If these were normal circumstances, Yuki Bhambri would probably be back on the grind of the tennis tour trying to qualify for a Grand Slam again. It would be a far cry from his breakthrough 2018 season, where he crossed top 100 and played all four Majors, but at least he would be back and fighting on court.
However as things stand, the former India No 1 has not played a competitive match since October 2018 after battling a debilitating knee injury that wasn’t correctly diagnosed for months and led to a layoff that is 18 months and counting now.
From a career-best ranking of 83 in April 2018 to losing his ranking and being tagged as ‘inactive’ on the official ATP charts, it has been a period of difficulty and confusion for the 27-year-old, who has been a junior world No 1 and Grand Slam champion.
“It’s been a pain… a struggle. The [past] 18 months have felt like five years. From not being able to really put any load on my knee, I think it’s a big achievement to be able to finally get back to playing tennis and do even the basic exercises,” Bhambri told Scroll.in.
But even then, there are two ways to look at the long time away from the sport due to injury and now an extended break due to the coronavirus pandemic. The positive is, of course, a shutdown of the entire tennis tour means that the timeline for recovery is extended. Does he see this time off, although due to a negative reason, as beneficial?
“Yes, it does for me and for everyone who’s been out injured because you don’t miss out on the tour. Everyone in the same situation, everyone comes back without hitting a tennis ball for months. I’ll not be missing the Grand Slams or any events and it gives me time to come back. So for the few ones, like me, Roger Federer, Juan Martin del Potro, this is a good time. Of course, you don’t want it to happen due to a pandemic,” he added.
The Indian has been spending time at home in Delhi, trying to get whatever fitness training he can at home with the tennis courts shut amid the nationwide lockdown but he knows it’s not enough.
“It’s difficult and different, no matter how much you train at home, it’s not the same. You’re obviously doing it for your career, for tennis and I’m not able to play it and there’s only a certain amount that you can really do at home. For me, it’s really just about being active and doing bits and pieces so that I don’t have to start from scratch when I get back on the court,” he added.
“I was already following a bunch of exercises I need to for my knee rehab. But sometimes modifications are needed and I’m in constant touch with my team. There’s only so much you know you can do but I think I’ve been good enough in being active,” said the Indian who is coached by Stephen Koon from the Impact Tennis Academy in Thailand.
Bhambri admitted that he is unsure if he would be a 100% if the tour were to restart.
“It’s pretty good but I am not match-fit. I made a lot of progress and if I had to, even right now I’d give myself a 70% chance. I need to get out there and practice because I haven’t done anything in regards to my physical fitness for about over a year and a half now.
“The body takes some time to get used to it again and for that I’d have to be on the court I presume for at least a couple of months, to be able to get back to running and being able to take the load of a match. I had just started to do that and get into a routine when the lockdown happened. Once it’s over I’ll get back to practice but looking at things, we may not have a tennis season this year” he added.
As candid as Bhambri is while talking about the past few months, the toll becomes evident when he describes the excruciating details of his injury and the experimental treatment. He was injured in mid-2018 but it was only in September 2019 when he consulted with Dr Angel Ruiz Cortorro, who has worked with many top injured tennis players including Rafael Nadal, that Bhambri got a clear idea of the problem.
“From what I understand of the diagnosis I have a small, partial tear in the medial part of my knee. Because it was tiny and in the middle of the tendon, no one could really figure it out and I was somewhere stuck in between because surgery would have been too big a step to repair it and the basic modern medication and therapy weren’t working. So I had to try different kinds of treatments, different injections to help heal the tendon,” he said.
“I was seeing doctors in the US and getting different opinions. But a few of them had the same idea, which was an experimental treatment called stem cell. This procedure was more advanced in Spain and there are very few countries that actually do it; they don’t even do it in the States. Since I was getting different opinions, I decided to get in touch with Dr Cortorro just to have another opinion and went with him because he’s the one who has treated a lot of tennis players who had knee trouble,” Bhambri added.
The decision paid off because after almost a year of taking different injections and waiting for months to see if they made a difference, he finally made progress in late 2019. “Around the new year is when I got back on court to hit the ball and I have seen improvement every week, which is a good sign.”
In his career so far, Bhambri is no stranger to injuries or fighting back from them, but even then one needs immense self-belief to be able to deal with this long and complicated rehab process.
“There haven’t been too many positives,” he laughed, but admitted that his success in 2017-’18 was a reminder of what he is capable of.
“I needed to keep reminding myself that I want to come back and continue playing to get back at the level I was at. I think having tasted success of finally playing the Slams, my first Wimbledon, winning a few matches at the Masters 1000 in Indian Wells and Miami, pushed me as well to try. Wanting to play those events again kept me going,” he said.
Coming from a family of tennis players also helped the 27-year-old. His sister Ankita is the Indian Fed Cup coach while other sister Sanaa and cousin Prerna are all pro tennis players.
“They’re always on the lookout, helping out; specially both my sisters who have been helping with the research, making sure I am finishing training and not being lazy… my parents coming in and asking if I’ve iced my knee or not. So they’ve all been actively involved and try to help it in whatever way they can,” he said.
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