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The future is here...

A peek into the lives of up and coming tennis professionals Yuki Bhambri and Sanam Singh. Sharmistha Chaudhuri reports. Rapid fire | Know the players

sports Updated: Mar 13, 2012 03:11 IST
Sharmistha Chaudhuri

A six-year age gap separates the two, but both show the raw hunger to succeed on court. The 19-year-old, who stands five inches taller than the 24-year-old, has been in the news since he captured the Australian Open junior title in 2009. The elder one has won a hattrick of $10000 ITF Futures tournaments in three weeks. Now, as the top singles choices, they will be representing India in the Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan in April.

Meet Yuki Bhambri and Sanam Singh — confident, diligent and ready to cement their spots in the Davis Cup team.

“Davis Cup is definitely a priority,” said a sincere Yuki. “I’ve grown up watching Leander (Paes) and Mahesh (Bhupathi) play, never missing a single match at whatever odd hours. It’s an honour to be back in the squad.” In 2009, Yuki had had a fantastic Davis Cup debut, winning his match in South Africa.

For the US-trained Sanam, it will be his maiden appearance. “The dream has become a reality. It’s a new experience and am ready for it,” said Sanam, running his fingers through the thick hair.

Looking younger than his 24 years, Sanam can be mistaken for a teen. Surprisingly, it was only during the Chennai Open that these two came to know each other. “I remembered Yuki as a small child, travelling with his sisters (Ankita and Sanaa, both players). By the time he started playing juniors, I was already in college (at the University of Virginia),” said Sanam, while exchanging numbers with the former junior wold No. 1 at the DLTA Complex.

Fitness, the key
The Davis Cup focus has finally shifted from doubles to singles. As captain SP Misra put it, “Our goal was to take three singles players as we have to play four singles and only one doubles rubber.” So, how do they sustain the pressure of playing the gruelling calendar? “It’s all about the body. I play three-four hours a day and then physical training is important. Gymming, running, weights, I have to do it all,” said a tired Yuki. He has just returned after making the quarterfinals of the Kyoto Challenger in Japan. After a fantastic 2009, Yuki was plagued by knee injuries and a fractured ankle. “Looking back, it helped me in the long run. The months I couldn’t play on court gave me an excuse to work on my body and fitness.”

Sanam, too, has his basics right. In the off-season he trained with friend Somdev Devvarman’s trainer in Austin to strengthen his legs. “It gave me a boost physically which has helped since the start of the season.” Both are intelligent enough to realise that tennis is all about physical fitness. And with Davis Cup played in a best-of-five format, mental toughness and stamina will come to the forefront for the duo.

Race against time
The Uzbekistan tie will be played on clay. With professional tennis having graduated to hardcourts in a majority of tournaments, Yuki and Sanam have to get their acts right. “How long has it been since we played on clay,” asked Sanam. “In the juniors I think...,” replied Yuki. Both will be squeezing in as much they possibly can within a month. “Playing on clay is a different ball game. You need more patience and endurance… the ball spins more…,” says Sanam. “But, with tennis mostly being played on hard, it will be a similar situation for our opponents too,” quipped Yuki.

A different route
Most Indians, who go abroad on tennis scholarships, choose to stay on and work in the finance sector. How was Sanam different? “Probably, because I was not too good in finance!” he chuckled. “On a serious note, tennis was always my priority. The Virginia tennis centre has a tradition of developing players and I hope to continue their good work. Besides, Som’s influence has helped. His singles performance has given us hope.” Somdev is currently injured and has to sit out of this tie.

In any sport the question always comes down to finance. Sanam, who added two Asian Games medals to his resume in 2010, currently has no sponsor. Yuki is helped to an extent by Club Mahindra. Sanam’s goal is to break into the top-250 by the yearend and would have reached up to 450 after the three Futures wins. “Sponsors come running when you’ve made a name for yourself. But what most of them don’t realise is that one needs them when going up the ranking chart. It’s a long term investment really,” both say shaking their heads.

Yuki goes to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy whenever he gets the chance. “The group level coaching has helped him blossom but he now needs a personal coach and trainer travelling with him,” mother, Indu, chips in. And they don’t come cheap. The sports ministry has sanctioned R35 lakh (approx) for each of the two, from the National Sports Development Fund under ‘Operation Excellence’, aimed at Olympic medal prospects. Both the youngsters have been using the money for travel reimbursement. “A coach or trainer is important but I need to travel more,” adds Sanam, explaining the dilemma.

Like Yuki, he too wants to gain points to be able to play the Challenger level. “One can understand the level of improvement because you play against the top 300 players in the world,” says the Chandigarh youngster.

Unlike Yuki, who took to playing while trying to emulate his sisters, Sanam started randomly at the age of eight. “I would be hitting a tennis ball against a wall in the club. A coach noticed me after five-six months and that’s how my tennis journey began,” he explained.

Matter of pride
And that journey will take him to Uzbekistan in April. Are nerves a factor? “If I show nerves now, how can I step onto the court there!” the shy lad joked. “In four years of college life, I’ve played a lot of team tournaments. It’s a different atmosphere with fans and supporters cheering you on.” “You want to push harder. Throughout the year you play for yourself, it’s a wonderful experience to be able to compete for the country," added Yuki.

The one thing they feel they need to work on? “Serves,” is the unanimous response. “I’m short so my first serves percentage need to increase,” added Sanam, who stands at 5’8”. Young, good work ethics and the determination to excel — that’s what sets Yuki and Sanam apart from the rest. Hungry to stamp their Davis Cup spots, it’s time singles took centrestage.

Rapid fire | Know the players