Around this time of year, when the tennis season is winding down, most players are looking forward to a brief, yet much needed, break. But Yuki Bhambri can’t wait to get back on court. He’s spent the better part of last three years on the sidelines, nursing a knee injury, undergoing multiple surgeries and spending months in rehab, hoping for another chance to get his career back on track.
“In medical terms, there’s nothing I haven’t done. There’s not a continent I haven’t been to, to see a doctor,” Bhambri tells Lounge. “The (right) knee is better. I’ll honestly only know when I’m playing. You can’t replicate what happens in a match during a practice session. You don’t have the nerves, the intensity and the stress unless you’re playing a proper match.” Sitting in a café of an upscale hotel in Mumbai, surrounded by seasonal cheer and colourful gingerbread houses, life doesn’t seem too bad. Bhambri, 29, smiles often, even manages to joke about the time he has spent in rehab and the lessons gleaned from it. “People tell me I am the best rehab doctor without a degree,” he says. “Like a Munna Bhai version!”
While it is all in good humour, there is an undercurrent of despair when it comes to his career and the turns it has taken. He had, after all, started as the great big hope of Indian tennis. Bhambri won the boys’ title at the 2009 Australian Open to become the first Indian since Leander Paes—at the 1991 US Open—to win a junior singles Grand Slam title. It was his tennis acumen and vision to construct points that set him apart.
But the lean, 6 feet 1 inch player never quite had the physique to support his ambitions. He broke into the top-100 first in 2015 but was soon laid low by tennis elbow. Bhambri then made another run at it and made it to the top-100 in 2018, beat top players like Nicolas Mahut, Lucas Pouille and Gael Monfils and played all the four majors that season. However, he soon picked up a knee injury and was out for more than two years.
“There was a lot of emphasis on stability, working with balance balls, which wasn’t there before, during rehab,” he explains. “I worked on gravity treadmills. It fills up with air so when you run on it, it’s weightless. It’s really good for people with lower limb issues. You are running, but it’s like you’re running on water. There’s no impact. So there were a lot of different things that I could keep trying to keep going. But I’ve just sort of been unlikely that it just takes time with me to get better.”
During the lockdown in 2020, Bhambri, like a lot of other tennis players, took some online courses. Mainly, ones on sports fitness, including one on taping (medical or kinesiology tape). “I was sort of interested, not really interested, just that I’ve been taped so much I thought this would be a helpful,” he says. The break during the pandemic gave Bhambri a little more breathing room and time to get back in the groove, tennis and fitness wise. He had to re-structure his training routine, making more space for strength and recovery of muscles. “I train for about five to six hours in the day, that includes training, tennis, rehab. At least an hour, an hour and half goes into rehab. Before, to warm up, I’d probably run around, jog around for 15-20 minutes. Now it’s about an hour. You have to do the extra exercises and stretching. I have to strengthen my hamstrings, quads, warm up my knees more And make sure have the stamina so you don’t burn out in the warmup. I use a lot of the bands, weights. There’s a lot more, it just takes more time.”
Having put in the work, Bhambri says he has never felt more ready to come back on tour. He made a brief return in February and played two ATP events, in Singapore and Dubai. But the knee injury flared up again in April, when he was playing an event in USA. He also contracted covid-19 the same week. “I think covid had something to do with it, because it was the same week that I felt pain in the knee,” he says. “Maybe it just aggravated it.” While Bhambri didn’t have severe symptoms, he lost sense of smell and taste for almost five months. “Also, the first time I got back I jogged for seven minutes and then had to sit down for 20 minutes,” he says.
The Indian underwent a minor medical procedure on the right knee in June and spent the next three weeks on crutches. Even though Bhambri has returned to the court and played some lower-level tournaments to test the waters, it has mainly been in doubles. But at 29, the standout Indian talent is ready to mount another comeback next year. His protected ranking of 127—he is currently ranked outside 1000 on the ATP charts—is good for 10 more events till the 2022 US Open. The first major assignment will be the Australian Open qualifying in January.
“There’ve been so many starts and stops, you’re not progressing to where you’d like. You’re just trying to catch up to the level you were already at,” he adds. “I know I have the tennis; it’s just a matter of putting it all together. Will it happen? I don’t know. There are times when I’m icing more than I’m practicing. But I want to finish on a high, so here I am starting again and hoping for a better year.”
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.