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At 28, Prajnesh Gunneswaran has long been a journeyman, playing for scraps in the lower echelons of the tennis tour. He has tried his luck on the Challenger tour though, but the closest he has come to a title was a finalist finish at the $50,000 Pune Open in 2016. He’d break that streak though, on Sunday, at the $150,000 clay-court Anning Open Challenger in China. Ranked 260 in the world, Prajnesh was in the final against Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat, and took just under two hours to come from a set down to win 5-7, 6-3, 6-1 to earn the biggest title of his career.
The title gives him an invaluable 125 ranking points that will potentially take him up to 176 in the ATP charts – his career best so far is 213. But those were statistics Prajnesh asserts he wasn’t concerned with. “I knew I would be going (up the ranks), but that didn’t cross my mind,” he says. What mattered to him was that he was in a final of the biggest tournament of his career so far. It was all about getting the title, and the cool $21,600 prize money that came with it. “It was a final, and in a really big tournament,” Prajnesh says. “That was the bit that caused me some pressure. I just had to find a way to deal with it, and I did.”
It’s been a steady process for the Chennai-lad to get to this level. India’s Davis Cup captain Mahesh Bhupathi rates him: “He’s a hard worker and a good listener, and that’s a rare combination.” When the team met in Nanjing earlier in April for the Davis Cup zonal tie against China, Prajnesh was put under a significant work-out during the training sessions.
“We worked a lot on him coming up to the net and practicing his volleys, being more aggressive on court,” says team coach Zeeshan Ali. “He’s made a lot of changes to his game in the last few months. He’s become a lot more consistent on the backhand, and much more confident coming up to the net..”
With the newly developed skills, coupled by the southpaw’s already lethal serve and forehand, he became an all-round package that played a crucial role for the Indian team. Brought in as a replacement for Sumit Nagal to play the crucial deciding fifth rubber against hosts China, Prajnesh pulled off a calm straight-sets win to secure the tie 3-2 and earn India a fifth consecutive shot at the World Group Playoff. “Winning a match like that is a huge mental boost. You get the confidence to help you carry on in the tour,” Ali adds.
Prajnesh has indeed ridden that wave since then, making it to the quarterfinal of the Nanchang Challenger last week, before winning in Anning – that too under adverse conditions. Set at an altitude of 1900 metres, the bounce is higher and the ball flies faster. “It was tricky and not much fun to play,” Prajnesh says. “You have to use presureless balls here, if you hit hard it can go to the fence so you have to find the range, you have to string your racquet tighter… so it’s a lot different from what you’d normally play in.”
The conditions didn’t suit the top seeds – world no 86 Evgeny Donskoy and top seeded former world no 25 Vasek Pospisil were knocked out in the first and second rounds respectively. Prajnesh though was quick to adapt.
“I play a lot of spin on the forehand so my game was already suited to these conditions and it gave me an edge,” he says. “I was pretty strong mentally this week and that helped a lot. Especially the semis, it was 6-0 and then break point down in the first game. If I let the first couple of games go then that would have been done.” The tide has slowly begun turning in favour of Prajnesh, a once budding junior who was robbed off five years from the professional circuit due to knee injuries.
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