EVER SINCE YUKI BHAMBRI cracked into the elite group (top-100) of men’s singles tennis, the Delhi lad has managed to grab quite a few eyeballs and has been the topic of discussion in the Indian tennis fraternity. The 23-year-old is now India’s first player after Somdev Devvarman and Leander Paes since 2010 to enter the top-100. From the time Bhambri made his Grand Slam main draw debut in Melbourne this year, the Indian has tasted success both on the ATP challenger and pro tour and even attained a career-high ranking of 88 in November. Currently ranked no. 93, Bhambri is all geared up for another successful run at the highest level.
In just about ten days’ time, the Chennai Open will commence and Bhambri will enter the event looking to kick-start 2016 on a positive note. Just before he departs for the first ATP event of 2016, India’s brightest hope in singles tennis spoke to TFG about his future aspirations.
Looking back to the start of 2015, you were languishing in the ATP rankings, but you finished on an incredibly high note by cracking the top-100. How would you explain this transition and journey?
The most important thing was that I was able to play the whole year. I played all the tournaments that I wanted to. Since the time I turned pro, I was never able to complete the full season due to injuries and this year I did play most of the tournaments without injuries. That was the biggest positive for me. Looking back to the years gone by, I always had decent results, but injuries used to keep me away from the game for about three-four months. Obviously, you can’t go up in the rankings if you don’t play enough tournaments and matches. In 2015, I started the year around 300-400 in the rankings, but started to climb up with a main draw appearance at the Australian Open and followed it up with another impressive showing in Delhi (ATP challengers).
What was the turning point? Can you talk about one defining moment?
I would say qualifying for the Australian Open and playing my first round match against Andy Murray. Playing the match made me realize that I wasn’t far away from the level I always wanted to be. It was a competitive match throughout the three sets and playing a Grand Slam champion clearly helped me changed my thought process, goals and I started believing in myself more. I suddenly had the mentality to not just win a few matches but go deep and win tournaments.
You had mentioned about working with former ATP Pro Taylor Dent. Can you tell us how it has helped your serving?
Yes. I worked with him at the end of 2014 in America. I always wanted to improve my serve. Initially, it took some time but started paying rich dividends. He helped me get more power and accuracy on my serve and it was no coincidence that I served pretty well this year on the circuit. I have known him for a few years now. I have hit with him during his playing days and was eager to approach him. After a certain level, the smaller, finer things start making all the difference. You have to keep adding things to your game in order to sustain at the highest level.
Talking about fitness, you have had a few injury concerns in your career. Can you talk about your latest fitness drills and how you intend to improve on this crucial aspect?
Earlier, I used to get hurt and that used to keep me away from the game for longer periods. But now, I am stronger and fitter. I played some grueling three and five setters, back-to- back this year and was happy that I was able to go the distance. If you go into the match knowing that you can outlast your opponent, it certainly helps and boosts your confidence. I usually work in Delhi, but I also do train at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in the USA.
You have had decent results on the hard courts; you also made the finals of a challenger event on clay. But there is little to show on the grass courts. How do you explain that?
I am more comfortable on the hard courts; I have grown up playing on the faster courts. But, I have always enjoyed playing on the grass. You only get a month or two to play on the lawns. Obviously, I don’t have the results to show, but I think my game is also suited for grass and I will work harder going ahead. Hopefully, I get to play the major clay tournaments in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona and my ranking can surely help me get into these prestigious tournaments.
Do you enjoy playing the doubles? Are you also going to be focusing on it going ahead?
I enjoy doubles; I will play whenever I can. In 2015, I didn’t play a lot because I was getting deep into tournaments in the singles draw and had to conserve energy. However, the plan for me was and is to play doubles in the big ATP events. Obviously, my singles ranking can also help me get into the doubles draw. It’s fun, basically stress-free. Sometimes, you lose early in the singles and doubles will always keep you sharp and involved in the tournament.
Why didn’t you play in the recently concluded IPTL and CTL?
I wasn’t picked for the IPTL. I was a part of CTL in 2014, but my body didn’t feel great this year so decided to give it a miss.
Thoughts on the upcoming ATP Chennai Open. Do you think you can go deep?
It’s a tournament we all Indians look forward to. It’s the start of a new season. I am glad I don’t have to depend on the organizers for a wildcard entry or play the qualifiers. I have made the quarter-finals a few years back in Chennai. The whole tournament is getting tougher and popular with more marquee players coming in. It’s a special tournament for me as I have been playing for six-seven years. It’s a new year, all the players will be coming out of a break and it will be interesting to see how it goes.
Now that you are India’s best bet in the singles event, does that put extra pressure on you?
I have always played with pressure and expectations since I was 16. After winning the junior Grand Slam, people expected me to achieve more. However, what many don’t realize is that it’s tough out there and unless you have been in that position, it’s difficult to know. It’s great that I am in the top-100, but I would honestly like more Indians in there. Most of our boys have done well this year and the fact that we have a number of Indian players in the qualifiers of the Australian Open is great for Indian tennis.
We saw Somdev attain his career high ranking of 62 a few years ago, but couldn’t sustain at the top for various reasons. What do you think you should do to maintain your high level of play and remain in the elite group on the ATP tour?
I think it’s different. Tennis keeps changing. I think Somdev has done well; at times, he has been unlucky this year. Sometimes results can also be misleading. For me, the important thing is to play the full calendar. I will keep working on my game and I believe I have it in me to compete at the highest level and go deep in slams. Only time will tell if I can sustain, but I am hoping to play at this level for a long time.
Davis Cup and Olympic aspirations for 2016?
Qualifying for the Olympics depends on my singles ranking. Few Indians have played it and I would love to represent my country. As far as the Davis Cup is concerned, we play our first tie in July. At the moment, we are one of the best teams in Asia and results will tell you that. Last year, we were terribly unlucky with the draws. But with some exciting players in our country, we can certainly break into the world groups.
Finally looking ahead to 2016, can you talk about your goals and aspirations?
I want to play all the four Slams, get higher in the rankings as it makes life a lot easier. I have gained some serious experience and if I am able to remain healthy, I can really keep producing the desired results. I will start off in Chennai then will travel to Melbourne. I also have a few tournaments lined-up in Europe in February and of course, I would love to play Indian Wells and Miami against the big guns in March.