There were no medals or podium finishes awaiting Yuki Bhambri. Far removed from the glare of the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast, Bhambri was scripting his sporting success on the small island state of Chinese Taipei and possibly settled for the lonely dinner at the end of it.
Not many were looking -- the official ATP website streaming the match live showed a maximum of 503 viewers -- but India’s top-ranked tennis player had one of his most productive days in the office on Sunday. He defeated fellow Indian Ramkumar Ramanathan 6-3, 6-4 in 89 minutes at the US $150,000 Challenger event in Taipei to claim his biggest title. The win will also take him to a career-high of 83 in the world rankings: his previous best was 88 in November 2015.
“It is definitely a big day, lot of firsts,” the 25-year-old said from Taipei on Sunday evening. “It wasn’t easy winning this event, there were a lot of good players here. Ramkumar has also been improving, and had a really good week.”
Bhambri had pulled out of last weekend’s Davis Cup tie against China, where India scored an incredible comeback win after being 0-2 down, due to an abdominal injury. Though he hadn’t quite recovered from it, Bhambri took a chance on the Taipei Challenger with the French Open ranking cut-off approaching.
The Indian had started the week at 105, one place off the 104 direct entries guaranteed at a Grand Slam. But the win on Sunday, which earned him 125 points and a cheque of US$ 21,600, nudged his ranking into the main draw bracket just in time – the French Open cut-off date is 16 April.
“I did return because of that,” said Bhambri, who hasn’t played the main draw at Roland Garros yet. “That was the goal I was fighting for through the week, to make the cut for the French Open. There are still a few niggles from the injury. It wasn’t as bad during the week, but I really struggled today, especially on my serve.”
Bhambri did take a medical time-out early in the first set on Sunday, but always looked in control of the match. With his serves lacking the pace, he focussed on the placement and got 80 percent of his first serves in. Across the court, Ramkumar fired seven aces in his nine service games but didn’t quite have the consistency on the first shot.
The two Indians were facing off for the third time in five months, and it was Bhambri, elder by two years, who once again stamped his authority. Not only does Bhambri have a steadier head on his shoulders, but he is more adept at working the angles and opening up the court. Meanwhile Ramkumar, who has learned his tennis the Spanish way, stands a few feet behind the baseline and concedes space to his opponents. The 23-year-old Indian is undoubtedly hard-working and does a great job at retrieving. But with Bhambri setting the tone and pace of the rallies, he is more often left playing catch-up rather than let his big forehand carve out winners.
Ramkumar didn’t quite have the answers to Bhambri’s consistent, meaty blows from the back-court. And knowing Ramkumar’s reluctance on the backhand, Bhambri peppered that wing time and again. If it didn’t draw an error instantly, it gave Bhambri just the short response he was looking to pounce on. He broke Ramkumar’s serve twice in the first set and at 4-4 in the second set to run away with the match.
Bhambri possibly needed that clarity of thought, and execution, given that he wasn’t physically at his best. A 2009 Australian Open boys’ champion, Bhambri has always had the talent and panache for the big stage, but has been perennially affected by injuries. In 2016, he missed almost six months on tour due to a tennis elbow. He did his time in the rehab room and has bounced back stronger and hungrier.
“I have moved on from that,” says Bhambri. “I have fortunately been injury-free for the last year and a half. I played a lot of matches, good matches in 2017. I think for the first time in my career I had two back-to-back off seasons (2016, 2017). That has given me the opportunity to not just get back, but improve my game and play at a higher level.”
Bhambri’s Challenger success on Sunday comes on the back of a bright American spring. The Indian went through the qualifiers and played the main draw at the Indian Wells and Miami Masters. He also scored his biggest upset win in the Californian desert: a 6-4, 6-4 victory over world No 12 Lucas Pouille. One of the keys for the Indian's impressive show in the last few months has been the addition of a coach, Stephen Koon, to his entourage.
Earlier, the player never had the luxury of having a coach and a trainer travel with him. With tennis being so physical, and Bhambri still struggling to keep his body from falling apart, he had sacrificed on having a coach and only would travel with a trainer when he could. But with the results, and prize money, coming good, he is working with Abhimanyu Singh (trainer since 2017) and also hired veteran coach Koon at the start of 2018.
“Having Koon around has helped, especially at the ATP events. There’s a certain knowledge he brings to the table, having travelled the tour for so long; has valuable inputs on opponents. Of course it’s super expensive to have both of them at all events, so Koon will be accompanying me at the bigger events.”
“I also feel like I have improved. I am more confident now having played some of the biggest events in the sport. I have played a lot of matches these last few months; the strokes have improved. I think all the bits and pieces have come together well.”
The modest reward for all his efforts, for now, is a direct entry into the French Open. But it is no less than a golden ticket into a tennis wonderland for Bhambri.
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Updated Date: Apr 16, 2018 18:19:16 IST