Monday, June 27

Yuki Bhambri is on the long road back, but he has a smile on his face

With several big-ticket sporting events lined up in 2022, including the Asian and Commonwealth Games, we look at athletes for whom this could be a big year. We profiled wrestler Vinesh Phogat, footballer Manisha Kalyan, and shooter Manu Bhaker earlier. Next up, tennis player Yuki Bhambri, who was once India No 1 before injury ravaged what could have been his peak.

For Yuki Bhambri, one thing will be very different in the 2022 season. It’s not his quick gamestyle of him, worn down by multiple knee surgeries and being in rehab for a good part of the last three years. Nor is it his goals from him, which is still to move up the rankings, play the Grand Slams and do his best from him.

It’s his attitude towards tennis.

“I still want to go out there, complete and get as much as success, but with a bigger smile on my face just grateful to be playing tennis again. I really thought that at one stage I wasn’t going to be back,” Bhambri tells ESPN from Pune ahead of the Maharashtra Open, India’s only ATP Tour event.

Given the extent of his injury layoff and the setbacks thereafter, it would not have come as a big surprise if he were to hang up his racquet. His motivation for him, though, was the hunger to once again be the player who was ranked as high as world No 83.

“I am not going to hide that it has been very, very challenging. I have had injuries before but never this long, added with COVID coming into the mix, the lockdown, having to stop again in 2021 and restart. What has really kept me going is that I’ve had success before, wanting to try and do that again has pushed me.There have definitely been days where I thought there was no way I’ll be able to come back but thankfully I am here. going to try and see how far I can go again,” he says.

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Bhambri’s tryst with injuries could be seen as a sliding doors moment in Indian tennis. He is a former junior world No 1 and junior Australian Open champion but couldn’t play consistently on the senior circuit. The injury that struck after the 2018 season – where he was ranked in the top 100 and played all four Grand Slams – saw him lose close to three years in his mid-20s. The debilitating knee injury wasn’t correctly diagnosed for months and his rehab was compounded by the pandemic shutdown. When he finally made a comeback in March 2021, he suffered another setback that needed a further procedure on his knee and was then struck by COVID-19 which affected his recovery from him. He was able to make a return in October but played just doubles to begin with, restarting singles only at the Australian Open qualifying earlier this month where he lost in the second round.

Heading into the Maharashtra Open, though, the 29-year-old is confident and excited again. “I feel better than before. What really hurt my knee further was getting COVID. I spoke to a lot of doctors afterwards and they said joint pain was one of the side effects. This start-stop was really difficult for me to accept because I had worked really hard already and made some good strides.”

“I had a few matches in Australia, nothing great but it was a bit of a confidence boost winning the first round qualifying match beating a guy ranked 250 [Joao Domingues]. You know you have the game but unless you perform out there you don’t get the confidence. After putting in all the hard yards, to be able to win in the first match back gives you that self-belief that after all the work that you are doing, you still have it in you. [That] if you play your best you are as good as anyone,” he says.

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Bhambri knows there’s still a way to go and the two singles matches in Melbourne showed him both what’s still missing in his game and gave him hope. “I still need to be sharper. I was happy with how I was playing but at times, especially in the second match. When you are up against a player who is in form, you have to be at it from the get go. That was a key takeaway, I have to be focused all the time especially at this level,” he says.

He is still one of India’s most successful active men’s singles tennis players, and with his current protected ranking of 129, is the only Indian to get a direct entry at the Maharashtra Open. The last time he competed at an ATP Tour singles event, he beat India’s other top players – Ramkumar Ramanathan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran – to qualify for the ATP 500 in Dubai.

A tournament at home, where he has had success before, could now be a springboard for the season ahead. Bhambri’s protected ranking also means that he will have close to 10 more chances to play singles at the big events. Used wisely, this can make 2022 – the year he turns 30 – a crucial one. He may not plan too far ahead anymore, but he has definite plans on how to use this slight advantage.

“I have 9 entries left after Pune till August, I will definitely be using three of them for the Grand Slams and some at ATP events that I really enjoy playing and have done well at… maybe the 500 at Queen’s right before Wimbledon, the Masters in Washington, USA. Hopefully also move up in the rankings to be able to play the qualifying at some events,” he explains.

On paper, this is an excellent way to make his chances count. Bhambri, an ironic expert at injury rehab by now, is still wary though and will take things month-by-month. Even when he made his comeback, he played doubles to test the waters and in 2022, he hopes to mix playing both singles and doubles, especially on the ATP Tour.

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“Doubles is not as physically taxing and opportunities at home came into play while I was coming back so it was a chance to keep training as well as getting some match play. I am glad I did that because I remember the first match I played, even though I had so much of practice I was very sore and exhausted… you can’t just replicate the nerves and the pressure that go into a match.”

“That was a bit of a conscious decision to get into a match groove and it sort of worked for me. I am hoping I can continue doing that, mixing a few doubles events [along with singles]. I am playing both in Pune, moving forward it’s not going to be so much except maybe at the ATP level where you know you’re probably not going to be playing semis and finals every week.. At some point yes, but not initially, “he says.

Realistically, this is a good plan given his level at the ATP Tour. This is also not a way to transition into doubles, but instead enhance his chances with more game play in singles, which remains his focus.

“There are small goals set, initially to try and play as much as I can. I feel like if I can get the sharpness in matches back my ranking will take care of itself. At the same time, it is all about the ranking so I want to get back into at least 200-300 where I can play Challengers again and hopefully try and get into Slams,” he said.

There are 11 months to go in 2022 and if Bhambri can be fit for most of it and play the big events, he can definitely climb up the ranks, and Indian tennis’ totem pole again.

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