India's 24-year-old top-ranked singles player, Yuki Bhambri, has seen the ins and outs of Indian tennis, and the ups and downs of a professional tennis career. Currently in recovery from his injuries, Bhambri was forced to sit out the French Open and Wimbledon this year.
Only 16 when he reached his first Grand Slam semi-final in Australia in 2008, Bhambri would go on to win the boys’ singles title at the Australian Open the following year – becoming the first Indian player to achieve that feat.
An early loss to now World No. 8 Tomas Berdych at this year’s Australian Open and constant injury woes have meant that the early part of 2016 has not been ideal for the New Delhi-born player, following which he also missed out on India’s Davis Cup rubber against South Korea in Chandigarh. Teammate Somdev Devvarman, who had been key in the team's victories last year, was also sidelined with injury, meaning the pair were replaced by Ramkumar Ramanathan and Saketh Myneni.
“It hasn’t been ideal, yes. It’s difficult to sit on the sidelines, but I am in recovery, working with my coach, with physiotherapists, with medical professionals to help me overcome this, I hope to be back to playing soon.”
But it is as much a battle of the mind as it is of the body. “It’s majorly a mental thing as well, that some people understand, yes, but a lot of people should know. When Andy won his Wimbledon title, when Milos Raonic went up to give his speech, they all thanked their entire team. The mental aspect is so important. You need your temam behind you, encouraging you, egging you on, keeping your spirits up as you work. That is incredibly important.”
Bhambri continues “a team is key to a tennis player. You need a physio, a doctor, a masseur all with you on your team, and your team also keeps you motivated, keep your spirits high. It is quite possible that you can fall into a rut. At the same time, having a team is expensive, which affects a lot of the younger players.”
What does Bhambri think of India’s younger talent? “There are a number of phenomenal players out there.” We ask him why there have not been many singles talents from the country since himself. “Oh, there’s a lot more than we see right now too. The problem is that there needs to be a system at every level to ensure the talent gets spotted, that there are constant tournaments to be able to promote that talent.”
“And it needs to be there from every level up. Local bodies, states, the Association (AITA) all need to have a system that they can check back and forth.”
It’s a remedial issue that Bhambri says needs to be addressed at multiple levels, not something reliant on the Association alone. “You need state associations to check, too. But the problem here is that there is nothing to check. Once we have multiple tournaments, kids will keep playing. When they keep playing, there’s more talent that comes out. They have the opportunity to be seen, to be noticed, to work on their skills thereafter.”
“When there’s not as much of an opportunity to play tournaments, you don't really see all the kids who could be playing, who could be seen, who could even keep going through the system and playing and being encouraged.”
People also are not entirely aware of how significant the costs associated with being a tennis player can be, Bhambri says.
“It’s really expensive to take up tennis, and that’s something I remind parents of children who are looking to train in the sport.”
Reiterating just how financially intense a sport tennis is, Bhambri goes on, “so I keep telling them, this is years of your life, and a significant chunk of your finances going into this sport. It may be some time before an athlete breaks even, when the prize money is significant enough to cover training. Till then, you have to have coaching, training, physios, a lot of things go into making a player. There is also a lot of travel, coaching and training camps children have to go to, or their parents send them to. Those are not going to come cheap, and it’s going to be a long time before the costs are recovered.”
What is next for the player following a lull in his career for a period? “I’m looking to get back in fighting fitness for the US Open,” says Bhambri, who missed out on Olympic qualification this year. “I would have loved to be a part of the Olympic Games, but unfortunately could not. India should do well, though!”
In a country that truly lacks for singles stars in a sport that has taken off in earnest in the last two decades, Bhambri stands out as perhaps its lone senior singles Grand Slam potential among a sea of hopefuls.