India tennis player Prajnesh Gunneswaran has had a dramatic last month to say the least.
First, he narrowly missed a backdoor entry into the main draw of the French Open. He then qualified for his ATP World Tour match, and on his very first tournament on grass, stunned world No 23 Denis Shapovalov before losing the next and retiring from a first-round Challenger match with a strain.
While the roller-coaster month has brought him into the limelight, the 28-year-old from Chennai has steadily worked his way up the ranks through this year, from a Davis Cup thriller to his first Challenger title.
He is now set for his first appearance at Wimbledon, playing in the qualifiers that get underway from Monday.
After the twist in the last Grand Slam qualifiers, the next one is bound to be a talking point. But for the Indian left-hander, it is a question of tuning out the noise and focusing on the only thing that matters – playing his best tennis.
“It will be my first Wimbledon so there is a certain amount of pressure, but I need to deal with that well. I’m waiting to see who I draw and make plans accordingly to try and get into the main draw but I am taking it one match a time,” Prajnesh told The Field from UK where he is practicing on grass after an injury scare.
“It was a slight abdominal strain but I just wanted to play it safe for Wimbledon,” he said of his withdrawal from the first match at Ilkley ATP Challenger.
While his tour-level debut and giant-killing act over Shapovalov showed that he came back stronger after the near-miss at Roland Garros, does it alleviate the near-missed chance to get into a Grand Slam? To his credit, he keeping an eye on it in the rearview mirror.
Near miss at the French Open
“It was unfortunate that I couldn’t get the lucky loser spot, but to be honest, I didn’t win the final round so not like I was supposed to play the main draw. I was the eighth possibility of getting in a lucky loser spot so I didn’t think I had a chance. I decided to leave when there were four pull outs,” he explained.
“In hindsight, it is easy to say that maybe I should have stayed. But I feel like I made the right call at that point of time. The new rule made more people pull out, so next time I will be more careful if I get to the final round,” he said with a chuckle.
With it weighing on his mind, he lost the first match at Challenger tournament in Vicenza in straight sets to Salvatore Caruso, who he had beaten in the first round of the French Open qualifiers a week before.
“Obviously I didn’t play a good match the next day because this was still in my head. But couple of days later, I was completely fine. I just had to focus on my game and get ready for grass which is what I did and I ended up playing pretty well last week in Stuttgart so I am happy it went the way it did,” he added.
Memorable ATP World Tour debut
Prajnesh bounced back on grass in a manner as striking as his clay-court Grand Slam exit. In his first ever appearance at an ATP World Tour main draw, he stunned world No 23 Denis Shapovalov 7-6 (8-6), 3-6, 6-2 in the first round of the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart, Germany.
It was a memorable debut indeed as the three-set thriller saw a tough fight with Prajnesh needing match points.
“I am really happy with the way I played, I was playing someone ranked much higher than me so I had less pressure than what I would have normally had. I tried to play my best tennis and I was the underdog there. I ended up playing well in the big moments, converting the chances I got, at 5-0 I didn’t play as well for about 10 minutes which is why it went to 5-3 but I managed to regain my composure and I served well to finish off the match,” he recounted.
While he lost the next match to Guido Pella, the win over the Canadian has given Prajnesh, who trains at the Alexander Waske Tennis-University in Germany with Bastian Suwanprateep, a lot of positives.
“[The biggest takeaway] was to understand what the real difference is in the levels. I am able to tell myself that this is what I need to improve so I can work on trying to be consistent at that level, and not just a one-time thing,” he said.
China, the turning point
Consistency is the key for the player who trains in both Chennai and Germany as he has shown throughout 2018.
In April, he was instrumental in India pulling off a sensational 3-2 win over China in the Davis Cup World Group Play-offs tie. After coming in to the squad as a replacement for Yuki Bhambri, he was tested in the deep end when he was picked for the tie-deciding fifth rubber against teen sensation Yibing Wu. And playing only his second Davis Cup tie, he delivered a superb 6-4, 6-2 win.
At the end of the month, he lifted his first ATP Challenger title at the Kunming Open in Anning, China and since then, he has enjoyed a purple patch.
“I am understanding my game better now, the kind of intensity I needed to find mentally and physically. Every match I have played from then on I have been getting better prepared for the future, to play at a higher level – it really started there [at the Davis Cup],” he added.
At a career-best ranking of 152, the goal for the Chennai player is more intangible than just rising in the ATP rankings. “At this point of time, ranking is not the most important for me unless I am top 100. Being 150 or 130 or 180 doesn’t really matter too much, except for maybe getting entry into the tournament qualifying. For me it is more about first of all to compete with them and then understanding what they do better than I do and doing all of those things and improve all of those aspects so I can be at that level as quickly as possible. Once I get that the ranking will follow.”
For now, the target is to get into the top 100 by the end of the year, and the upcoming week on the grass of Wimbledon will be crucial. But with positive momentum, renewed confidence and the luxury of a travelling coach around Europe, Prajnesh is in with a chance.