In late February, Yuki Bhambri began taking small steps on the long road back to playing competitive tennis after a knee injury had sidelined him in October, 2018. A return to the courts in New Delhi, some hitting sessions—ah, to have that feeling after a year-and-a-half. “It was tough. Every other day was a different sore body part initially,” Bhambri said.

The pandemic-induced nationwide lockdown in late March though coincided with a crucial juncture in the former top-ranked Indian singles player’s comeback plans. Out for the entire 2019 season after tearing a tendon in his right knee, Bhambri returned to tennis training at the start of the year. The coronavirus ensured it didn’t last long, putting him back in familiar territory—biding his time on the sidelines.

The 28-year-old rebooted in July after New Delhi allowed the use of tennis courts. Now at 80%, Bhambri is eyeing a return at the 2021 Australian Open in February, for which he can use his ATP protected ranking (Bhambri was world No. 100 when he played his last ATP tournament in Antwerp in October 2018) to earn a spot in the main draw. The delayed Grand Slam in Melbourne, where he won the junior title and has played three first-round matches, allows Bhambri some more days to get closer to top shape despite not being completely pain free.

“End of January or early February would be a realistic target of coming back. The Australian Open would be a shot,” Bhambri, who tasted a career-high ranking of 83 in April 2018, said. “I’m finally getting closer to 100% where I can train at a higher level and play at a good level. It’s about doing it consistently, knowing that if I can do it day in and day out then I’m ready to play matches and tournaments. I expected to be better sooner, but it’s been slow progression.”

The suspended professional tour gave Bhambri the luxury of time to get back to optimum while not missing a lot of tournaments, but that was offset by the five-month break pulling him down.

What was also difficult was working on his rehab sitting in New Delhi with his doctor in Spain. More so because Bhambri’s tendon tear issue was complex, his knee becoming the tool of experiment for various doctors who could make little improvement for a large part of last year. With surgery not an option, Bhambri’s knee met its corrective match in Dr Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, who treated the troubled knees of Rafael Nadal. A small intervention and minor treatment, as Bhambri describes it, late last year finally provided relief. Little could he have known then that a majority of the treatment would have to be done virtually with international borders shutting from March.

“It was more challenging just to be able to show how much progress I’ve had, where I’m at and whether what I was doing was correct or not. When you’ve been out for so long and you’ve had a different kind of treatment, it’s important that you get the guidance even on the smaller things. Doing that over Zoom and Skype is not the same as physically being there.”

Transporting his gym equipment home sensing the lockdown, Bhambri killed the free time doubling his hours on fitness sessions. After getting some consistent hours on the court from July—including hitting sessions with doubles pro Divij Sharan in the last couple of weeks—he feels more ready to return.

Having made stronger but not necessarily longer returns from frequent injuries—a couple of them major—the former junior world No. 1 is keeping fingers crossed on the latest fresh start being as uninterrupted as possible. “It would be nice to play on for a couple of years and really make some big strides that I know I’m capable of. That’s the hope and that’s the dream and that’s what keeps me going even after being held back on multiple occasions.”

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