Down 5-2 and serving to stay in the opening set of his French Open main draw debut, Yuki Bhambri turned to well-placed serves and backhand drives to race to a 40-15 lead. Three unforced errors then had him facing a set point. Bhambri kept opponent Rubin Bemelmans at bay with his forehand, before rushing to the net and depositing the volley cross-court. The Delhi lad then rode the momentum to rack up three break points in the next game, and converted the first one as Bemelmans inexplicably decided to test the Indian’s quickness with a poor drop shot. Up to the task, Bhambri rushed again and took the game with a backhand down the line.
Bhambri was well on his way to consolidating the break, when a double fault and whipping forehands from his lefty opponent squandered a 40-0 advantage. Bhambri then served and rushed behind it but hit the volley wide to concede the set, and eventually the match 4-6, 4-6, 1-6 in in two hours 10 minutes. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
With the defeat, the world number 93 failed to reach the second round of a Grand Slam for the fourth time, but coach Aditya Sachdeva is “not worried about such losses at all.”
“It’s all part of the learning curve,” said Sachdeva. “It was his first clay-court appearance at a major and he is a quick learner. He definitely will take this performance and experience in his stride. We all know anyway that he likes to play on hard courts. He just needs to be mature and patient in his game.”
On his first clay appearance of the season, not exactly his surface of choice, Bhambri, 25, performed well in patches against an opponent he had defeated at the 2015 Delhi Challenger. Bhambri’s rushes to the net and the occasional serve-and-volleys on clay were refreshingly exciting, but largely inconsequential. His approaches and points won at the net were twice that of his Belgian opponent, but Bemelmans prevailed in the quintessentially clay-court game of slugging it out from the baseline, thwacking the ball with useful regularity. Like most of Bhambri’s opponents, Bemelmans – world number 110 and one of the eight lucky losers to have made the main draw at the French Open this year – outserved the Indian. Bhambri matched him for consistency and placement, landing 59% of his first serves to the Belgian’s 60%, but Bemelmans stronger service fetched him a win rate of 66% against Bhambri’s 49%.
After going a break up in the opening games of the first two sets, Bhambri squandered the lead. Bemelmans then won 12 out of 13 points to kick off the third, and wrapped up the set in 23 minutes. Sachdeva believes the muggy Paris afternoon didn’t help Bhambri either. “The conditions didn’t help his game. He likes to drive the balls, but the rain meant both the ball and the conditions were a little heavy. It suited his opponent a lot more,” said Sachdeva, adding: “The shoulder injury also came at the worst possible time for Yuki because he couldn’t get a match on clay before the French Open. This season has been promising and he is only growing stronger.”
With his berth guaranteed at Wimbledon, Bhambri will look to build on his current run with some more matches under his belt. He would also do well to take heart, and the rushing game, from Tuesday’s performance, for the grass season.