Prajnesh Gunneswaran takes a brief moment to reflect on his past, before talking about his long term goals. He recalls how, many years ago, he considered leaving the sport after injuries to both knees robbed him off five years of playing time. It left him in a state rush of making it big when he finally got back to the tour in 2016. Now he’s 29, a veteran in most eyes, the country’s highest ranked singles player and has a spot in the qualifying round of the Australian Open.
“I’m glad to be playing another slam. At my age, there are not going to be too many more,” says the world no 107. “I don’t know how many years I have got left. Hopefully another five or six. I am just looking to keep the momentum from last year.”
He started the 2018 calendar year ranked 243, and then sank further to 266. At that stage, he looked to be destined for another season as a journeyman, languishing in the lower levels of a tour that is steadily becoming more and more physical. Until, in April, something clicked and the results started to follow.
He volunteered to play India’s crucial fifth rubber in and against China in a zonal Davis Cup tie, and came through with remarkable composure and court-craft. A USD 150,000 Challenger title in Anning, China, followed, along with a win in his first ever main draw ATP match – against then world no 23 Denis Shapovalov. As the season came to a close, he won another USD 150,000 Challenger in Bangalore before reaching the finals of the Pune Open Challenger.
The string of wins propelled him to a career-high 104.
He asserts that those results are now behind him. And as he prepares himself for the season opener at the ATP 250 Tata Open Maharashtra, the southpaw has lined up some big short term goals ahead – starting with the Australian Open (he begins in the qualifying stage).
“The off-season was more about physical work,” he explains. “Every pre-season is physical, but we put in more emphasis on longer sessions because there’s a possibility that I have to play five sets (at Grand Slams). I worked on what I needed to improve on, like one thing was coming up to the net.”
A hard-hitting baseliner with an array of explosive strokes from both flanks, Prajnesh’s development has been rapid in these last few months. And he feels that self-belief fuelling him in his pursuits as well.
“I don’t think it’s any accident that I have gotten to this place in the rankings. I have always believed that I was good enough to get here,” he says. “I have understood my game well. The turnaround was really fast, maybe two or three months. But I guess that’s how it happens a lot of times. when you find the momentum, or you find the right way to play, then it just happens all at once.”
When he looks back now at a career that had been shortened due to injury, he remembers contemplating leaving he sport altogether. And with the recent successes, he explains how, time and again, his father would gloat about being the one to convince him to continue with the grind.
“I was ready to throw in the towel, but my dad said to keep going and try again,” he recalls. “More than me he was the one who said don’t quit. Now that I am where I am, he still thinks I should do better. He’s not satisfied. Neither am I, but we can all pause and be happy for a moment. But the new season is starting, so it’s time for me to step up.”
As the India no 1, Prajnesh has been granted a wild card entry into the main draw of India’s only ATP. He will face a familiar rival, his 20-year-old American training partner Michael Mmoh in the opener.
“I will do everything in my power to send him back home in the first round,” Prajnesh said during the draw ceremony. It’s a promise made in light spirit. But a reflection of the, rightful, confidence he has in himself.