At the start of the 2022 season, Rohan Bopanna was the sole Indian player in the top 100 of the ATP men’s doubles Rankings.
On Monday, that number increased to four with Yuki Bhambri (97th) being the latest entrant to the club that also has Ramkumar Ramanathan (69th) and Saketh Myneni (84th).
Ramkumar, who was already into the top 150 when 2021 ended, got a massive boost by winning two ATP250 events with Bopanna in Adelaide and Pune, therefore making it to the top 100 by the first week of February.
However, for Saketh and Yuki, it has been a grind like no other. “We were technically not ranked at all. They (ATP) had some protected ranking from 2019 which we could use to enter some events,” Saketh told Sportstar.
Winning two ITF events (Bhopal and New Delhi) and five Challenger tournaments (Salinas, Prostejov, Porto, Lexington and Mallorca) in the last seven months has helped the pair in just about making it to the top 100.
But how did this partnership happen in the first place considering both Saketh and Yuki have predominantly been singles players for most of their careers?
The 30-year-old Yuki, who hails from Delhi, is a former junior Australian Open champion who reached a career-high ranking of 83 in singles in 2018 while Saketh is a former world number 137. The two have known each other since meeting for the first time at an under-14 event in 2005.
Saketh said the decision to play doubles together was “more like a mutual thing.”
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“We have had too many injuries in our paths. It’s tough for us to compete (in singles) with our bodies for a whole season.”
Yuki still wanted to play a few singles events because of his Protected Ranking after coming back from a knee injury to see how his body worked. But the two had decided to give it a try at playing doubles together, beginning with a few ITF events in India.
The Challenger Route
Saketh and Yuki had to start from scratch and take the route of the Challenger circuit, a level below the ATP Tour where the draws are smaller and the rankings point on offer too.
Together, they have played a total of 18 Challenger events this year and accumulated 725 points each. The maximum points the pair could earn from an event was their title-winning campaign in Prostejov where they received 100 points each.
“The initial jump was easy, especially from 700-800 to come up. Once you get into the top 200, you need big big tournaments to move up or you need like three or four Challenger titles to really move your ranking up,” said Saketh, the 34-year-old who hails from Vuyyuru, Andhra Pradesh.
“We got entry to our first ATP 250 for the Korea Open. We got a visa literally on a Friday to leave on a Saturday.”
In Seoul, reaching the semifinals alone got Saketh and Yuki 90 points each.
Life on tour when you’re only playing doubles
Saketh and Yuki don’t have an entourage like some of the biggest doubles pairs on the tour. “We don’t have a travelling coach. First of all, travelling only for doubles itself is a lot for us,” said Saketh.
The pair did manage to have physios during a couple of events in the US. “That really helped because we need more physios at the moment. We want to make sure our bodies are taken care of and get a good recovery so that we don’t get injured. We have played for almost 25 weeks this year. This is the highest I’ve ever played in my whole career in the last 10 years and that’s a little tough,” he said.
Saketh also mentions the change in mentality after switching to doubles and what goes into preparing for a match. “While we focussed on singles, there was less pressure playing doubles. Now, it’s a different thing as you’re putting more into doubles. There are small tweaks which need to be done.”
“That’s what we’ve been trying to learn from the videos or from the seniors who’ve helped us in the past. We didn’t know why they were telling us before but once you put that into your game, it makes a big difference, especially during crucial points.”
Saketh and Yuki both have represented India in Davis Cup, sharing locker rooms with the likes of Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Bopanna.
While Saketh has a big serve and is adept at volleying, Yuki has a strong baseline game. “You learn a lot from each other, and especially, since we know each other pretty well, we basically coach and teach each other,” said Saketh.
When they are not on court, the two spend time watching movies, sport, listening to music or playing cards.
What lies ahead
There is a realistic chance that Saketh and Yuki could make it to the men’s doubles draw at the 2023 Australian Open.
Their home event, the ATP250 tournament in Pune, is set to regain its coveted start-of-the-season slot for the 2023 edition. Ever since the ATP Cup took over the early season window starting 2020, Pune has had to shift dates to the week just after the Australian Open.
The 2023 edition in Pune will in all likelihood run parallel to the ATP Cup, with the qualifying rounds likely to start on December 31. A deep run there could help the pair make it to Melbourne for the first Slam of the year.
“The cuts were a little low this year because of COVID and quarantine. But next year will be different because Pune is the only ATP250 event, which is going to be at the beginning of the year. So, the cut might be pretty strong,” said Saketh while adding, “This month (October) and next month, we have to play strong and finish out the season as high as possible. So, it gives us a chance to make the cut for the Pune Open and then eventually, Australian Open also.