There is a saying in the Bhambri household: If you are old enough to start school, you are old enough to enrol for tennis lessons. “Our father is a pathologist and mom a home-maker, and neither of them ever played the game,” says Ankita Bhambri, 22, the eldest of three siblings. “We are great fans of both Gabriela Sabatini and Steffi Graf and, of course, Pete Sampras. Ankita always had so much extra energy and so we put her in tennis and Sanaa and Yuki just followed,” says mom Indu Bhambri. What also helped their decision was that they lived in the same neighbourhood as some tennis coaches and there were a few training academies nearby. Yuki, six years younger than Ankita and currently the top-ranked player in the world junior circuit, remembers learning to play the game at Team Tennis, an academy at the Siri Fort sports complex, New Delhi, when he was just five.
Victory lap: Yuki at the boys’ singles final at the Australian Open, which he won in straight sets. Torsten Blackwood / AP
“We must have been the only kids in Delhi who knew how to play tennis before we learnt how to swim. Yuki, in fact, only recently learnt swimming and his technique is not perfect even now. He can be an hour in the pool and his hair will not be wet. We beat him hollow at it, but in tennis, he creams us every time now,” says Sanaa, 21, who played the girls’ doubles semi-finals at the French Open 2003 with Sania Mirza.
We meet at the Bhambri residence in south Delhi on the eve of Yuki’s departure for the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, US, where he has been training on and off since he was 14. The living room has a couple of casually displayed trophies and medals hung from the brass frame of a wall-lamp. As the three siblings saunter into the living room in their casuals, the first thing that strikes you is their “tennis feet”: the feet and ankle are eerily pale while the rest of their limbs are well tanned—evidence of the long days spent on courts.
Ankita, the winner of the ITF $10,000 (around Rs4.7 lakh) Women’s Tournament held in New Delhi earlier this month, started playing the junior circuit when she was 13 but her career didn’t jumpstart the way Mirza’s did nine years ago because she lacked both funds and advanced training. “When I started playing professionally, we had minimal funding; also, there was the pressure that we had to keep up our studies. In Delhi, especially, the focus on studies is high and grandparents and parents want you to balance tennis with education,” she says. It is tough to turn pro when there is regular school and college and the sisters say Yuki is “damn lucky, because by the time it was his turn to play international tennis, things had changed and the pressure had eased up”.
Yuki, the youngest of the three, is quick to counter: “I came back after winning the Australian Open juniors in January and still took my class X board exams. So where is the pressure easing up?” he asks his sisters. But he does admit that the school authorities were lenient about attendance. “When you are playing serious tennis, it is not possible to take four months off from December to March to study for exams. It will affect your fitness, your game and your ability to participate in key events that happen around this time of the year,” he says.
Both sisters are thankful that their brother has a chance to make it big and say it is a combination of factors such as parental support, sponsorship and accompanied travelling that have helped. “I have four brains— our parents and my sisters— behind me. That’s a huge support,” says Yuki.
All in the family: (from left) Sanaa, Ankita and Yuki at the ITF $10,000 Women’s Tournament in June. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
However, all the siblings point out that without proper sponsorship in the initial stages, it is tough for an individual player to make it big. “You don’t get the right coaches, make it to the right tournaments, and don’t improve your game. The journey is hard and that’s why many rising Indian stars of the junior circuit fade out. Most take scholarships at western universities and then play the amateur circuit and try to turn pro after they finish studies, like Som (Somdev Devvarman),” says Yuki. Another example of this is Sanam Singh, who until a few years ago was a rising star on the junior circuit but now plays the amateur circles while studying at a US university.
Yuki pulled out of the French Open juniors in May because of a sprained ankle, and will not participate at the Wimbledon juniors. “The junior games are just a stepping stone and at 16-17 everyone, though friendly, is focused and serious about their game. All of us who want to play this sport for the rest of our lives know that it must be a means of earning our livelihood too,” he says.
This is the transition period for Yuki, and the family feels he doesn’t need to play the juniors at grand slam after grand slam to prove how good he is. “He has to move on to the men’s circuit because winning there will mean he at least has a chance to get some prize money and definitely improve his game,” explains Ankita.
Winning the ITF $15,000 Men’s Futures in New Delhi in May saw his ATP ranking jump 175 places to 664. Yuki now plans to participate again in the Futures tournament in New Delhi, scheduled to start on 29 June, and will give Wimbledon a miss. “Apart from the fact that I need to play the men’s circuit to up my ranking, I feel that juniors events are not challenging any more. I am already the junior world No. 1, my game will not improve by playing in this circuit, and there is always that risk of slipping up in one match and losing the ranking,” he says.
Though Yuki was picked up by sports management firm International Management Group (IMG) at 14 and has had a chance to train at the prestigious Nick Bollettieri academy since then, he says his family still finds it tough to pay the bills.
Unlike Mirza, who found a sponsor, Yuki only has racket and clothing sponsors right now and IMG funds his training in Florida. In the last three years, Yuki has spent around five months at the academy every year. This year, he has already put in two months of training in Florida. “There was no way my parents would have been able to afford the $2,000 a week at this academy if IMG had not sponsored my training, but we still have to pay for all our travelling expenses,” he explains.
In addition to Yuki’s travel, the family has to make arrangements for his mother Indu, who now accompanies him. Ankita and Sanaa support the decision because they learnt the hard way how difficult it is to be alone while playing the circuit. The sisters, who now travel together for all tournaments, firmly believe that one of the reasons Yuki is going strong is because their mother supports him through his good and bad days. “In a team sport like cricket, you can perform well one day and not the other day. A team’s win seldom solely rests on one person’s shoulders. But in tennis, you are alone. It is all about knockout rounds. One bad day, and you are out, there are no second chances. Having my mother close helps me to balance the pressure of winning and losing,” says Yuki, who prefers playing on the hard court rather than clay or grass. Besides, being on tour is a lonely affair, especially if you have to be on the road for three-four weeks at a time. “We don’t have the funds to finish a tournament in one part of the world and then come and wait for the next one to start. Sometimes, even if you have lost early in a tournament, you have to stay in that part of the world because another event will start soon there. That’s when having your mom or sister around helps,” says Sanaa.
Yuki claims that he is a mix of both his sisters when it comes to his tennis. “I think I have Ankita’s mental toughness and Sanaa’s ability to vary the shots.”