On the eve of the Tata Open Maharashtra in Pune, Prajnesh commented, light-heartedly, on his plans for the Australian Open.
“Yes,” he says, “I’ll definitely be in Melbourne longer.” He takes a dig at himself with that comment, addressing the rush in which he left Paris after losing out in the final round of qualifiers to play a Challenger event in Italy.
In his haste, he missed out on an opportunity to make the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time in his career as he had been granted a ‘lucky loser’ spot in the final 128 at Roland Garros. Within the humour though, was a hint of a promise. He knew how well he had performed coming into the new season. He knew that his explosive shots had started to find the range and angles to stack up the winners. And he knew that he had given himself the best possible chance to make it to the main draw on merit. On Friday, on court 12 of Melbourne Park, he kept his word. In a third round qualifier against Japan’s Yosuke Watanuki, the 29-year-old registered a 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 win to earn a maiden main draw appearance at a major.
“It’s really big for me and I’m as happy as I can be,” he says. “I came here knowing that I have a good shot to make the main draw since I’ve been playing well and I’m ranked high enough to get a good seeding (sixth). It worked out well for me and I found a way to make the most of what I got.”
The Chennai-lad, ranked 112, brushed off the disappointment of losing a first round match in Pune to come up with three steady wins in the Australian Open qualifiers – dropping just one set in the process.
But that was the least that was expected of him given the run of form he has been on since the second half of last year. He’d picked up an unlikely win on grass against Canadian wonderkid Denis Shapovalov in Stuttgart, won two $150,000 Challenger titles in Anning, China and Bangalore, and even rescued the Indian Davis Cup team by volunteering to play the crucial deciding rubber against China, winning that match with remarkable composure. Since then though, the southpaw has become a more confident and attacking player.
“He’s become much fitter and leaner. His movement has become much quicker and efficient,” Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali had told The Indian Express after Prajnesh’s win at Bangalore in November. ”
The run at the year’s first Slam will take India’s highest ranked singles player closer to breaking the top 100. From the current crop of players, only the injured Yuki Bhambri has broken that barrier so far, twice. Prajnesh’s career high so far is 104, and making it to the main draw will potentially take him up to 108. But he’s not too concerned about breaking the mark quite yet.
“I think it’s just a matter of time and that it will happen,” he says. “I’m not really too worried about making the top 100 right now. When I do break it I’ll be very happy, but at this point in time, that’s not my priority.”
Right now, his thoughts are on his opponent in his first ever main draw match of a major, Frances Tiafoe. The American, 2, is ranked 39th in the world. And just like most of his peers in the ATP’s famed Next Gen category, Tiafoe hasn’t managed to go too deep at the majors.
Playing five sets has been the biggest hurdle for tennis’ upcoming stars. But Prajnesh isn’t that experienced in five-setters either. The Indian will be the clear underdog when he takes to the court on Monday. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for him though. He’s played like that through most of last year, when he had sunk to as far as 266 in the world. So far he’s lived up to the promise he made a few weeks back. Now he wants to go one better.