Picture by 2021 Getty Images

'I am playing with a lot of freedom' - Yuki Bhambri after Dubai Open appearance

The 28-year-old qualified for the ATP 500 event in Dubai in only his second tournament back after a two-year injury layoff
By Deepti Patwardhan

After spending more than two years away from the professional circuit while recovering from a knee injury, Yuki Bhambri is just thankful for another shot at resurrecting his career. The Indian looked much sharper than most people expected as he qualified for the ATP 500 event in Dubai this week in only his second ATP tournament back.

The 28-year-old though went down 6-3, 1-6, 4-6 to World No 59 Aljaz Bedene in the opening round on Monday.

“It was extremely satisfying to qualify for a 500 event,” Bhambri told the Olympic Channel. “I have just been playing with a lot of freedom. I have just been happy playing and competing every match. I am just trying to compete as hard as I can. It’s just been so long that I have played, that I have just been enjoying being in the moment.”

Having reached a career high of 83 in 2018, Bhambri had to end his season in October due to a tear in the tendon of the right knee. Since then, he has spent two years recuperating from the injury and re-building himself for the demanding men’s tennis tour.

Bhambri, a former Australian Open boys’ champion, made a comeback at the Singapore Open last month but couldn’t cross the first hurdle. He played a lower-level ITF Futures event in India and won the doubles title with fellow Indian Saketh Myneni.

Despite being out of action for more than two years, Bhambri stepped up to the plate in Dubai. He defeated Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Ramkumar Ramanathan to enter the main draw.

“It’s always nice to get some wins when you are coming back, just gives you a lot more confidence,” the Indian added.

“There is a bit of rustiness, I am not going to be back at my peak in just two tournaments I definitely didn’t expect playing at this level so quickly, because usually I take a lot more time to come back. I think the pandemic just gave me a lot more time to practice so I am not that rusty.

“I haven’t specifically made any changes to my game. I have always been able to compete at a high level. So it’s always just been more about being healthy and play as much as I can. That’s always been the key every time I have been on the tour.”

His coach Stephen Koon is also impressed with the comeback of his ward, who has had a terrible luck with injuries.

"It's 1,000 days since his last ATP win," Koon told the Times of India.

"He had two good victories against the Indian boys. He looks to be moving well and his upper body strength is much better, because he had a lot of time to work on that when down with his knee, which is what I am so proud of him."

The one big change on Bhambri’s return to tour is the protocols in place as Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage around the world. The Indian did not venture out last year, when the ATP tour resumed after a six-month hiatus in August.

“The tour is different, with the bio-bubbles,” he said. “But once you are at the tournament, there aren’t too many changes. What has changed is travelling. It is always a bit of a stress when you are flying and you have given that Covid test.”

On winning 10 ranking points for his efforts in Dubai, Bhambri is likely to return to home base in Delhi. He may play in the ITF Futures event to be held in New Delhi, from March 29, next.