Australian Open Diary: Yuki Bhambri's Day in the Sun
It was Kid’s Tennis Day yesterday at the Australian Open. On Rod Laver Arena, the likes of Roger Federer and Ana Ivanovic played a game of Fast4 tennis with the likes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Squarebob Spongepants. The closed arena was filled almost to capacity, the crowd roars each time a player plays a trick shot, the children scream, the music plays, the atmosphere is electric.
On the outside courts, affairs of a much more serious nature are unfolding. It is the final round of qualifying for the men’s and women’s singles draws. Each of these players has already survived two gruelling matches over the last couple of days. But today is the day that counts, the difference between a Main Draw berth and a return to oblivion.
One among the hopefuls today is Yuki Bhambri, India’s only remaining contestant in the singles competition. He has already seen his compatriots Somdev Devvarman and Ramkumar Ramanathan stumble in the first round. Today, he faces Chase Buchanan in the final qualifying round, a young American with similar aspirations. It is time to move on from the kids’ stuff.
Bhambri steps onto the court in a stubble and a fluorescent green shirt which sets off a striking contrast to the blue surface in Melbourne Park. If appearance provided points, we already have a winner here. The match begins, and Bhambri plays as confidently as he looks. His serve, his drives down the line and strategic forays to the net, all seem to smoothly fall into place. Buchanan is holding on, but always seems to be a touch behind Bhambri.
The match is played on Court 8, which is not the greatest of settings in Melbourne Park. Located at the northern extremity of the grounds, trains can be heard rumbling outside with regular frequency. Both players seem to struggle with the ball toss against the sun and the wind, Buchanan more than Bhambri. In the sixth game of the first set, Buchanan’s serving problems intensify, he commits a foot fault, and Bhambri suddenly finds himself up a break 4-2. This seems to provide Bhambri an additional dose of confidence, and he holds his next two service games to love. He closes out a comfortable first set 6-3, and the relative ease of his progress is accentuated by his quiet fist pump at the end of it.
Buchanan, meanwhile, is slowly losing it. Another locational disadvantage of Court 8 is the narrow access that spectators have to it, which results in people moving in front of the players’ vision quite frequently. Bucahan is increasingly agitated by this. A crowd is slowly building up now for the game, with mainly Indians walking in for a glimpse of their latest tennis hero. Buchanan has a word with the chair umpire about a small kid having the time of his life, playing in the aisle. Play is held up for a few minutes, as the responsible parent is sought out, who duly proceeds to escort the kid out from the court. Buchanan shakes his head, and plays on.
But the distraction remains embedded in the American’s mind, as the errors continue to mount. Bhambri makes the most of the opportunity, and piles the pressure on his opponent. He forces a double fault and a couple of rally errors from Buchanan, and it is suddenly 3-1 in the second set in favour of the Indian.
Buchanan spreads his arms wide at his team, gestures to the crowd directly, and looks on the verge of blowing up. Perhaps this break of serve helps him focus, perhaps it is from a sense of desperation, but the games slowly begin to stretch longer. Bhambri is forced to run harder, stretch for returns, and games go regularly to deuce. Buchanan begins to play more freely, and is soon rewarded with a break to tie the second set at 4-4. He is pumped, Bhambri’s head drops.
Change of momentum
For the first time in the match, there seems to be a possible momentum shift coming up. Bhambri, who has been in control so far, senses an opponent fancying his chances now. But the Indian support at the court has continued to swell, and they are well and truly behind Bhambri. In the very next game, Bhambri plays a couple of punishing cross-court backhands to put the pressure back on his opponent, and he immediately finds the return break. 5-4. Bhambri breaks into out a loud cry. The Indian support breaks out into a roar. Buchanan proceeds to break his racket.
This seems to seal the deal for both players. Bhambri confidently serves the next game out to love, with Buchanan offering token resistance. As the final ball from the American lands outside the baseline, Bhambri exults with his longest yell yet. The man from Delhi has won convincingly in the end, 6-3, 6-4, to make it to his first Grand Slam Main Draw.
It all started in Melbourne
Interestingly, the Australian Open has been the venue for Yuki Bhambri’s highlight of his tennis career so far. In 2009, he won the juniors title at the Australian Open, becoming the first Indian to do so. This in turn led him to the No. 1 ranking in the world among the juniors.
Today, Bhambri made it to his first Main Draw appearance in a Grand Slam. But of course, this is only the beginning for him. When he steps onto the court for his first round match next week, the spotlight on him will be harsher, the scrutiny more intense, the competition stronger. In fact, it will be the small matter of facing two-time Grand Slam champion and the No. 6 seed, Andy Murray, to begin with.
Bhambri will know it is time to leave the kids behind.