On a pristine beach on the western edge of Ecuador, Yuki Bhambri poses for a photograph, his feet dipped in the clear blue water of the Pacific Ocean. He holds aloft a trophy – the memento he now carries with him after winning the doubles title, along with compatriot Saketh Myneni, at the ATP Challenger event in Salinas.
It’s the third doubles title (along with two from Futures events) he’s won in a season he hopes will mark his return to the tennis tour for good after being riddled with knee troubles since 2018. But he makes it clear over the phone that doubles is not the target, rather just a platform to ease himself back into the singles game where he’s broken the top 100 rankings twice.
“That’s been the goal from the beginning. I want to try and be around events, keep playing, keep competing. Not throw myself in the deep end and being unaware of how things are going to be and how my knee is going to take it,” he said to Scroll.in.
“A lot of these weeks, I’m still working hard and doing a lot of the same things, but I’m still around that competitive atmosphere and I get to hit with a lot of the guys and practice a lot of singles and play doubles.
“Pretty much the goal for this year is to try and play as much as I can, include my singles, play doubles, hopefully push off again.”
It’s not to say he’s stayed away from singles since he returned to the tour this season. He played in the Australian Open qualifiers before playing in the main draw of the Pune ATP, followed by another qualifying round appearance at the Dubai Open – where he beat the Pune champion Joao Sousa in three sets. He also played a singles match in the Davis Cup against Denmark last month.
Bhambri, a talented player with weapons off both wings, a serve to match and impressive courtcraft, may have been kept out of the tour for a while, but he certainly hadn’t forgotten how to win matches.
“I had some time and since I’ve had that experience, I feel I haven’t been as rusty as I would have expected to be since coming back,” he said.
“There are times in matches where you lose concentration or you’re not up to the mark. But starting in Australia, Pune and Dubai, these were high quality matches. Playing and believing was the key for me. I’ve been out for so long, but I felt I wasn’t that rusty. I just kept going, nothing to lose. Just enjoy and do as well as I can.”
The belief also stems from the fact that he has achieved so much in the past. The 2009 Junior Australian Open champion went on to break into the top 100 twice, reaching a career-high of 83. Along the way he picked up memorable wins, beating the likes of former World No 6 Gael Monfils and then World No 12 Lucas Pouille.
The only times he’s fallen out of the double-digits though was when he picked up injuries. In 2018 he had torn a tendon in his right knee and was forced away from the sport for over two years. He did make a brief comeback last year, but the tendonitis problem aggravated and required surgery.
Now the 29-year-old, ranked 635, is taking his time to get back into the groove of playing the gruelling singles. He’s giving himself a few more months to find his rhythm and gain more confidence in an injury-prone body that has been the only downside of his tennis career.
“I’m looking at the grass and hard court season (to get back to singles regularly). That’s something I’d like to maximise on with my singles play. That’s a good time and platform to push and improve my ranking,” he said.
“Doubles has been good. It’s been a good learning experience, I’ve never done something like this - travelling a lot for doubles. It’s great, you’re competing and it’s a lot of fun to be playing as a team.”
Incidentally, he was also hoping to play singles in Salinas as well, but the five Indians who were expected to feature at the event faced an entirely unexpected hurdle.
“We were all under the impression that it was visa on arrival. The only reason four of us made it was because Sasikumar Mukund was planning to leave early but was stopped in Europe and was told you need a valid visa,” he recalled.
“We all started to rush to different parts of the world to get it. I was in Delhi, got my visa in a day. Saketh was running around in Washington DC for two days to get it, Jeevan (Nedunchezhiyan) was in Colombia...”
A sixteen-hour flight to New York was followed by a 10-hour layover, then a seven-hour flight to Ecuador, and a few hours drive to Salinas. The visa delay meant that Bhambri missed the singles qualification event, but pushed Myneni and him to win the doubles title.
“We worked so hard to get there, we decided we needed to work hard on the tennis court, it was a motivating factor,” he added.
It’s picking up these doubles titles and simply getting some good match time in the doubles field that he’s been looking for. Injury has often been the catalyst in a switch to becoming a full-time doubles player, but Bhambri is just using it as a tool to get back to the singles game. Where he knows he belongs.