After almost three years out of action, Yuki Bhambri returns targeting Slams
875—Yuki Bhambri has kept count of the number of days it took for him to step on a court and play competitive tennis again. That moment came in the opening singles round of the ATP Singapore Open last month, the 28-year-old’s first match back on the professional tour since October 2018 following a knee injury.
That 875-day wait was almost stretched further. Bhambri’s partner in doubles for the tournament, compatriot Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, was placed in quarantine for 14 days as a precautionary measure after the health officials in Singapore suspected that he was in close contact with a Covid-19 positive passenger on their flight.
Taken off the doubles draw, Bhambri was scheduled to play his singles match on Wednesday, and for the preceding two days he was made to cancel practice and isolate in his room until a decision was arrived at.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to get out to play or be put straight in quarantine as well for 14 days,” Bhambri said. “Lucky that that wasn’t the case for me.”
With a couple of days of practice over the weekend followed by two days of sitting on the edge, India’s former top-ranked singles player took the court to face Australian Matthew Ebden. Bhambri lost 3-6, 6-7(3) but the result mattered little to him in the overall context of simply being able to compete again.
“I was just feeling grateful when I stepped back on the court. Not just because of the injury and the long rehab and training, but also because of all the uncertainty leading up to the match.”
Over the last two years Bhambri has been used to uncertainty. Sidelined for the whole of the 2019 season after tearing a tendon in his right knee in late 2018, the Delhi-based player was preparing for a comeback last year until the pandemic dashed those hopes. The international travel restrictions also meant that the Indian couldn't visit his doctor in Spain to check on his progress. Returning to training in July last year, Bhambri gradually increased the minutes on the court and at the turn of the year felt his body was, at last, ready to go through the grind of competition again. In Singapore’s ATP 250 tournament, for which he entered using his protected ranking of 127, it was proven.
“My biggest takeaway from the match was that I felt fine, I felt good. I competed hard. My game was right there. Of course, you do feel rusty having not played for so long, but I didn’t feel like I was so out of it at that level,” Bhambri, who had a career-high ranking of world No. 83 in April 2018 and is unranked now, said.
“I think I was pretty much in the match throughout, competing at the highest level. That is the level you want to be playing tennis at, and I wasn’t far away from it. So, small steps for now."
Bhambri was still playing with a strapped knee, which he said was a mix of caution and compulsion. “It’s going to be there going forward too. It helps me play. It keeps the knee compact and takes the strain off it. I need that,” he said.
Bhambri returned to India and paired up with Saketh Myneni for the International Tennis Federation (ITF) M15 event in Lucknow, winning the doubles title over the weekend while getting some more game time.
Bhambri can fall back on his protected ranking to get into 12 tournaments within a year, the second of which he plans to use in Dubai this month. The Indian will also look at taking part in a few Challenger events to get his ranking back on track. However, Bhambri wants to play as many of the bigger events—including the remaining Grand Slams this year—as possible,
"I will use my protected ranking for some of the big events—the Slams, ATP 500s and maybe a few Masters. These are the tournaments that I enjoy playing and have done well in the past,” he said.