For five years, Prajnesh Gunneswaran needed intense therapy for his knee injury and stress fractures. During this period, he missed large portion of his 20s and crucial years in the sport. The injury almost ended his career but derailed his career for certain. Then, in 2016, he returned to play 18 tournaments in the year. The year after, he improved to compete in the US Open qualifiers. Now, at the end of 2018, he stands as India’s top ranked player. It has been a tough ride for the 29-year-old and he knows he’s fighting against the age. “I’m 29 now, and time isn’t necessarily on my side,” he says, “so I do hope I can achieve the goals I have set out to,” he had said in an interview to Firstpost.
With Prajnesh finishing the year as World No. 107 and India’s highest ranked player this year, he left in his wake the likes of Yuki Bhambri – who achieved career high of World No. 83 in April – and Ramkumar Ramanathan – who also achieved a career best of 111 in the world in July.
Prajnesh began the year ranked 243 in the world and through the season reached the final of four Challenger events and converted two of them into wins – at Anning, China and Bengaluru – while coming second best in Pune and Ningbo, China. Away from the main tour, Prajnesh also won the bronze medal in singles at Asian Games. He chosen the medal in Palembang as his highlight of the year despite also beating World No. 27 Canadian Denis Shapovalov in Stuttgart. “My favourite moment, honestly, was my bronze medal match at the Asian Games. It was on the world stage and something I was so proud of, winning honours for India. There are few things that can compare to that feeling. My win over (Canadian ace Denis) Shapovalov also felt really great,” he had said in the same interview.
Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali believes Prajnesh has been the most improved Indian player and is his choice of player of the year. “Prajnesh would be the most improved player in the year gone by. It all began in the fifth Davis Cup rubber against Yibing Wu then he went on to win the Asian Games bronze medal. On the tour front he won the Challenger title in Bengaluru and played the fina in Pune. It has shown in the rankings as he has gone from nearly 250 in the world to top-110,” said the former player in a telephonic conversation.
The year had three key ‘firsts’ for Indian tennis: Bhambri made his maiden Roland Garros main draw appearance, Prajnesh played his first ATP Tour main draw tournament and Ramanathan contested hs first ATP 250 final at Newport. In a major milestone, Leander Paes became the most successful doubles player in Davis Cup history by winning his 43rd match in the competition.
Asked to assess the year as a whole, Ali commended the individual performances and called it a “pretty good year”. “In terms of individual performances, it has been pretty good. Prajnesh coming into the scene and ending the year as the highest ranked player. Ramkumar reaching the final of Newport and maintaining his top-150 ranking.”
“Sad part has been Yuki due to injuries as he has played only two matches after Wimbledon. The injuries meant he was not able to capitalise on his form and finish inside the top-100 ranking. Divij Sharan and Rohan Bopanna in doubles shone with gold medal at Asian Games. Overall, last year, it has been pretty good. In the Davis Cup, we maintained our position in World Group playoffs. We lost to a much higher ranked team in Serbia and before that came from 2-1 down to beat China. Looking at everything it was a good year.”
There were flashes of brilliance from Indian players in the year which saw some staggering results. It ranged from Bhambri beating Lucas Pouille at the Indian Wells Masters to Prajnesh beating Shapovalov in Stuttgart and then Ramkumar getting the better of French Open finalist Dominic Thiem at the Antalya Open in Turkey. “In terms of an individual win, Ramkumar beating Dominic Thiem and Prajnesh beating Shapovalov were definitely the two biggest upsets of the year. Bhambri beating Pouille was a great performance as well but in terms of ranking and name, these two were the two biggest wins of the year,” said Ali.
In the doubles department, Sharan stood out despite moving on from his usual partner in Purav Raja. He emerged as India’s highest ranked doubles player to take over from Bopanna. He didn’t win a title but made the semifinals of nine tournaments and reached as far as the quarters of Wimbledon. Keeping a forward looking approach, he will team up with Rohan for the 2019 season with 2020 being an Olympic year.
The only real controversy of note was Paes’ late pull out from the Asian Games team which derailed India’s plans in the mixed doubles department. The reason was the age old ‘denial of a partner of choice’ – an issue which seems to crop up repeatedly at major multi-sport events.
On the women’s side of things, Sania Mirza had to shuffle and switch partners which affected her performance in the year. In the second half, knee injury meant an early end to her season before announcement of a baby. She gave birth to son Izhaan on November 3 with plans of returning to court next year. Among others, Ankita Raina was at her best and won the bronze medal at Asian Games. Karman Kaur Thandi once again showed glimpses that she is one for the future but that’s a theme that has been repeated multiple times now.
With changes in the offing in 2019, Ali had his eye on the Davis Cup tie against Italy and a win would pave way for a November feature in the new format. Additionally, the new rules of awarding points in lower tiers of tennis would come into force in 2019 as well and Ali suggested the impact can only be assessed next year. “The season starts with the ATP 250 event in Pune which would be very important for our players considering the new ranking rule change. In terms of team events we don’t have any Asian Games or Olympics in 2019, the focus will be on Davis Cup and with the new format coming in 2019, our match against Italy is very crucial. If we manage to beat them, we get to play in the last-16 in the world in November. After that is all individual events that our players will play but as of right now, it doesn’t look good for Indian players. However, a further assessment can be made after few months in the year,” stated Ali.