Yuki Bhambri: ‘We just need to keep pushing’

“We are still 15-20 years behind (other major tennis-playing nations). Not just in terms of years, but we don’t have a structure at all. Unless something changes, we’re not going to see a lot of players coming through,” says Yuki Bhambri.

Looking ahead with optimism: Yuki Bhambri, who finished runner-up at the Chennai Open ATP Challenger recently, is close to breaching the top-100 mark.   -  PTI

India’s top-ranked tennis player Yuki Bhambri has a promising year ahead. The 25-year-old is close to breaching the top-100 mark after he jumped 11 spots to move to 101 in the rankings, following his runner-up finish in the Chennai Open Challenger recently.

Plagued by injuries for a large part of his career, the former junior Australian Open champion is now optimistic about the year ahead, and is determined to perform well in the Grand Slams.

With the Davis Cup tie against China fast approaching, Yuki is confident about the young Indian team’s chances. He is of the view that it’s only a matter of time before India qualifies for the Davis Cup World Group.

Yuki, however, says that Indian tennis is lagging behind and is critical about the lack of a proper tennis structure to promote new talent in the country.

What are your thoughts on the current Indian Davis cup squad?

We have a strong core group and a good bunch of guys coming up in Ramkumar Ramanathan, Sumit Nagal and Prajnesh Gunneswaran. I think we are one of the stronger teams in Asia and have been knocking on the doors of the World Group. We just need to keep pushing.

Showing promise: With players such as Ramkumar Ramanathan (above), Sumit Nagal (below) and Prajnesh Gunneswaran (bottom) joining the ranks, India’s prospects in the Davis Cup look bright.   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy

 

India was seen as an Asian powerhouse in tennis in the 1990s, but has slipped down the rungs since. What do you think has led to this downfall?

We never really pushed after the 1990s. The sport has changed, and India never really went on to put a system in place that would churn out great players. The players you see today haven’t come out of any Indian system. Somdev Devvarman (who reached a career-best 63) came from the American college circuit, while Ramkumar Ramanathan (ranked 140) has trained in Spain for a major part of his career.

Do you think India is lagging behind in tennis?

We are still 15-20 years behind (other major tennis-playing nations). Not just in terms of years, but we don’t have a structure at all. Unless something changes, we’re not going to see a lot of players coming through. A whole system needs to be put into place. It comes down to training, to development, to having the right coaches and having the right infrastructure.

The system needed to facilitate all of this is missing in our country.

What are the changes that you would suggest?

I think everything has to change, right from the grassroots level. First of all, we need to have a base where the players can come and train. A national structure of sorts needs to be set up where we can have travelling coaches and a devoted physiotherapy team to help out. The focus should be on developing a good bunch of 10-15 players at each level. Secondly, we need to conduct frequent tournaments across categories, from the Under-14s to the Futures level. Until we have an institution or a structure to ensure this, we’re not going to have players coming through.

BENGALURU, KARNATAKA, 25/11/2017: Sumit Nagal of India reacts after beating Jay Clarke of Great Britain in the final of the Bengaluru Open ATP Challenger tennis tournament at KSLTA in Bengaluru on November 25, 2017. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy

 

Speaking of more tournaments, the number of Challengers held in India has been steadily declining. How do you think this has affected the players?

We players don’t have much of a choice. As far as all of us are concerned, we have to go about our jobs. We would obviously like to play more at home, but if not, we just go outside and play.

Ideally, we would like to have 7-10 Challengers a year. There are a lot of players in the 300-700 range who will benefit from this exposure to make a jump in the rankings. I’m sure the associations are aware of the decline in the number of tournaments, and are hopefully trying to do more, especially with regard to hosting events. If all the state associations can keep doing their bit, we can see major improvements.

Coming to your career, for someone who has suffered so many injuries, how tough is it to make a comeback after a layoff?

One of the most difficult things for a sportsperson is to stop playing due to injury and then make a comeback. My love for the sport has enabled me to keep pushing myself, and keep coming back. I feel that I can accomplish a lot more, and that there is a lot for me to learn and improve on, and that has kept me going.

Players such as Saketh Myneni and yourself have endured many injuries. Do you feel that Indian players lack a sound fitness base from the junior level?

We were highly successful during my time in the junior circuit. However, tennis has changed into a more physical sport over the last 10-15 years. Genetically, the Indian body is not as strong or built like the Europeans or the Westerners, so it takes time to develop. However, it’s not something that one cannot work towards. A lot of Indians, not just in tennis but in other sports too, are working a lot more and are a lot more aware about fitness now.

BENGALURU, KARNATAKA, 22/11/2017: Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India returns a shot against Marc Polmans of Australia on the third day of the Bengaluru Open ATP Challenger tennis tournament at KSLTA on November 22, 2017. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy

 

Given that the sport has become physically more demanding, there is a surge in the number of Indian players who have shifted focus from singles to doubles. You, however, don’t seem to have such ideas. What has made you stick to the singles?

I think being successful, for starters.(laughs) Everyone starts out playing singles and when it doesn’t work out they switch to doubles. But a lot of them, who probably wouldn’t have had a chance in singles, have carved out great careers playing doubles. Divij Sharan and Purav Raja are very successful players on the tour.

It’s definitely not a bad option but at the moment I’m doing well and am closer to where I want to be: playing the Grand Slams. I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be concentrating on singles.

What’s the year ahead looking like for you? Have you set any targets for the upcoming Asian Games?

There’s still some time until the Asian Games, and I have a lot of tournaments before it. I would ideally like to get back into the top-100 and play some of the Grand Slams. My goal would be to play as many tournaments as I can and finish the year healthy.