Lack of financial support makes it tough to produce quality tennis players in India: Yuki Bhambri
This last one year has perhaps been the best in Yuki Bhambri's senior career so far. The 25-year-old, who showed a lot of promise during his junior days, took some time to get going in the senior circuit. However, having beaten the likes of Gael Monfils, Nicolas Mahut and Lucas Pouille over the last few months, he has proved that he can become a giant-killer in the world of tennis.
Thanks to his impressive run, Bhambri broke back into the top-100 as he climbed up to a career-high ranking of 83rd. And courtesy of this ranking, the Indian star received a direct entry into the main draw of the French Open. Not only that, this will be the first time he will be in action on the red clay in the main draw at Roland Garros.
"Growing up, I always wanted to play in all the Grand Slams. So, I'm really happy to get the opportunity to be here finally and of course, I'm excited," an elated Bhambri told Sportskeeda.
"I'll be playing in Geneva because I want to play a warm-up tournament before the French Open, and I'll be reaching there one week before (to get accustomed)," he added, making it clear that although clay is not his favourite surface, he is not taking things lightly.
The impressive run and what went behind it
Over the last couple of months, Bhambri has been playing some of the best tennis in his career. At the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, he made it through to the main draw, where he managed to upset Nicolas Mahut and Lucas Pouille. In the third round, as well, he gave a tough fight to Sam Querrey before losing out. Then, in Miami, he went on to make it to the second round before crashing out.
"I have been a lot more confident when I am going into these matches. The heat is there, but even the matches I have lost, they were all very close. You need that belief if you are to win against these players cause obviously it's not easy. If you have complete belief in your game, you can play more aggressively, more confidently. So, this is something that has definitely changed and made the difference," revealed the No. 1 Indian player, while talking about how his self-belief helped him pull off the big wins.
On being asked what the secret was behind this unprecedented run, Bhambri said, "I think it's been consistent hard work. A lot has gone in behind this, that I've been playing some good tennis. It wasn't an overnight thing. Most of the challenger tournaments since last year have gone pretty good...I mean winning rounds in these events, especially in the Masters, where the standard is very high, has given me much confidence. Yeah, I think I have been doing well consistently and hopefully, I will be able to keep continuing this.
"Pushing for consistency, physically trying to improve a bit, trying to increase the power in my shots, along with some small, small tricks that, I think, I have been able to add to my game, have helped me to reach where I am at this point."
Bhambri also mentioned how having Stephen Koon travel with him to tournaments as his coach has helped. "It's always good to have a coach. I have known him (Koon) for a long, long time...like 7-8 years or so. I have been working with him on and off whenever I have had the opportunity. But now he is been travelling with me to tournaments a little bit more, which obviously helps," he said.
The jump from junior to senior; struggle with injury
About a decade back, Bhambri was ruling the junior circuits. He even reached the junior No. 1 ranking in the world in February 2009 after winning the Junior Australian Open Boys' singles title. He also bagged the silver medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore. However, at the senior level, it took some time for him to hit the ground running.
"Once you are at the senior level, you are not competing against players in your age group. You play against players from every age group, the experience level is different, the physicality is different. At the junior level, you are winning a lot more but at the senior level, it takes time. I think you learn a lot while playing and that's why it takes time," Bhambri explained.
"Moreover, tennis has got a lot more physical as well in the last 10-15 years. So, I think it takes time to develop both physically and mentally and become mature enough to compete at that level. You don't usually see an 18-19-year-old winning Grand Slams," he added.
Just when he had begun to make his mark, though, he suffered a serious elbow injury in 2016, which kept him out for a good seven months. This also led to his ranking drop out of the top 500.
"Hard work, the desire to come back...I mean, the motivation was always there to try to make a comeback to the sport. Mentally, it is very important to stay strong and I was able to do that, thanks to the support provided by my family during that time. It's very difficult to start from scratch again. However, I think, being in that situation before, having that experience, made a difference," Bhambri opened up on how he was able to make a comeback.
"During that time, my family gave me a lot of mental support. My two sisters, Ankita and Sanaa, are my biggest supporters. They have always pushed me to do well and to be where I am right now. Having played the sport themselves, they understand how it works and I can discuss what goes through when one plays, how an athlete's life is. It helps to have someone to just talk to, you know," he added.
Lack of financial support makes it difficult for young players
Tennis is a sport that does not get a lot of recognition or backing in India. Even with the success of Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza, the situation remains the same till date.
Take Bhambri's case, for instance. Ever since Somdev Devvarman's retirement, he has been India's top tennis player in men's singles for the most part. He has won a number of ATP Challenger titles, scripted many memorable wins in the Davis Cup and yet, he still does not have a full-time sponsor.
When asked if he has ever received any sort of financial backing, Bhambri's reply was short and simple. "Almost next to zero," he said before adding, "A little bit here and there but mostly there has been no financial support. Unfortunately, tennis is a sport which has not really been backed by the corporates in India as much as say cricket... or even badminton, nowadays, because of the success they are enjoying."
The reason behind this, according to Bhambri, is the absence of a proper system. And because there is no proper system, we don't see enough tennis players coming out from India, despite it being one of the most populated countries in the world.
"I think we never really had a system in place and that's why we don't have a lot of young players coming through as well. Hopefully, this will change in the coming days," the New Delhi-born player said.
He further went on to explain how tough it is for a young player to progress without proper backing. "Without any financial support, it's difficult for any player to progress. Not having a team, not having a coach, a physio or a trainer will definitely affect your game. I may have still been one of the fortunate ones who has been able to do well. But there are a lot of players who need support, those who may not even have got that basic training.
"Obviously, it's tough for them and in such a situation, it becomes difficult to produce quality tennis players in the country," he signed off.