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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Australian Open: India’s tournament ends at the start again

At match point, in the first round of the Australian Open, Prajnesh, who made it to the main draw as a lucky loser, had a chance to prolong the contest.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai | Updated: January 22, 2020 9:22:11 am
Prajnesh Gunneswaran, prajnesh, Prajnesh Gunneswaran lucky loser, prajnesh lucky loser, prajnesh australian open,australian open, tennis news Prajnesh Gunneswaran. (Source: File Photo)

The ball sat up for Prajnesh Gunneswaran, who let loose another powerful forehand inside-out drive. At the centre of the baseline, with his opponent, world no 146 Tatsuma Ito, deep into his own backhand side, this was a shot – a winner – that the Indian would have made nine times out of 10. But this was a day when there wasn’t much going his way.

A heavily strapped left arm – his playing arm – owing to a wrist and elbow problem rendered his two most potent weapons a fair degree harmless. The big serve wasn’t there – his fastest delivery coming at 196 kmph as opposed to the usual 200-plus efforts – and his first serve percentage was an insufficient 67 per cent. And he couldn’t find much rhythm on the forehand.

At match point, in the first round of the Australian Open, Prajnesh, who made it to the main draw as a lucky loser, had a chance to prolong the contest. But that inside-out effort fell just wide of the singles sideline, handing the Chennai native a 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 loss. Thus ended the run of India’s only player in the singles main draw in the first round of a major, for the 16th consecutive time.

“I didn’t play a good match. I couldn’t use spin on the forehand like I normally would and was serving a lot slower than I normally would (because of the injury). I didn’t start well and never had good composure,” Prajnesh said after losing his fifth consecutive main draw match at a Grand Slam. “I think it was a good chance to make the second round. I’ll have to learn from this and figure out how to play the next time I’m in this situation.”

The ‘next time’ has been coming more often than not for Indian singles tennis. The novelty of an Indian player making it to the singles main draw is steadily wearing off – this was the ninth consecutive appearance for an Indian in the round of 128 at a major. What has been lacking though is a win at that level. The last time an Indian reached the second round was seven years ago, when Somdev Devvarman beat Lukas Lacko in his opener at US Open 2013.

13th time unlucky

Among current players, Yuki Bhambri, Prajnesh, Saketh Myneni and Sumit Nagal have reached the main draw 13 times in total but none has managed to pick up a win. And if you take Devvarman out, the last Indian to reach the second round in singles was Leander Paes way back at Wimbledon 2001.

“When the opportunities knock, you have to find a way to take it. The only way they are going to start winning matches in the Grand Slams is, when they get good draws, they need to capitalise on it, especially considering that (Prajnesh got in as) a lucky loser, playing a guy that is ranked 146. You don’t get much better draws than that in a Grand Slam,” says Devvarman, who was doing commentary for the match. “The next step is always improvement, regardless of where you are in your career. A lot comes down to fitness and maturing as a player.”

In the last few years, Indian singles players have won Challenger events, qualified for the ATP Masters 1000, and Bhambri and Prajnesh have also broken into the top 100. But they haven’t carried that form into the majors.

“The next step is actually winning matches in the main draw,” says India’s Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali. “As a player, you define yourself by how you perform in the majors. Believing is one thing and doing is another. Right now, we have the belief that we belong among the top players in the world. But once you win matches in Grand Slams, you’re actually going to belong there.”

Prajnesh’s straight-sets loss to Ito was arguably the best chance any of the current players had of breaking the duck, at least on paper. Ito’s current rank of 146 was lower than any other opponent an Indian has come across in the main draw. In fact, of the 13 times, this was the fourth occasion when the Indian player was ranked higher than his opponent – the first time such was the case for world no. 123 Prajnesh.

But it’s not as if the Indians haven’t beaten the top players before. Bhambri has beaten Gael Monfils, Nicolas Mahut, Lucas Pouille; Prajnesh has beaten Denis Shapovalov, Benoit Paire and then world no. 18 Nikoloz Basilashvili; Ramkumar Ramanathan got the better of Dominic Thiem; Myneni had beaten former world no. 8 Mikhail Youzhny.

So why not at the Slams?

“It doesn’t just come down to how you prepare for a Grand Slam. It comes down to consistency,” Devvarman says. “Playing at a high level week in-week out, being smart with your schedule, being smart with your body. Making sure that you’re really working on your body, making sure that even though you’re working hard at a high intensity you’re still injury-free. That’s something that a lot of Indians have failed to do.”

Bhambri has currently spent over a year away from the tour due to injury, Nagal has struggled with shoulder problems in the past and Prajnesh, just as he was on Tuesday, has constantly been hampered by niggles.

Three Indians are currently in the top 200, two are getting close to breaking into the top 100. They are no longer a rarity in the big events. But at the Grand Slams, there’s still a wait for one to step forward.

***

Indian players 0-13 in Grand Slam main draw

The last time an Indian men’s singles player won a match in the main draw of a Grand Slam was at the 2013 US Open, when Somdev Devvarman beat Lukas Lacko of Slovakia. Since then, there have been 13 occasions when a currently active Indian player has reached the main draw of a major, but failed to advance in each attempt.

Yuki Bhambri has had the most chances, making it to six main-draw matches. In those, he did come up against big name players like Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych, and played against higher-ranked Frenchman Pierre-Hughes Herbert at the 2018 US Open. But despite being the higher-ranked player in against Marcos Baghdatis (Australian Open 2018), Ruben Bemelmans (French Open 2018), and Thomas Fabbiano (Wimbledon 2018), he managed to win just one set in total.

After Bhambri, Prajnesh Gunneswaran has had the most attempts, with a 0-5 record in the main draw. He faced tough opponents at the Australian Open 2018 (Francis Tiafoe), Wimbledon 2018 (Milos Raonic) and US Open 2019 (Daniil Medvedev), but arguably, his best chance of breaking the duck was on Tuesday against lower-ranked world no. 146 Tatsuma Ito.

Meanwhile, Sumit Nagal and Saketh Myneni have both had just one appearance in the main draw of a Slam, both at the US Open. Nagal famously took a set against Roger Federer last year, while Myneni came through qualifiers in 2016 before losing a five-setter to Jiri Vesely of the Czech Republic. Devvarman, in turn, lost three main-draw matches after making it to the second round of the 2013 US Open, but won five first-round matches in total. If one takes his record out of the equation, the last time an Indian singles player reached the second round of a Slam was Leander Paes at Wimbledon in 2001 – 19 years ago.

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