On court 7, at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Yuki Bhambri found himself in unchartered territory. For the first time, he was in the first round of an ATP Masters event on merit. Twice before he’d reached the qualifying round, but lost his opening match at the Miami Masters. He also got a wild card for the Florida-based tournament in 2009, the same year he won his Junior Australian Open title – but lost the match.
Early on Saturday morning (India time) though, Bhambri was to play a first round match at the BNP Paribas Open, considered the fifth Grand Slam. His opponent was the experienced Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, a tricky player well adept with playing on the baseline, but with the versatility to switch to a serve-and-volley style.
But Bhambri himself has become a more refined player. The strokes were there, but now each shot had the intent. “Over the years, we’ve been asking him to get more aggressive,” says Aditya Sachdeva, Bhambri’s first coach. “He’s starting to do that now, and that’s further built the things he already has. You need that aggression to play the bigger players.”
And so in a match that lasted 101 minutes, Bhambri got the better of the 101st-ranked Mahut in a 7-5, 6-3 win in their first ever meeting, and has now progressed to the second round of a Masters event for the first time.
The veteran Frenchman, who was once the world no 37 is a two-time Grand Slam doubles title winner. Now 36, Mahut has been dropping in the singles rankings over the last few years, but is placed seventh in the doubles charts. And he does have the experience to aid him while on court. So much so that just like Bhambri, Mahut too came through the qualifiers at Indian Wells without dropping a set.
Ousting Mahut though makes him Bhambri’s second big-name scalp in as many years. Last year, at the Citi Open, the 25-year-old had pulled off an upset win over Gael Monfils in a run that took him to the quarterfinals of the ATP 500 event – his best run on tour so far. “It just boosts the confidence and makes certain what we already knew, that he belongs there,” says Sachdeva. “The pieces of the puzzle have now started coming together for him.”
One of those crucial pieces has been the addition of a travelling trainer to accompany Bhambri on tour.
The Delhi-lad’s greatest nemesis on court has been his fitness, as he’s broken into the top 100 – getting to as high as 88 – only for an injury to force him out. The 2016 Australian Open was the last time he had featured in a tournament as a top 100 player (96). But it was at that event that a tennis elbow injury started to flare and kept him away for over six months.
Last year Bhambri sought the services of trainer Abhimanyu Singh, a move that resulted in him finishing a full season for the first time since 2015.
“For the last year, year and a half, he’s been injury free. The important thing is that he’s been travelling with a trainer, which has been one of the important things to keep him in good shape,” says India Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali. “That is the way to go forward.”
Then there’s also a coach, Steve Koon (who trains veteran Taiwanese player Yen-Hsun Lu) travelling with Bhambri for certain events in the year.
“Somebody sitting outside analysing you, at this stage and at this level, it’s about being able to get that help to fix the certain flaws in the game,” adds Sachdeva.
Koon was with Bhambri at the Australian Open earlier this year when the world no 110 made it past the qualifying rounds to feature in the first round of a Grand Slam for only the third time in his career. Now with his first ever win in the main draw of a Masters, he’s inching closer to breaking back into the top 100. “I don’t think there are too many points that he’s defending. He didn’t play Indian Wells last year. This should give him enough points to make it to the top 100,” Ali says.
In the second round, he plays another Frenchman, world no 12 Lucas Pouille. The pair has twice played each other in the past, both in the Challenger circuit in 2014 – Bhambri winning the quarterfinal at Chennai before Pouille won their first round match in New Delhi. But Bhambri does have some momentum with him now, along with a budding penchant for pulling off upset wins over French players.
Paes may return to squad
For the upcoming second round Davis Cup zonal tie against China, it will be the first time India will play under the tournament’s experimental format which gives teams the option of having five players (instead of four) play the best-of-three set (previously best-of-five) rubbers that will be held over two days (earlier three). The expanded squad gives the Indian team the option of now travelling with a specialist doubles team. “This is the first time in a long time that we’re going in for a specialist doubles team. With five member team, there’s the option of going with 3 singles, but also a specialist team,” says team coach Zeeshan Ali.
Previously, the team travelled with only one doubles specialist to allow the addition of another player who could play both singles and doubles, to serve as backup for the singles players. With the five-man squad, there’s an avenue of having a reserve singles player along with two doubles specialists for the lone doubles rubber.
As it stands, India’s best singles players Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanthan are automatic selections, ranked 110 and 135 respectively, along with highest ranked doubles player Rohan Bopanna (20). The change in rules now paves the way for a possible return to the team of veteran Leander Paes, who had not been considered for the World Group Playoff tie against Canada in September.
Along with Paes (46) and Bopanna, Divij Sharan (44), Purav Raja (62) and Vishnu Vardhan (99) feature in the doubles top 100.