Every morning, Yuki Bhambri says with a laugh, he finds himself talking to his knees, the right one in particular. Whispering, willing them to stay intact as he prepares to mount yet another comeback to his start-stop tennis career.
“Every morning, and after every (training) session,” he describes how his mind always ponders on how his knee is holding up. “It’s almost like you’re walking on glass. Am I going to trip today?”
That last time Bhambri, now 29, made a comeback was in February 2021 at the ATP 250 Singapore Open, ending a two-and-a-half-year stint away from the sport. The torn tendon in his knee had healed enough for him to get back to the tour. Then in April, during a Challenger event in Florida, Covid struck and the nagging knee – a tendonitis problem that first surfaced at Wimbledon 2018 – gave way.
“I heard Covid can cause joint pain, so I feel it had something to do with the knee (deteriorating),” he explains. “The same time I fell sick, my knee was excruciatingly painful. There was always some irritation there, I just feel Covid aggravated and enhanced it.”
Surgery – even for a life outside tennis – was the only way forward.
Over the past few years, the talented Delhi-man has been struck with lasting injuries that have kept him more in rehab than on tour. There was the tennis elbow issue in 2016. He made a strong comeback, picking up steam, beating the likes of former World No 6 Gael Monfils and then World No 12 Lucas Pouille. He also picked up Challenger titles in Pune and Taiwan and broke back into the top 100 for the second time in his career (reaching a high of 83) and played in the main draw of all four Grand Slams in 2018. Then the knee problem struck.
Now healthier, and with his legs “feeling much better,” he’s revving to go again. And he derives his motivation from what he achieved in those moments, those minutes when his body held together.
“That’s the reason you keep going, knowing that you have that level of being able to play. I feel that if I had never broken into (the top 100), I would have looked at different options. But knowing that you can play the Slams, knowing that you can compete against the best, that keeps you going,” he says.
“You always learn from your failures but success is as important to get that added motivation to work. My only goal is to be on court and give myself that opportunity to compete.”
Since it’s been a while since he was last on court, here’s a recap of the game one can expect from him. Strong off both wings with a big serve, the attacking baseliner’s courtcraft is impressive – he can construct points before finishing it off, or hammer home a winner from awkward positions (there’s no mistaking the big-eyed ‘Wow’ when the vanquished Monfils congratulated Bhambri on the win. Just type ‘Bhambri Monfils’ on YouTube).
And yet he’s still trying to find ways to improve his game. His service motion, for example, took a minor tweak mid-2018. Previously, he’d bring his back leg next to his planted left foot once he tosses the ball. Now he keeps both feet planted.
“It was to try and find more balance. Changing it gave me a better platform to accelerate, go up and get a better serve,” he explains.
More recently, his changes have been off-court. Mainly the lengthy one-hour warmup and 90-minute cooldown.
“There’s an extra bit of stretching that I do, extra exercises, more leg work, more strength work for my knees before entering court,” he describes. “Earlier I’d probably just run around for 15-20 mins. Now I have to do the extra exercises and stretching.”
There are also the new kinesiology taping techniques he’s learnt through the online courses he worked on during the lockdown and while in recovery.
“I did a bunch of online courses on taping techniques, fitness videos,” he says, as he describes the need to tape his ankles before each session. “I was sort of interested, not really interested, just that I’ve been taped so much I thought this would be helpful.”
Another shot at tennis
He’s decided to put in the hard yards, yet again picking tennis over the option of leaving the sport. He recalls however, that the latter had been an interesting proposition over the past few months. But then there was the confidence in his ability that kept him going.
“I know that whenever I step on court, I have that confidence that I can beat anyone. And just hope that at some point I’m going to get lucky and just stay there. That’s the reason I’ve been keeping at it. I know I have the tennis, it’s just a matter of putting it all together. Will it happen? I don’t know. But if I give up then there’s no way to know,” he says.
And so, he’s going for it again in 2022. With a protected ranking of 127, his first stop in singles is at the Australian Open qualifiers. It was at that same venue, in 2009 when he announced himself by winning the junior boys Grand Slam singles title. Now he’s hoping that at Melbourne Park, he’ll get another new beginning.