Saketh Myneni isn’t usually expressive on court – he goes from one point to another with the excitement of a bank clerk filing a transaction. On a nippy Friday evening, however, under lights, surrounded by a few hundred people at the KSLA stadium in Bengaluru, Saketh allowed himself a few screams of “Come on!” and a flying kiss.

He lost a set, he was broken twice in the third set, and wasted four match points before beating Kazakhstan’s Aleksandr Nedovyesov in two hours and three minutes. The victory put him in his first Challenger final of 2018 – seven months of which he missed due to a foot injury. One can, hence, understand his elation.

“I started well and later on my focus went off a little bit but thankfully I got it done,” he said after the thrilling three-setter against Nedovyesov.

Saketh admitted that he hasn’t reached the level he was two years ago. In 2016, Myneni got to No 137 in the world – he was, then, the highest-ranked Indian. He qualified for the main draw of the US Open. He was looking good to breach the top-100 of men’s tennis.

Then, in early 2017, a foot injury hampered his steady climb. The doctors told him, after the initial diagnosis, that he’d be out for a couple of weeks. He couldn’t play for over six months. He just played 12 matches that year – winning six.

“It took a lot of toll on me. I couldn’t train or compete. When I came back, there was more pressure… especially because I wanted to come back quicker,” said Saketh.

“I was playing fine. But my body wasn’t supporting. I did the best I can during the off-season… And, I didn’t have a lot of time in the off-season. I got injured during last November [again]. That took a lot of time during off-season. But from the beginning of the year, I’ve been playing tournaments. I thought I competed well but I am still a little away from where I want to be. The confidence is still there though. The more matches I play, I think, the better I get.”

This year, he’s played 38 matches so far, winning 29 of them. The biggest of the 29, arguably, will be the one against former top-10 player Mikhail Youzhny. He beat him 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the pre-quarterfinals of Astana Challenger. The victory, in a way, enabled Saketh to come full circle. Just before getting injured in 2017, he had lost in straight sets against the Russian at Chennai Open.

On the brink of a title

But on Saturday, Saketh will have the opportunity to better that win. He will take on his younger compatriot and “friend”, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, for the Bengaluru Open title.

Prajnesh is in the midst of his best year in professional tennis. He’s won a Challenger in An-Ning, a Futures event. On Friday, after his 6-4, 6-1 win against Canada’s Brayden Schnur is guaranteed to be India’s No 1 in tennis. He’d be keen to win the title and improve his chances to participate in the Australian Open next year.

“It’s never easy,” Saketh said about playing against fellow Indians. “For me it’s always ‘us against the world. It’s always tough. Whenever you are at tournaments you train with fellow Indians and I am very good friends with all of them. We travel, train, know each other’s games pretty well.”

On Friday, Saketh let his game slip on many occasions against Nedovyesov but managed to get away. With the title on the line, against a hungry Prajnesh on Saturday, he might not be so lucky.

But Saketh is relaxed – at least he appears so. Asked if he’s been doing anything different this week in Bengaluru, he says, “Nothing changed. I am still taking it one match at a time and I will play one more [on Saturday], against my friend, but I’m happy.”