A few spectators at the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association on Saturday evening were a little sad about having to miss Roger Federer vs Alexander Zverev for Prajnesh Gunneswaran vs Saketh Myneni. Unless the final of Bengaluru Open got over in less than an hour, one couldn’t have caught even the livestream of the semi-final of ATP World Tour Finals on smartphones.

However, Prajnesh made sure they were able to watch both matches. He took out his senior compatriot 6-2, 6-2 in a 55-minute lopsided all-Indian final, thereby winning his second ATP Challenger title. He had won his first seven months ago. He started the year at 243 and surged into the top-200 by April. In October, he broke into the top-150 for the first time and was ranked at 141st.

2018 has been Prajnesh’s annus mirabilis.

The 29-year-old won a Futures event in Chandigarh and his first ATP Challenger title – in China – earlier this year. He also clinched the bronze medal at the Asian Games.

In Stuttgart, he stunned Canadian teen sensation Denis Shapovalov, world No 27, in three sets. He also beat the higher-ranked Italian, Thomas Fabbiano, in the Liuzhou Challenger.

The year might mark Prajnesh’s transition from the second rung of professional tennis into the first.

He said, after the triumph on Saturday evening, “[Before the year began] I wanted to do well in the Challenger level and not drop to Futures. Now, I am looking at the next step: getting into the Tour events and eventually stop playing Challengers.”

Better and better

Prajnesh’s game at Bengaluru Open seemed to improve as the tournament progressed. In the semi-final and final, he never faced a break point, as he eased to straight-set victories.

“It’s normal, if you are playing more matches under pressure, in the same conditions, it gets easier,” he said after the final.

He was meeting Saketh for the third time in his career on Saturday. Their previous two encounters were three-set affairs. But in the final of the Bengaluru Open, Saketh faced a Prajnesh who is more confident and self-assured of his strengths and, hence, more aggressive.

Saketh’s game, albeit showing improvement after a seven-month injury layoff last season, is still error-prone. In his semi-final against Ukraine’s Kazakhstan’s Aleksandr Nedovyesov, he was up 5-0 in the decider before letting the former win four games in a row. He then broke Nedovyesov to clinch the match.

Saketh has, according to Prajnesh, an “unconventional game” – less use of power, daring-yet-nonchalant execution of drops and volleys. Against Nedovyesov and others opponents at the Bengaluru Open, his game came off. But Prajnesh was too solid and powerful for him to conquer.

“He plays heavy, serves big and is a leftie,” Saketh said of his younger compatriot. “He’s playing with much more confidence and is getting more physical.”

Australian Open dream

Prajnesh conceded that he’s been identifying the aspects of his game that need improvement and is working on them. Among them are returns and attacks.

“I was missing returns in matches and was not breaking often as the other few players,” he said. “I, then, thought, why? Then, I worked on my returns, reading the serve, anticipating the ball and on controlling the return. I let the rally go on more often. The next step would be to, if I get a short ball, I’ll come to the net. So, things like that.”

Prajnesh is among the favourites to win the title at KPIT-MSLTA Challenger, beginning in Pune, on Monday. It will be the first tournament where Prajnesh, who is world No 144, will start as India’s top-ranked singles player.

A win in Pune might put Prajnesh in the main draw of the Australian Open. He admitted that the possibility of playing in Melbourne would be on his mind in Pune but said, “I know the numbers. I know that I might be 104 if I win Pune Challenger. But to be honest, that’s a long shot. I am going to take one match at a time. As of now, I am five matches away. Let’s see.”