Back in 2009, a day before Rafael Nadal left Roger Federer in tears after the final of the Australian Open, a young Indian had quietly made history at Melbourne Park. 17-year-old Yuki Bhambri defeated Greek player Alexandros-Ferdinandos Georgoudas in the Boys’ Singles Final to become the first Indian ever to win the Australian Open Junior title.
A few weeks before this, Indian men’s singles tennis was starting to look up, with 24-year-old Somdev Devvarman enjoying a breakthrough week at the Chennai Open, where he defeated Carlos Moya, reached the final and lost to future Grand Slam Champion Marin Cilic.
It took Yuki Bhambri more than nine years to appear in the main draw of another Masters 1000 event. On Wednesday, Bhambri defeated fellow compatriot Ramkumar Ramanathan in the final round of qualifying to qualify for the first round of the Indian Wells Masters – the first of the year. It was ironic that he had to beat 23-year-old Ramanathan – who made news last year by defeating World No. 8 Dominic Thiem to make the quarterfinals at the Antalya Open. Bhambri, whose highest ranking was once 88th, is now 101st in the men’s rankings. He will play journeyman and world-record-holder for the longest ever men’s singles match ever played, Nicolas Mahut, in the first round.
Unlike his Indian compatriots though, Bhambri hasn’t managed to defeat a top player yet, and he hasn’t managed to make a deep run on the tour. He had wins over Pablo Carreno Busta and Fabio Fognini way back in 2014 – both of who have been in the top 15 in the last two years.
Here are the five most famous wins by Indian singles players in Open Era tennis since Vijay Amritraj defeated the likes of Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors (5 times!), John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg (US Open, no less) and Ivan Lendl in the 1970s:
5. SOMDEV DEVVARMAN in 2011
Devvarman, a double NCAA college title winner, despite retiring from tennis 15 months ago, remains one of India’s most successful singles players in the open era – with a highest ranking of 62. He never managed to win any top-level ATP titles but managed to qualify for all the four Grand Slams at different points in his career, reaching the second round in each. Somdev is also one of the few Indians to have faced Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray in the main draw of ATP tournaments. He never beat them, but the Assamese-US player managed to future stars like Milos Raonic, Marin Cilic, John Isner, Ivo Karlovic and Taylor Dent early in his career.
4. RAMKUMAR RAMANATHAN in 2017
The lanky 23-year-old Indian tennis player had the week of his career at Antalya in Turkey in the middle of 2017. Bhambri’s “junior” in many ways, Ramanathan had failed to beat the top-ranked Indian on a few occasions already. Yet, against all odds, Ramanathan, who is now ranked 133 in the world, defeated World No. 8 Dominic Thiem in the second round in his first-ever match against a top-10 player.
3. LEANDER PAES in 1998
For many sports fans growing up in the 1990s, there was no life beyond arguably India’s greatest ever tennis player. Before Paes and Bhupathi made history in Doubles tennis, Paes was a No. 1 ranked junior singles player and had won the junior Wimbledon and US Open titles before winning a bronze medal in men’s singles at the Atlanta Olympics. But Paes’ most underrated moment came when he had just started to partner with Bhupathi in a regular doubles career. Paes, ranked 100th in singles, when nobody was looking, defeated top-seeded Pete Sampras at the New Haven Pilot Pen hardcourt tennis tournament in 1998.
2. SANIA MIRZA in 2005
Sania Mirza, now retired from the WTA Singles tour, broke the glass ceiling for many female athletes in the country with her rise in the middle of last decade. Before she became an all-time great doubles specialist, Mirza was 19 when she was declared the ATP Newcomer of the year because of her exploits on the singles court with her massive forehand and aggressive attitude. She went on to beat top players like Dinara Safina, future doubles partner Martina Hingis, Marion Bartoli and Nadia Petrova.
1. RAMESH KRISHNAN in 1989
Krishnan, another junior no. 1 and Davis Cup legend in the 1980s (he took India to the Davis Cup Final in 1987), is arguably India’s second greatest men’s singles player in the open era after Vijay Amritraj. Krishnan reached the quarterfinal of Wimbledon once and the US Open twice and won 8 top-level singles titles in his career.