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Fitness first

KUNAL DIWAN
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Sports What does 2011 hold for the young tennis ace?

GEARING UP Yuki Bhambri Photo: AFP
GEARING UP Yuki Bhambri Photo: AFP

A n inability to convert the spoils of a junior career into equivalent success on the professional circuit seems to be normative for Indian tennis players. A perusal of the record books reveals a handful of top-ranked fledglings, whose senior sojourns failed to match their achievements in age-restricted events, resulting in a rapid recourse to team events and doubles.

Delhi-based Yuki Bhambri, 18, and the recipient of a wild card at the 2011 Chennai Open, hopes to check that trend. Come January, Yuki will compete in the $450,000 tournament, joining World No.6 Tomas Berdych, defending champion Marin Cilic and Mr. Backhand Richard Gasquet in the main draw.

A former No.1 junior player and the youngest member of the Bhambri tennis clan — Ankita and Sanaa are his siblings — Yuki has seen his embryonic career clouded by injury and illness, his skill-set making periodic getaways to shine through unabated.

Phases of fitness resulted in the Orange Bowl and junior Australian Open (2009) titles. A silver medal in the Youth Olympics came about in August after he retired from his final due to cramps. And this fall, as many drowned themselves in comforters, cookies and carols, the 505th-ranked Indian lad spent two weeks training under Gil Reyes and Darren Cahill (both associated with Andre Agassi during his playing days).

Injuries, a concern

“I'd like to give myself at least a couple of years of singles play before I start considering my options. There is always doubles, but I'm not focussing on that just yet. Now that I've finally got a wild card in the Chennai Open, I want to ensure I'm in good shape for it,” he says.

‘Yuki Bhambri' and ‘in good shape' have always been mutually exclusive components in sentence construction. The spindly player seems perpetually grounded by one fitness concern or the other. If it isn't his ankles giving up on him, it is a bout of pneumonia laying him low, or a ligament tear grinding his season to a halt.

“Injuries allowed me 12 tournaments in 2010, when ideally I should have competed in at least 25. More than anything else, my target is to stay injury free in 2011,” he says.

The extreme state of lankiness that Yuki's body appears unable to forsake also cuts an ineffective depleted figure on courts that are largely dominated by rocket-launching muscle men. But the Indian is gradually getting to be where he wants.

“It's a slow process getting fit. Europeans and Americans are naturally big of build; most Indians have to work to get there. Moreover, you cannot hope to be competitive if you can't last three to four hours on court, day after day, during which your serve should consistently hit 200 kph…unless you're like (Kei) Nishikori,” he says, bringing up, as an afterthought, his Japanese buddy from the circuit who's also scheduled to make his main draw debut in 2011.

The 21-year-old Nishikori just about rounds up the ATP top-100 list. A turbo-charged retriever in the mould of Michael Chang, he elicits profuse praise from his Indian counterpart. “Nishikori has great legs and is supremely fit. He's also a fun person to be with on the Tour. It'll be great having him and all the other big players in Chennai.” Which brings us to Yuki's take on the often-proclaimed spiritual home of tennis in the country.

“Chennai (Open) is our home tournament. It's unique playing before a crowd that is not only supportive, but also knowledgeable and appreciative of tennis,” he concludes.

KUNAL DIWAN

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