Malik Bhatnagar. Photo: Steve Kingsman
By Dan Plouffe
At 6 a.m., you won’t find a whole bunch of 17-year-olds on the tennis court, let alone out of bed for that matter. But the early rise is part of the daily routine for Ottawa native Malik Bhatnagar, a rising prospect headed to Florida on an NCAA Div. 1 scholarship come this fall.
Bhatnagar will train for an hour and a half before school starts, then he’s back at his club for another two-and-a-half hours in the afternoon, followed by an hour of fitness afterwards.
“It’s a pretty busy schedule, but I love the sport, and that’s what it takes to get to the next level,” signals the Cedarview Middle School grad who moved the Burlington and the ACE tennis academy at the start of high school. “I put in a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”
Bhatnagar began playing tennis at age 5 under his father’s watch and took more of a competitive focus come age 11. He began having success provincially and nationally, which led him to setup shop in Burlington.
The recent Ontario under-18 singles and doubles champion still spends his summers in Ottawa, playing primarily out of the Barrhaven Tennis Club, and can be found indoors the Rideau Tennis Club or at past coach Tony Milo’s Carleton Tennis Centre when he’s back in winter.
Bhatnagar has earned a number of titles and runner-up finishes on the International Tennis Federation junior circuit, including his trip to Guatemala this past summer. The 2016 Ottawa Sports Awards tennis player of the year also gained a spot in the local tennis history books as the youngest player to win the Kunstadt Open this past summer.
“That was a really great event,” reflects Bhatnagar, who won the final over Washi Gervais, a seeded player in the ITF Futures event taking place Feb. 27-Mar. 5 at La Sporthèque in Gatineau. “There was a great crowd and they televised it. It was really fun.”
Bhatnagar also competed at the region’s highest-level event featuring players generally ranked between 200 and 400 in the world, including Canadian Davis Cup team member Denis Shapovalov. Granted a wildcard entry into the main draw, Bhatnagar exited in a 6-3, 6-2 defeat to 29-year-old German Tim Puetz, who’s competed at the Australian Open and Wimbledon in the past.
“It’s really good experience. Playing at this higher level is always nice,” highlights Bhatnagar, who is also chasing ATP ranking points. “That’s kind of where it all starts. You try to build your ATP ranking and then get on the pro circuit from there.”
Long-term, Bhatnagar would like to play professionally, though on his more immediate horizon is an NCAA scholarship to play for the Stetson University Hatters in Florida starting this fall.
“I just fell in love with Stetson,” recounts Bhatnagar, who’d also received interest from the likes of Penn State, Indiana and Michigan. “The campus and everything about the environment was great down there.”
With the prospect of a looming career that will likely take him to many more points on the globe, the chance to see the budding talent in action close to home drew a big crowd of supporters to his match in Gatineau. Bhatnagar is buoyed to have the “special” local tennis community behind him.
“I’ve met some really great people along the way,” he underlines, noting he received excellent local coaching in his formative years as well. “I’ve made some friends that will last a lifetime for sure.”