The last time Prajnesh Gunneswaran competed at a tournament in India, he was at a different level as a player. He carried with him the tag of being a top 100 player – ranked 95 – when he featured at the Pune Challenger in November. But that was a trying time for him as well, both on and off the court. Days earlier, he had lost his father, who had been his rock, and he’d been struggling with a wrist injury. In hindsight, he says, he “probably shouldn’t have come.”
Prajnesh turned pro in 2010, but the 30-year-old has lost five years to knee injuries, contemplated quitting, chugged on, built some momentum, got up to a career-high 75, but didn’t manage to stay in the top 100 for too long. In all this time however, the now world no. 123 still remains the country’s highest-ranked player, and along with Sumit Nagal, one of two Indians to enter the main draw of India’s only ATP event, the Tata Open Maharashtra, on merit.
“Hurdles have always sort of been in my path, and I’m just used to it. I’m trying to figure things out. Had personal issues, tennis issues. So that’s just the way it goes sometimes,” he says. “And I think I’ve come out of it pretty well. Obviously, I was a little bit injured. So I couldn’t play my best tennis, but things are getting better. And I think my tennis is there. I’m constantly improving. Once things fall in place, I will start getting results again.”
At this time last year, Prajnesh entered the Chennai Challenger, reached the semifinals and broke into the top 100 for the first time in his career. It was a feat expected from the hard-hitting left-hander who had been making rapid progress up the rankings ladder. And the run continued. After qualifying for the main draw of the Indian Wells Masters 1000, he beat former world no. 18 Benoit Paire in the first round and followed it up by beating then world no. 18 Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia. Injuries though, soon caught up with him.
“I think up until the summer I had a very, very good run. By the time I came to the clay season in Europe, that was when my I started having shoulder issues, which is when my season kind of went downhill,” Prajnesh says. “I was still playing though, playing bigger tournaments, I wasn’t getting the results I wanted, which is not unexpected, because when you move up to a better standard, if you don’t sort of play well enough, you’re going to lose matches. I was trying to figure things out, understand how much better I needed to play or whether it was just a matter of belief, or if I needed to be fitter. The only way to really understand what you need is to be there. I was starting to understand it but then I got injured.”
He played through the second half of the season with constant shoulder and wrist issues. The ranking dropped, and the personal tragedy came at a time when he was preparing for marriage. But he has moved on from that rough phase. At the Australian Open this year, he arguably had the best chance of becoming the first Indian since Somdev Devvarman at the US Open 2013 to win a singles main draw match at a major. He made the cut for the Round of 128 in Melbourne as a lucky loser, but against world no. 146 Tatsuma Ito, an elbow issue hampered him.
“That is really just because I hadn’t played much tennis. Since I was resting my wrist, I just hadn’t been serving so much. And then when I started to sort of go after the serve in the match, I just tweaked something,” Prajnesh explains. Now back in Pune, the body is still not 100 per cent, but the belief is still intact. It’s his mental capacity that has taken him through the injury struggles – the five years of knee issues when doctors struggled to diagnose the problem, the shoulder, wrist and elbow. The mental strength has helped him push through the lower echelons, getting past the Futures, making it through Challengers and now competing on the tour. It’s that same attitude that, in a depleted foreign field at the Tata Open Maharashtra, ignites hopes for an Indian success. Paire, the maverick Frenchman is ranked 21 in the world and is the top seed. But Prajnesh has beaten him in the past. This year again, he’s hoping to turn things around.
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