After his win over fellow Indian Prajnesh Gunneswaran in the quarterfinals of the Bengaluru Open Challenger on Thursday, Yuki Bhambri had spoken about the need to "get the job done here first" and his desire to "finish 2017 off strong" before he could even begin to consider his plans for next season.
On Friday, however, Bhambri's hopes of ending the year on a strong note by making finals in successive weeks were dashed by compatriot Sumit Nagal, who upset the tournament third seed 6-4, 6-0 in just 68 minutes to set up a title clash against Great Britain's Jay Clarke.
On paper, the match looked tilted in favour of Bhambri -- World No. 122 vs World No. 321; a player coming off a title last week and playing his fifth Challenger semi-final of the year against an opponent playing his first Challenger semi-final, having only gotten as far as the pre-quarterfinals before. But Bhambri had the kind of day that tennis players, arguably, dread the most - one when they aren't playing well against an opponent that can seemingly do no wrong.
Nagal served well, tirelessly ran down shots from side to side, hit forehand winners and backhand passes on the dead run. The 20-year-old came to the net often, looking at ease even when forced to play multiple volleys to win a point, and used well-placed, dipping backhand slices to elicit errors from Bhambri's own forays forward.
After the first set ended with five straight breaks of serve, Bhambri appeared to have lost the ability to win consecutive points. Serving to stay in the match at 0-5 in the second set, he attempted a drop shot in response to a return of serve; Nagal easily reached it and won the point with a smash two shots later. If one point could serve as a microcosm of the entire match, it was that one - nothing worked for Bhambri and he'd clearly run out of ideas.
"I think Sumit played a good match. He played aggressive, made a lot of balls and deserved to win," was Bhambri's brief response, when asked what went wrong for him.
Had Bhambri gone on to win the tournament, not only would he have earned $14,400 in prize money, he would have also collected 100 points, taking his ranking to the region of the late 90s, which would have earned him automatic entry to the main draw of the 2018 Australian Open, where the top 104 players as of December 4 get direct acceptance.
Such a missed opportunity must surely have been a bitter pill to swallow, but Bhambri, when asked if the Australian Open was weighing on his mind, insisted that wasn't the case. "Not at all. I didn't really think I actually had a chance of winning the tournament. I was a little bit surprised I won three matches in Bangalore. It's a place where I've always struggled, due to the altitude. In a way, obviously you would want to win the tournament once you've made the semi-final but I'm pretty happy that I managed to win three matches," he said, adding that he'd gotten as far as he had in Bengaluru "purely by fighting my way through."
Despite Friday's loss, it's hard to deny this has been a good season for Bhambri. After being out for six months last year due to an elbow injury, for which he still wears a protective brace, Bhambri ended 2016 ranked 532, with an Australian Open first-round loss, a Futures title and one Challenger semi-final to show for his efforts.
In Challenger tournaments this year, Bhambri made the quarterfinals three times, the semi-finals four times, and won a title last week in Pune. He also won a Futures title in Chandigarh and recorded the biggest win of his career, over Frenchman Gael Monfils, en route to the last eight of the Citi Open in Washington DC in August, losing to eventual finalist Kevin Anderson, who went on to finish runner-up at the US Open a few weeks later. Except for an injury that left him out of action in April, Bhambri has been mostly healthy and will end the year ranked close to 115. In terms of title haul and ranking, this year may not be quite as good as 2015 was, but it's a base to build on.
"I've had a good season. Finished 115-120 in the rankings. I think I've definitely given myself the platform to move higher up for next year," Bhambri said.
Bhambri, who will begin his 2018 season by playing at the Maharashtra Open in Pune, formerly the Chennai Open, said one of his goals is to improve on his results at the Grand Slams, where he failed to get past qualifying in Melbourne, Paris and New York this year.
"To try and make some points and push for a main-draw entry into the French Open and Wimbledon I think is a realistic goal for me."