Prajnesh raises the bar

Prajnesh raises the bar

Prajnesh Gunneswaran. PTI file photo.

A big win can do wonders for a player. To defy the odds and produce something special is every player’s dream. Two years ago, Prajnesh Gunneswaran pushed the envelope and nearly pulled off an upset that provided a thrust to his career.

It was the Asia-Pacific wildcard playoff tournament for the Australian Open in Zuhai, China, and the Indian was fighting it out against Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan. Prajnesh rallied from a set down and was solid in the decider, saving as many as three match points. But Istomin prevailed in the battle of southpaws.  The fact that Prajnesh troubled Istomin, who grabbed eyeballs when he went on to stun defending champion and the fancied Novak Djokovic in the second round of the Australian Open that year, spoke volumes of the Indian’s talent.

A close defeat can be frustrating but the 28-year-old from Tamil Nadu took it in his stride and continued to work his way forward. And he finally had his huge moment earlier this month, as he experienced the sweet feeling of ousting a world-class player. 

It was the first round of the Stuttgart Open, Prajnesh’s maiden ATP Tour event. The man against him was Canada’s gifted youngster Denis Shapavalov, another left-hander. Prajnesh was clearly the underdog against the world No 23, known for his shock wins over Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro and Spanish legend Rafael Nadal in the Rogers Cup last year. After grinding out a first-set verdict of 7-6 (6) in his favour, Prajnesh was outplayed 2-6 in the second. The Indian then re-grouped and showed massive self-belief to script his career’s memorable victory as he took the final set 6-3.

“Even before the match, I knew I could beat him. You need such positive thinking when you are playing big tournaments. You need to be brave. I broke him early in the first set and that gave me confidence. After I lost the second set, I told myself that it’s a three-setter and you still have to fight it out,” recollected Prajnesh.

Prajnesh underlined the importance of his thrilling encounter against Istomin. “After that match, I understood I am capable of producing big results. But it also made me realise that nothing is easy. You need to be mentally strong and keep doing the right things against talented players,” he said.

It has been an eventful year for Prajnesh, who entered the top 200 when he clinched his maiden ATP Challenger title at the Kunming Open in Anning, China, in April. He then excelled at the Mercedes Cup Qualifiers in Stuttgart, Germany, to enter his maiden ATP World Tour event.     

Apart from his big serves and a never-say-die attitude, Prajnesh, a winner of eight ITF singles titles and one doubles crown, has displayed fine consistency in the last two years to be one of India’s best performers after Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan. His hunger to seize a golden opportunity was witnessed at the Davis Cup Asia/Oceana Group I second round tie at Tianjin, China, in April.

After the first day, India were down 0-2 following the defeats of Ramkumar Ramanathan and Sumit Nagal in the singles matches. India stayed alive when Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna won the doubles rubber and the clash moved to the all-important fifth tie after Ramkumar registered a win the first reverse singles match. Indian captain Mahesh Bhupathi then changed the player for the crucial final reverse singles. Nagal was replaced by Prajnesh – a decision that clicked.

In the high-pressure clash, Prajnesh towered over Wu Yibing, a former junior US Open singles champion, 6-4, 6-2 to be India’s saviour.

“Of course there was a lot of pressure but I am glad I was given the responsibility. I am happy I was asked to get us through and thankfully, I did all the right things,” said Prajnesh, who is currently ranked 152.

Prajnesh, who has had a stop-start career, aims to keep playing at the highest level, pursuing his dreams. A prominent name in the country during his age-group days, Prajnesh went out of action for three years when he suffered a knee injury in 2010. 

“I have always been someone who never gives up easily. It is unfortunate that I was hit with a severe injury. But sometimes it can happen and there is no point in worrying too much about it. I am happy I survived the tough time and I thank my parents for their unceasing support. I am not looking back and the goal is to keep playing well so that I can get into the top 100,” he said. Prajnesh narrowly missed a spot in the French Open main draw this year. He could have made it as a lucky loser but he had already confirmed his participation in a Challenger tournament in Italy. Prajnesh, though, hasn’t lost hopes of playing in a Grand Slam in the near future.

“It’s every player’s aim to play in the Grand Slams and mine is no different. I need to focus more on my fitness as well,” he signs off.