Yuki Bhambri’s fastest serve would clock 175 kmph – not quite the monster hits one is used to seeing in the tennis world. At the other end of the centre court at the Balewadi Sports Complex, Arjun Kadhe was raining down serves that went up to as high as 204 kmph.
“I wanted to mix things up, didn’t want to give the opponent any kind of rhythm,” says Bhambri. “The courts here are fast and bouncy, so I had to change things based on the match situation. It was not the cleanest of matches, but today I just wanted to get through.”
As the two Indians competed in their first-round match at the Tata Open Maharashtra, the pace of serve proved to be a mere stat, as the surety of Bhambri’s groundstrokes would make the difference and help him race to a 6-3, 6-4 win in an hour and 14 minutes.
The 25-year-old isn’t known to possess the most powerful of groundstrokes though. Instead, he relies on his ability to build points. Instead of focusing on belting down serves, there was a focus on accuracy.
The strategy proved the gulf in class between the two players, suggested by the rankings.
It was only in September 2017 that world no 610 Kadhe joined the pro circuit after his time at Oklahoma State University in the United States. The local lad needed a wild card to enter the main draw, his first ever at an ATP level tournament, and was impressive with his big service game. “He bailed himself out of a lot of trouble, especially on break points,” Bhambri says.
Comparatively, Bhambri is a veteran, having joined the tour back in 2008 – winning the junior Australian Open title a year later. Since then, he’s risen up to become India’s highest-ranked singles player.
On the night, the world no 116 used the pace on Kadhe’s serve to angle his returns deep into the corners.
As Kadhe served to stay in the match, the 23-year-old rushed to the net on the first point to attack Bhambri. The Delhi lad however got into position deep on his backhand side and powered a cross-court winner. A few games earlier, he had hit a backhand down the line and even conjured up a meticulously measured backhand sliced drop shot.
Kadhe did show a glimpse of his talent, but could not find the consistency to handle the court conditions as well as his opponent. “I kept over-hitting my shots,” he says.
Bhambri had been piling on the pressure, and Kadhe’s big serving game soon started faltering. Trailing 5-3 in the first set, Kadhe hit three double faults to surrender the opener. He’d again fail to hold serve to concede the match.
At this time last year, Bhambri had come out of a lengthy injury layoff and started the year ranked below 500. He was made to come through the qualifiers at the 2017 season opener. But on the back of a year in which he got the better of former world no 8 Gael Monfils to reach the quarterfinals of an ATP 500 event – his best run on tour – Bhambri qualified for the inaugural Tata Open Maharashtra on merit.
And he’s looking to build on the foundation he laid last year. In the off-season, he trained in Thailand with some of Asia’s leading players and has also added a coach to his entourage.
“I’ve got Steven Koon with me for a couple of tournaments. He also trains Yen-Hsun Lu (veteran Taiwanese player),” he says. “The first match of the year is always tough. But in terms of rhythm, I felt okay today.”