Fourteen months ago, India’s tennis ace Yuki Bhambri was ranked outside the 500. Bhambri had just begun the long road back from an elbow injury, which had sidelined him for more than six months in 2016.
After such a long hiatus from the sport, the Delhi lad was forced to start from scratch — playing the lower rung of Futures events to try and boost his ranking. In January 2017, Bhambri was ranked 474 and had to come through qualifying at India’s ATP 250 event, the Chennai Open.
Now, in January 2018, the 25-year-old has climbed his way back into the top-120 in the world and is on the cusp of breaking into the top-100 once again. Bhambri had achieved a career-high ranking of 88 in 2015 but is confident that he can do better than that this time around.
In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, Bhambri described his painstaking journey back to fitness. When asked if he ever had doubts about being able to stage a comeback in those six long months on the sidelines, Bhambri admits that he had his fair share of mental demons.
“There are always doubts, especially when you are hurting and aren't able to play. When something that you enjoy doing, is sort of taken away from you. But I think, for me, it was always about getting back and being calm. Past experiences of dealing with injuries helped. In the first couple of months, there were many doubts. Those months were hard because it took a while, really, for the elbow to settle down. So I wasn't sure if I was really going to be able to compete as I wanted to.
“That was quite hard, that was what I was about unsure about — whether I’d be able to compete on court. But not about the level that I could play at. Once, I started to play again, especially at the start of 2017, things started falling in place match by match,” he told Firstpost at the Tata Open Maharashtra.
The Indian ended 2017 on a high, winning the KPIT Challenger in Pune and reaching the final of the Challenger in Bangalore. Bhambri also reached the quarter-finals of the Citi Open, an ATP 500 tournament, with a famous win over defending champion Gael Monfils.
Bhambri, who won the Australian Open junior title and the Orange Bowl as a 16-year-old, has not quite yet managed to reach the level that was expected of him given his talent. His young career has been ravaged by multiple injuries, which have derailed his progress from time to time.
However, he believes that he has learnt how to manage his body better after having dealt with so many physical setbacks in his career. “I have learnt quite a bit and you keep learning and you keep experimenting, you keep trying and you hope that things work out. I do feel that I am in the best shape that I have ever been.
“I am able to do a lot more things; I can play a lot more tennis. I can be out there longer; there are noticeable things that I wasn't able to do before. So that's definitely a positive for me,” he said.
Back in November, Bhambri’s trainer Abhimanyu Singh had described his extensive training regimen and changes that they had made to his fitness drills to ensure that the player stays injury-free.
Bhambri said he could already see visible results of his new routine and feels he has physically improved as a player. “Even in matches, I can now make it to balls that I thought I sometimes wouldn't be able to get to earlier. A lot of times, I am able to increase the pace on my groundstrokes and move faster.
“We added a few things to my training — small things, which have definitely helped me improve. Like increasing my warm-up time; doing a few more extra reps and sets in practice, and pushing myself a bit more. I think that's definitely helped me.
I am training a bit harder, even after matches — that was a bit of a conscious decision. Doesn't matter how the score went or how the match went — to be able to keep putting in the work so that you can still be ready for the whole season, it's a very long season. I think that definitely has paid off,” he explained.
Bhambri spent the off-season training in Thailand with some of the top players of Asia under the tutelage of coach Stephen Koon, which helped him prepare well for the 2018 season. “It was great. I have known him (Koon) for six-seven years. We had a stint last December as well. And this time as well.
“Some of the top Asian players were there. So when you are hitting and training with some of the better guys, you are pushing yourself more and you are better prepared,” he said.
While Abhimanyu will travel the whole year as part of Bhambri’s team, he will also have Koon in his corner for some of the bigger events. Koon is the full-time coach of Chinese Taipei’s Yen Hsun Lu but will be advising Bhambri as well.
“Stephen will be in Australia for the Slam, and other ATP events. He will be with Lu as well, his priority is Lu. But we will be playing a similar schedule — lot of same tournaments — since we are ranked quite similar. So, Stephen will be there, which is great,” the Indian said.
Now that Bhambri is hovering around the top-100, he will be able to play more consistently on the ATP tour and is confident that he belongs at that level. “It’s not that big a switch (from Challengers to ATP). Generally, there's a similar sort of level with the players you are playing in the semis and finals of a Challenger and I have been playing long enough to understand how the game works. I am confident and I believe that I can compete at that level,” he reiterated.
At the ongoing Maharashtra Open, Bhambri crashed out in the singles in the second round where he had multiple chances to win against France’s Pierre-Huges Herbert. He was disappointed at letting the match slip from his fingers but is confident he can quickly bounce back for the qualifying of Australian Open next week.
“You obviously have to forget about it (the loss). It helps to play again — I have my doubles match now, so focus is on that. You play back-to-back weeks so you move on from it. It was such a good match, against such a high-ranked player and that just means that I can play at that level.
“The more I have played, the better I have felt. I am a more confident player now on court than a few years ago,” he said.
Talking about his goals for 2018, Bhambri said: “The immediate goal is to try and play the main draw of Grand Slams, and try and get back in the top-100 and play some of the bigger events. I want to test myself and compete with some of the big guys out there. That's the immediate goal.
“After Australian Open, I start at the end of January in France and Netherlands. Wherever I get a chance to play doubles on the ATP tour, I will be playing doubles. I enjoy playing doubles. I don't usually play it at the Challenger level that much because there's not much to gain, but it's something that I enjoy playing and I want to do it at the bigger events.
“By the end of the year, I am trying to get to 50 — I think that would really be amazing,” Bhambri added.
If he manages to stay healthy and fit, Bhambri should soon cement his place in the world’s top-100. He has always had the talent and tools, he now needs his body to back them up.
Updated Date: Jan 04, 2018 18:05 PM