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It’s a cold, bleak winter morning with the sun trying to break through the smog of Delhi.
It’s 8.30am and coach Aditya Sachdeva has already spent about an hour in the gym with his ward before they trudge over to the Siri Fort Sports Complex. Walking behind him is the man who will be the cornerstone of India’s Davis Cup win barely eight days later, with the hosts beating New Zealand 4-1 in Pune (5 February).
Bhambri has trained with Sachdeva on these very courts for about a decade and a half, ever since he came to “Addy sir” at the age of 10. Some things stay the same, but a lot has changed since.
Sachdeva has become a coach of renown in India. That kind of fame was bound to come his way, given that he has sculpted India’s first home-grown top 100 men’s singles tennis player. And from the little child who used to follow his sisters to court (both Ankita and Sanaa Bhambri played for India), the racket bag dwarfing his small frame, Bhambri has grown into a 6ft-figure of lean muscle who, at 24, has already been in the top 100. He notched a high of 88 in November 2015, only to slip into the netherworld of the trenches again as a tricky elbow ruled him out for nearly eight months last year.
Bhambri resumed playing in the last week of December and went on to qualify for the Chennai Open, the only Indian to do so. His ranking plunged to 552 last October, but he still decimated India’s No.2 (and then world rank 227) Ramkumar Ramanathan in the first round at Chennai to cement his place as one of the players who would take on the singles mantle when India faced New Zealand at the Pune Davis Cup tie. Bhambri’s straight-sets demolition of New Zealand’s No.1 player Finn Tearney (world rank 414) set the tone for the hosts to prevail 4-1.
Coming back so strongly has not been easy. “It’s the worst feeling possible. Here I was finally in the top 100 and ready to play at the level that I know I am capable of, with all the perks of direct entry into most tournaments with the consequent monetary benefits. Then I get hurt and have to stay off court for months on end,” says Bhambri.
Injuries have been Bhambri’s bane ever since he has graduated to the rigours of the men’s ATP tour. He wears a band to support his elbow. Tied-up ankle supports buttress those joints. A dodgy knee, too, has troubled him in the past.
The number of injuries do point to the lack of a comprehensive physical training programme in the formative years and the abysmal state of sports science in our country. “It continues to be a problem. I know that I need a full-time, top-notch trainer but I can’t afford the $70,000-odd (around Rs47 lakh) it costs to hire one for a year,” he says.
All the talk about increased corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives in sport is, as of now, largely talk. There is hardly any corporate entity that is looking to prop up the best players with the necessary funds required to push our good to great. Players have come out against the apathy of the All India Tennis Association towards player development. India’s highest ranked doubles exponent, Rohan Bopanna (world No.27), accused it of lack of transparency in the selection process. Somdev Devvarman, who reached a career-high of 62 in men’s singles, dismissed its office-bearers by labelling them incompetent: “We cannot grow as a sporting nation as long as we have such people running sport in our country.”
“It’s not about whether they can help, the point is whether they have any desire to help. I don’t think they do,” said Bhambri in a candid admission at the post-tie press conference in Pune.
The outing, however, reaffirmed his self-belief. “I stayed strong for both my matches and I am pleased with the way my body is behaving. I put in a lot of work in my legs and I am glad that it is paying off.”
Just like he seldom holds back when unleashing his roundhouse forehand on court, the spearhead of India’s Davis Cup hopes in the future doesn’t mince words when it comes to his potential. Asked where he expects to be positioned if he gets two injury-free years on the ATP tour, Bhambri says, “Top 50 in the world.” At the same time, he is not delusional enough to claim a Grand Slam singles win in the near future. But the likes of Chennai Open? “Certainly.”
Tennis is a tough sport given the amount of travel involved and the physical grind. It’s a lonely place, with players travelling on their own as they look to break into the higher echelons of rankings that would allow them to amass enough wealth to live comfortably. After all, the career span of a tennis player is hardly more than two decades. But the sport pays its winners well. For instance, the singles winner of the 2017 Chennai Open, Bautista Agut, pocketed $79,780 for five matches.
“The incentive is obvious: to do well and earn enough money playing to spend the rest of my life in ease. Then, the rush of representing the country is unparalleled. This is something that I have dreamt of since I was a child and have worked at for so many years, I can’t just back off,” says Bhambri.
Bhambri’s evolution from a seemingly angry adolescent (remember when he, all of 19, admonished Leander Paes for not partnering him for the London Olympic Games?) to the present self-contained man who still speaks his mind, albeit with more grace, has been impressive.
Bhambri has also grown to enjoy the rigour it takes to be a top tennis star. “Earlier, I used to go to the gym for I knew I needed to. But then, when I was hurt, I realized that I miss it. The sweat and the hard work is now fun in itself.”
Bhambri has an extremely keen tennis mind and his ability to open up the court by noticing his opponent’s chinks is well known. Now, the same mind shows the added mettle of fortitude. “It is a struggle to regain my ranking but I know I will, I feel I belong to the higher stage. I have done it once and I will do it again.”
Sportspersons who speak their mind without arrogance are a rarity in Indian sport. It’s a delight to see Bhambri settling into that groove. “I don’t give up easy. I won’t back off unless my body breaks down.”
For that physique to keep shouldering India’s tennis aspirations, all it needs is $100,000 in sponsorship for a year. It’s strange that despite our booming economy and the talk about CSR in sport, Bhambri is struggling for that amount. The adage that everyone loves a winner is especially true when it comes to sponsorship for Indian sportspersons.
“My time will come.” That is Bhambri’s promise. That is also Indian tennis’ hope.