Saqib Ali

The year is 1987. India is playing Australia in the Davis Cup semifinals in Sydney. As a young fan this was my first chance to see the Davis Cup live on Doordarshan, the local TV outlet in India. This was the only other grass court event of the year besides Wimbledon. Ramesh Krishnan and Vijay Amritraj had combined to give India a 2-0 advantage on day one with wins over John Fitzgerald and Wally Masur respectively. I had tuned in for the live broadcast of the tie in anticipation of watching the reigning Wimbledon champion, Pat Cash. He had an injury niggle and only played the doubles in that particular tie. He, along with the late Peter Doohan — who beat Boris Becker at Wimbledon in 1987 — gave Australia its first point through that rubber. Ramesh Krishnan clinched the final point of the tie with a convincing straight set win over Wally Masur, which sent India to the finals against the dream team of Sweden. This was my first glimpse of Krishnan and Amritraj.

I was introduced to the sport like many Indians of my generation by the age-defining win of Germany’s Boris Becker at Wimbledon in 1985. For a young man with limited exposure to international sports I felt Indians only played cricket and hockey (known as field hockey to Americans). Krishnan’s heroics changed my perceptions as a 10-year-old. I started following his career more regularly through the daily newspapers and weekly magazines such as TheSportstar.

Something about tennis has always maintained a very international nature. The top of the game has been dominated by Americans, Australians and Europeans for most of the years of my fandom. However, Krishnan added a national touch to my following. I kept checking on how Ramesh was doing on the tour after I had done my due diligence on Becker and Lendl as a fan. Not taking anything for granted, it was nevertheless a certainty to see Krishnan’s name in main draws as he maintained a ranking of 40 to 60 for the next few years. Little did we know that this would not be the case for Indian tennis forever, at least on the singles front. Leander Paes carried this torch valiantly for a while and had a decent singles career, but since then Indian representation has been absent from the tour’s main draws with the exception of a cameo from Somdev Devvarman a while back. His career was shortened by injuries.

Now, however, India can cheer on a new tennis singles performer. The nation is riding with joy on the back of the 25-year-old from New Delhi, Yuki Bhambri.

He announced himself to the tennis world by winning the junior Australian Open in 2009. Since then Indian tennis fans have been waiting for great things from him. Yuki has had more than his share of injuries and his career never attained a complete flow until July of last year. His run to the quarterfinals of the 500 level Citi Open in Washington was proof to many that Yuki belonged in the top 100 of the rankings. His performance was very impressive since he had to come through the qualifying rounds in D.C.. In the process he defeated former Citi Open champion Gael Monfils of France and Argentina’s Guido Pella, who are both established top-tier players. It took a great effort from Kevin Anderson to stop Bhambri. Anderson himself was playing the tennis of his life — he used the momentum from his Citi Open (where he made the final) to reach his first major final in New York a few weeks later at the U.S. Open.

Yuki has been solid at the challenger level for the last few years. The talent pool at the challenger level is extremely tough — it has a lot of players who were once ranked in top 100 plus some very promising juniors who are on the verge of breaking through. The ATP challenger tour is a gateway to the main tour. Yuki is finally healthy. He trains in Bangkok under the tutelage of his coach, Stephen Koon. His game has enough weapons to make him a permanent resident of the top 100 in the ATP. He is very aware of the challenges at this level, as he told me yesterday after his Miami Open first-round win over Mirza Basic:

“Every match at this level is a high-stake match, as everyone at this level is at top level. This is the ultimate level of competition.”

This weekend, Yuki will continue his Miami Open quest, which began with a run through qualifying rounds and continued with his victory over Basic in the Round of 128. Bhambri will take on America’s highest-ranked player, Jack Sock, on the grandstand court at 2:30 a.m. IST on Saturday in Key Biscayne.

Sock has been struggling since winning the Bercy 1000 title last fall. He enters this match with a bruised level of confidence in singles — only two wins this season. Bhambri, on the other hand, has won two more matches on the main tour than Sock. The American will be the slight favorite given his ranking, but a win by Yuki will not be seen as a big upset given the current form of both men. What remains to be seen is if Yuki can win the next match. He is very aware it is a high-stakes match.

The next match is the only match that matters.

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