baghdatis in the first round of the Australian Open.
Since he was a junior, Bhambri has enjoyed playing at the Slam. He won the boys’ title in 2009 and his previous two appearances at a Grand Slam main draw had also been in Australia. In 2015, he came up against the solid Andy Murray and stretched the Scot to a tie-breaker in the third set. A year later, he took on Tomas Berdych and came up short. Murray and Berdych, ranked No 6 at the time, were insurmountable tasks but the Indian had made a good fist of it. Though he doesn’t quite have the big serve and overpowering ground strokes, he knows how to use his opponents’ pace and craft a victory.
Bhambri is India’s brightest tennis talent since Somdev Devvarman and for good measure. A fully fit Bhambri showed in 2017 that he can live with some of the better talents — overcoming Gael Monfils at the ATP 500 event in Washington and pushing Kevin Anderson and Canadian star Denis Shapovalov (in the Davis Cup tie) to decisive sets. He has been a leader of this generation of Indian players and seems calm and composed well beyond his 25 years.
His Australian Open journey this year had started in the qualifiers. Of the four Indians who started, Bhambri was the only one who got through all three rounds to make it to the main tournament.
Having played, and won, three matches in similar conditions, Bhambri seemed sharper. It was also one of the few times that Bhambri had an entourage of coach and trainer — basic necessities for top players — travelling with him for an important tournament. Baghdatis, meanwhile, had last played in an ATP Challenger event in November. The Cypriot, whose electric baseline game once lit up the biggest stages of the sport, has become more erratic over the years and less consistent over the years.
These signs were encouraging. Even more so when Bhambri broke the rusty Baghdatis serve in the very first game. The Indian pulled the strings from the back of the court in the first set, and wasn’t afraid to make the occasional forays to the net. But his serve just wasn’t incisive enough to trouble Baghdatis. Even though Bhambri was able to break his opponent’s serve thrice in the set: in the first, fifth and ninth games, he kept the gates wide open for a comeback on his serve. The Indian served for the set at 5-4, but couldn’t quite overcome a hustling Baghdatis.
The 32-year-old former World No 8 may have lost some of his spark, but he retrieved tirelessly in the close opening set, when the Indian was at his most dangerous. In the tie-break, Bhambri went into a 3-1 lead after following up on a Baghdatis drop shot and driving a backhand past his opponent.
Rather than building up on a well-earned point, Bhambri made an error that possibly turned the match. Standing well inside the court, the Indian hit a forehand into Baghdatis’ forehand corner. The Cypriot got to it, but near-slipped. Rather than killing off the point, playing safe and well within the lines, Bhambri hit a forehand back which Baghdatis just about managed to return. The Indian was perfectly poised to kill the point with a forehand drop volley, only he hit it straight into the net. Baghdatis is experienced enough to sense the shift, and he went on to win six of the next seven points to seal the set.
In the next two sets, Bhambri got only one break opportunity, but was shut out by an opponent growing in confidence. The Cypriot knew his young rival was rattled, and he worked at keeping the ball in and letting the Indian force the issue. The problem was that on Monday, of all days, the usually solid Bhambri sprayed the ball all around. He missed routine shots, and by the end of the two-hour nine-minute match had racked up 54 unforced errors. His Australian Open challenge came to an end when he dunked a regulation backhand into the net.
It was a disappointing end to a tournament, and day, which had begun with such promise for the Indian. But he will be wealthier for the experience; and better prepared when he gets his chance again.
Updated Date: Jan 16, 2018 07:59:06 IST