With one final serve down the T, Prajnesh Gunneswaran had crossed another hurdle. This season, the 29-year-old has made a habit of forcing himself into unchartered territory, but has come out on top more often than not. It all started with that crucial fifth rubber win against China at the Davis Cup zonal tie in April. He then went on to win his career’s biggest title, the $150,000 Anning Challenger, progress through the qualifiers to make the main draw of an ATP tour event for the first time at the Stuttgart Open, and in June, he even got the better of then world No.23 Denis Shapovalov, his biggest scalp ever.
On Saturday, at the $150,000 Bangalore Challenger, he added a second title of this level to his kitty. But with the 125 ranking points he earned from the comfortable 6-2, 6-2 win against Saketh Myneni in the final, Prajnesh will potentially rise to a new career high 109 in the world rank – making him the country’s new No.1 singles player.
“It’s been a great run. I didn’t expect to do this well from the beginning of the year,” he says after the match. “I knew I had the potential. I’m just happy the work I’ve put in is paying off. Now I’m looking to get into playing tour events, or play as little as possible in the Challenger circuit.”
At the start of the 2018 calendar year, the Chennai-lad, who had lost five years of his career due to knee injuries, had started the year ranked 243 and sunk lower to 266 in April. That’s when he pulled off the unlikely fifth rubber win at the Davis Cup, and then he started to find form that helped him get more matches.
Sweating it out
“I’ve managed to get in a lot more matches to figure out what I need to do to win,” he says. “I was missing returns in other matches and so I couldn’t break serve as much as other good players. Then I looked backwards and realised that my return game was not good enough or I wasn’t reading the serve. So I worked on my return, worked on anticipating the ball and controlling the return. For example I used to chip the forehand return, but now I hit it. The next step is to come up to the net to play short balls, and finish off rallies rather than just stay in it.”
The fourth seed did have some luck in the draw. He was awarded a walkover in the quarterfinal, a day after he survived a match point against German qualifier Sebastian Fanselow. That break ensured he was remained fresh in the 6-3, 6-4 semi-final win over Canadian Brayden Schnur.
Myneni on the other hand had reached the semi-finals in the doubles event and had to play two lengthy three-setters enroute to the final.
“Saketh was not at his best and that playing both singles and doubles had taken a toll on him,” says Zeeshan Ali, India’s Davis Cup coach. “On the other hand, Prajnesh did survive the match point scare, but got a chance of a rest day and took full advantage of it.”
Ali was there in China in April when Prajnesh played in the fifth rubber against Chinese wonderkid Yibing Wu. At the time, Ali had worked extensively with Prajnesh on coming up to the net and practicing volleys. In Bangalore though, Ali found another change in India’s new no 1.
“He’s become much fitter and leaner. His movement has become much quicker and efficient,” he says. “Also he’s got this aura of confidence around him now. He’s more self-aware of his strengths and weaknesses on court. That’s helped make him much more aggressive.”
The title in Bangalore helps Prajnesh overtake injured compatriot Yuki Bhambri (who potentially drops to 128) in the world rankings. At the same time, it puts him closer to a maiden main draw appearance at a Grand Slam, the Australian Open. For that, he will have to potentially win the USD 50,000 Pune Challenger he will compete in next week.
“I know the numbers and the possibility (of making it to the Australian Open main draw), but I know it’s a long shot,” he says. “As of now, it’s still five matches away.”
If there’s anything Prajnesh has made clear this year, it’s his ability to take advantage of the momentum he sets up for himself. In Bangalore he’s established a good run for himself. One that may, via Pune, take India’s new no 1 to Melbourne.