Yuki, a tough cookie

Yuki Bhambri is now honing both his serve and backhand.-R. RAGU

From winning the Australian Open junior title to becoming the No. 1 junior in the world, to finishing runner-up in the Youth Olympics in Singapore, Yuki's fledgling career has been like a firecracker, so full of light and sound. Kamesh Srinivasan takes stock.

Unlike many sportspersons who lose their way while chasing their dreams, the 19-year-old Yuki Bhambri has lived up to his potential.

From winning the Australian Open junior title to becoming the No. 1 junior in the world, to finishing runner-up in the Youth Olympics in Singapore, Yuki's fledgling career has been like a firecracker, so full of light and sound.

A series of ITF Futures singles titles in the men's circuit proved that he was taking short but sure steps forward. But, a bout of injuries that forced him to lie low for about a year, including a case of ‘jumper's knee,' had cast doubts about his continuation in the game with the same vigour. In such a scenario of mixed emotions, Yuki's Challenger singles title in Fergana, Uzbekistan, in the $35,000 event, has come as an invigorating breeze of healthy assurance.

Coming as it did, close on the heels of the Challenger doubles title in Busan, Korea, in the company of Divij Sharan in a $75,000 tournament, there was a clear emphasis that Yuki would not be lost to the world of doubles in a hurry.

After Ramesh Krishnan and Leander Paes, there have been a series of talented players in the Indian tennis arena. But most of them have been lost to the game itself, while some others have been able to assert themselves more in the world of doubles.

There may be no talent to match Ramesh Krishnan, who reached the quarterfinals of the US Open in 1981, when he was 20 years old, before losing in four sets to John McEnroe. He won eight Tour titles and three Challenger titles and reached a career-best rank of 23.

Leander Paes, who reached a career-high 73, has been the best since the days of Ramesh. Paes has won 11 Challenger singles titles, five of them abroad, apart from winning a Tour event in New Port when he was 25. Of course, the highlight of his career has been the singles bronze medal that he won in the Atlanta Olympics behind Andre Agassi and Sergei Bruguera in 1996.

Paes won his first Challenger singles title when he was 19 years old and Yuki has shown similar prowess. In fact, the Challenger titles have been so rare in Indian tennis in recent years. Somdev Devvarman, who reached a career-high rank of 62, has won only two Challenger singles titles so far. He won the Lexington Challenger when he was 23 and the Izmir Challenger two years later. Somdev may have won a Challenger much earlier, but he spent four years in the US Collegiate circuit. He won two NCAA singles titles back to back, including a victory over John Isner in a final.

Rohan Bopanna, a no mean singles player, won a solitary Challenger singles title in Dublin in 2007, when he was 27. He reached a career-best rank of 213 in singles before focussing on doubles and breaking into the top 10.

Harsh Mankad, who reached a career-best 222, won the Manchester Challenger in 2006 when he was 27. That was his only singles title in a Challenger, though he won seven Challenger doubles titles.

Mahesh Bhupathi was a tremendous singles player, and had won his first and what turned out to be his only Challenger singles title when he was 20 in 1994. He reached a career-best singles rank of 217. He had also helped India beat Chile and the Netherlands with memorable exploits in singles in the Davis Cup.

Prakash Amritraj, who reached a best rank of 154 and Zeeshan Ali, who made it up to 126, did not win any singles Challenger titles. Or for that matter, even Karan Rastogi, who was ranked as high as No. 4 among the juniors in the world, and Sunil Kumar, who won the national men's title when he was 16, have not been able to make an impact at the Challengers level.

This gives a fair idea about the achievement of the young Yuki Bhambri, who had reached the quarterfinals of the Challengers in Kyoto and Singapore this season, before marching all the way to the title in Fergana.

Coach Aditya Sachdeva who has groomed Yuki from a young age, after coach Shekar Menon had laid the foundation, has been travelling with his ward in recent times, and was quite honest in conceding that the title was a big surprise.

‘'I thought that Yuki would make some semifinals as the next step,'' said Aditya who strongly feels that Yuki would benefit with a regular physical trainer on the Tour.

The coach has been working a lot on Yuki's serve and the backhand. “Yuki serves at a speed of about 200 plus kilometres per hour, and getting better. He wins most of the points when he gets his first serve in. We are working on his physical strength as well,” said Aditya, who credits Dr. Rajat Chauhan and his staff for the successful rehabilitation programme on the lad, who lost nearly a season to injuries.

Yuki is quite delighted that his coach takes a look at other players and gives him a good game plan before every match.

“I am also evolving as a coach,'' concedes the humble Aditya, himself a keen student of the game.

The coach is happy that Yuki implements everything in a match. Yuki had given a hint of things to come when he beat the former world No. 36 Karol Beck of Slovakia in straight sets in the Chennai Open, before losing to the top-10 player Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia. He also beat one of Asia's best players, Denis Istomin, in three tough sets in a dead rubber in the Davis Cup tie in Namangan, Uzbekistan.

“It feels incredible to have won a Challenger singles title. It is great to put together a series of wins against players of different styles and strong game. It gives me a whole lot of confidence to break into the top-200,'' said Yuki, quite thrilled to take a couple of weeks off before realigning his focus on the Wimbledon qualifying event.

Of course, Yuki is grateful to the Union Sports Ministry for supporting him with its Operation Excellence scheme and Club Mahindra for its sponsorship. He is not too thrilled about being the No. 1 player in the country at the moment, with a rank of 218, ahead of Somdev Devvarman (232), and concedes frankly that the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games gold medallist, recovering from a shoulder surgery, was a whole lot better than his ranking number.

For sure, Yuki has a tremendous sense of balance, on and off the court, and that should take him far in the world of tennis. For some, promises are meant to be kept!