It was one of those reviews for Sam Querrey where there was nothing to lose. He exuded no conviction to suggest that his passing shot clipped the baseline against Yuki Bhambri, who had seemingly won the set. Querrey was back at his bench before the LED screens could map the ball’s trajectory. To the players, the umpire, and all in Stadium 3 of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the ball was long. To Hawk-eye, it clipped the line by a hair’s breadth. Probably less.
Bhambri, serving at 6-4 in the first set tiebreaker, had to replay the point and went onto win the first set. “We both saw the funny side to it, and when I walked by I told him he couldn’t have hit the ball any closer to the line,” Bhambri says. “You have to refocus quickly because it’s a tough situation out there. Luckily, I had a good serve and finished the point with a strong forehand.”
A situation like that can throw off some of the more seasoned minds, let alone a World No.110, who was playing against Querrey, the World No 21. But this was a week at the BNP Paribas Open in which Bhambri pulled off two upsets in his first main draw appearance, on merit, at an ATP Masters event, after starting in the qualifiers.
In the third round on Wednesday, it took the 25-year-old just under an hour to win his first set against Querrey. But the big-serving American came back stronger in the second and third sets, broke his opponent and remained unchallenged on his own servce to end Bhambri’s run with a 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 win.
It brought an end to a run that saw Bhambri topple veteran Nicolas Mahut, a two-time doubles Grand Slam champion in the opening round before pulling off the biggest win of his career, a straight sets triumph over World No.12 Lucas Pouille.
With those results, he’s felt a strong sense of belonging with the bigger names in the sport. “It didn’t feel like I was out of place,” he says, reflecting on the past week. “Playing the No.12 in the world, the No.21, these are the top guys and it doesn’t get bigger than this. I beat one and felt I could win this too (Querrey). So it was definitely a positive and I hope I can keep giving myself the opportunity to play these guys again and try and get further.”
Prior to travelling to Indian Wells, Bhambri asserts that the least he expected of himself was to make it past the qualifiers. That itself was a step beyond what he has achieved at the Masters level. Thrice before he had competed at a 1000-point event, twice in the qualifying round, and he got a wild card at the 2009 Miami Masters as the junior World No.1 and Junior Australian Open champion. But he didn’t come close to winning a match on either occasion.
“To qualify this time was the initial goal. That’s tough as well to play guys ranked similar to your level,” he says.
“So to get to qualifying and win at least a round in the main draw, which I hadn’t done at Masters before, was the goal. Once I pulled off the second round, I didn’t think about how far I can go, but just focus on what I could do.”
The shock wins – which will bring him closer to breaking back into the top 100– have earned him the respect of his peers as well. “A lot of times you don’t realise people in the locker-room are keeping an eye out. So that was a nice thing to see, people appreciating the fact that I was doing well.”
Bhambri’s surge in the last eight months – which also saw him beat Gael Monfils at the Citi Open – has come as a result of him making the right moves outside the court. He’s brought in a travelling trainer to help overcome his otherwise injury-prone body. Now there’s the involvement of experienced coach Steve Koon who travels with him for the bigger events.
“He’s seen some of the big players while on tour, which is something I haven’t come across,” he says. “I’m not aware of how they play a lot of times, so (Koon) helps in building strategies. It’s also about working on your own game because of the different perspective from outside. You can’t always see the mistakes or the good or bad that you’ve done.”
Bhambri next travels to play in the qualifiers of the Miami Masters – the same venue where he tried and failed in his past three attempts at a Masters win.
But through his run at Indian Wells, he’s ticked another checkbox in his career, and is looking for much more. “When I got the wild card, I was 17-18, at the time and I wasn’t ready,” he says. “Now things are different. I’ve done it at ATP 250s, the 500s. Now even at a Masters.”