FIRSTPOST : Stronger and fitter Yuki Bhambri could be knocking on the top-100 door once again

If there is one thing that has stood out in Yuki Bhambri’s injury-ravaged career, it is the absolute belief in himself and the path he is pursuing. The 25-year-old knows that tennis nowadays, with sports science extending careers, is run more like a marathon. With patience and resilience.

The Delhi lad had spent more than half of last year tending to a tennis elbow, which was the latest in the long list of injuries that have stalled his progress. He started 2017 at the Chennai Open, ranked 474, and was made to go through the qualifiers rather than the luxury of a wild-card entry into India’s only ATP tour event. But Bhambri passed the test, shut out concerns about his elbow and played a full schedule to rise to 137 in the rankings. Along the way, he picked up a win over the super-athletic Frenchman Gael Monfils and pushed Denis Shapovalov and Kevin Anderson to deciding sets.

“For most of the season I have been fine, you have a few niggles here and there,” Bhambri said after easing into the second round of the $50,000 KPIT Challenger in Pune on Tuesday. “Could see improvement from what I’ve been playing in the last two years. Lot of matches that I lost as well, at that level, were quite close. I would have liked to have a few more wins, in some of the Challengers. Few matches could have made the difference between me being 97 and being 137. I feel fine, I feel healthy. I’m hoping to finish strong.”

Bhambri, the third seed, had just beaten Japanese qualifier Kaichi Uchida 6-2, 7-5 in the first round on Tuesday. But he had been on court for just about an hour and 15 minutes and underwent a few more fitness drills before he could stretch and finish for the day. This extensive training regimen, as devised by his trainer Abhimanyu Singh, has been at the heart of a consistent and nearly injury-free year for the Indian ace.

“I have increased his warm up time to about 25-30 minutes,” says Abhimanyu, who has formerly worked with another Indian No 1 Somdev Devvarman. “We have also worked a lot on his endurance, because I thought he lacked that in the longer matches.”

Apart from his usual tennis training Bhambri’s day now involves no less than two hours of gym work, more so in the weights room. Strength, hydration and recovery have become the keywords as he attempts to break back into the top-100: Bhambri was ranked 88 in the world in 2015, the year he had played 25 events. Bhambri is now bound by more lean muscle and has looked less likely to wilt in the heat of a long battle.

“Some players like running; Somdev was like a machine,” says Abhimanyu, referring to possibly the best slugger Indian tennis has produced. “Yuki is more a skill player. But to improve his endurance and overall agility, we alternate between 400m runs (six to ten rounds) and shuttle sprints. Sometimes when he says I’m feeling tired, I goad him by saying, ‘but Som used to run that far.’ I have to push him a little, but he is a self-motivated, hard working guy.”

Bhambri increased physicality and confidence in his body was evident when he went toe-to-toe with Canada’s teenage prodigy Shapovalov in the Davis Cup. He absorbed Shapovalov’s explosive power and stretched the match into the deciding set despite being 0-2 down. In a match that lasted about four hours, against an opponent on a hot streak, Bhambri came up just short, eventually losing 7-6(2), 6-4, 6-7(8), 4-6, 6-1.

“It wasn’t because of fatigue,” says Bhambri. “He came back and played better, he was missing a lot of shots in the fourth set. And I think strategically I went a little bit wrong in the fifth set. What I had done well in the third and fourth sets, strategically I went away from it. That’s what cost me.”

“There have been a lot of matches this year where I have been able to push the ante, or kept my focus going,” he adds. “When you have to play some of the top guys and you yourself have to play at a higher level, you see things that you have to work on or see the things that hurt you.”

Like Bhambri, Shapovalov is also a junior Grand Slam champion. But he had won the Wimbledon boy’s title only last year and has made the leap to seniors seamlessly: making it to top-50 in the world in his first full year as a pro.

“He has a big game,” says Bhambri, whose game is based more on intelligent use of space and point construction. “A lot of the younger ones who are coming through are very physically developed, big strong guys: Shapovalov, (Andrey) Rublev, (Daniil) Medvedev and Hyeon Chung. If you see them they don’t look 19-20 year-olds. They are mature beyond their age physically. But it’s a long, long stretch. You want to have a good career for 10 years or so. Whether you make it at 19 and stay there or you make it at 27, it’s about going through with it.”

A semi-final or finals finish in Pune, or if he chooses to play the Bangalore ATP Challenger next week, will see Bhambri knock-on the top-100 door once again. That might be a satisfactory end to a good year, but the Indian is already looking beyond. In the off-season in December he is scheduled to train with some of the top Asian players in Thailand.

“It’s really good, just hitting with these guys, the pace that they generate, you come out sharper,” says Bhambri. “My game and fitness levels are already there, and I can only get better from there. I am itching now to play those higher level tournaments. I am excited for that, coming back next year and hopefully playing another good season.”

Bhambri seems well and truly back on the wheel of professional tennis that never stops turning.


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