“If you win this, I will take you out for Indian food!” came a cry from the stands as Prajnesh Gunneswaran battled it out against world No 18 Nikolos Basilashvili in the second round at Indian Wells.
For nearly three hours on Saturday night, the India No 1 traded body blows with the Georgian before notching the biggest win of his career. It may have been unfamiliar territory for the 29-year-old qualifier playing his in his first ATP Masters 1000 tournament. But the setting may have seemed familiar, given the kind of support he had from the Indian community in California. The blows on court were punctuated by chants coming from everywhere and from every part of the Indian subcontinent.
“Aaaare Prajnesh come on buddy!” pleaded another in response to an unforced error. “This is exactly what dreams are made of!” said yet another as he pointed out the triumphant Prajnesh to his two small children seated at his side.
The sounds of Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, and Tamil wafted through the air. One fan hurriedly spoke to his wife in Telugu and then yelled out “Vannakkam Prajnesh!” deciding to switch languages and cheer his hero on in his native tongue.
India is known to many for its incredible diversity. For one night – in the appropriately named Indian Wells Tennis Garden – the unity in this diversity was on display.
Basilashvili, built like a boxer, is known for his powerful groundstrokes and his ability to hit through his opponents. He brought this style with aplomb to his clash with Prajnesh, cracking the ball from the baseline without mercy. The Indian withstood each of these blows, and produced many of his own, inducing errors from Basilashvili and playing a remarkably clean match.
At the end of it all – before a partisan Indian crowd that yelled words of encouragement at every possible opportunity, generating several pleas of “Quiet Please” from the chair umpire – Gunneswaran emerged victorious in the second-round match. This was the biggest win of his career. The BNP Paribas Open, the largest WTA-ATP combined event outside of the four Grand Slams, is known to many tennis fans as the Fifth Grand Slam.
And as Prajnesh showcased his ethereal talent on one of the world’s biggest tennis stages, it was also about the coming together of the Indian nation in a place far away from the subcontinent. There was an electricity in the air that made the match feel like a Davis Cup tie on home soil.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the support that Praj got during the match. I watched his Davis Cup matches in Calcutta a couple weeks ago, and I really thought that the crowd support that Praj received at Indian Wells was the best that he has ever experienced,” commented Bastian Suwanprateep, Prajnesh’s coach at the Alexander Waske Tennis University in Germany.
The tournament attracts a huge Indian audience, with the growing popularity of the sport in India and the large non-resident Indian population that resides in California. These fans were keenly aware that one of their own was on his way to a triumph.
They poured into the intimate Court 9 at the outset of the match, taking up every seat available. After the guards closed the stadium to new traffic, the fans thronged the entrances, craning their necks to try to catch a glimpse of their hero.
Even doubles star, Rohan Bopanna, fresh off his own victory with partner Dennis Shapovalov, rushed over to Court 9. The crowd was so large that Bopanna was forced to watch from the outside edges of the stadium, with standing room only for one of India’s biggest tennis stars.
Every one of these fans, those in the stadium and at the entrance, brought a palpable energy that Gunneswaran took advantage of throughout his match against Basilashvili. Suwanprateep emphasised that the crowd made a huge difference.
“Praj thrives on energy from outside,” Suwanprateep said. “This was especially important at the end of the second set tiebreak, where I was hoping that Praj would be able to maintain his level or even step it up. The crowd helped him a lot, staying with him and pushing him to find a way to win the match.”
At the end of it all, the 29-year-old held his arms high above his head, soaking in the adulation of the roaring fans. He stood with them in awe, posing for selfies and signing autographs for anyone who asked. “I do not even have a pen to ask for an autograph, but I just want to stand next to him!” said one star-struck fan from India.
He lingered quite a bit longer than victorious tennis stars usually do, revelling in the moment for as long as he possibly could. “He has probably never seen a crowd like this, he is only a qualifier,” remarked another fan as he watched the crowd’s reaction in disbelief.
Once this magical night in the desert had reached its end, the droves of Indian fans in attendance descended on the sleepy town of Indian Wells to celebrate their native son’s victory. A visibly overwhelmed employee of one of the only Indian restaurants in the area was forced to turn away hungry customers, exasperated and shaking his head. “We have run out of food, and we have to close early,” he said.
And although Prajnesh’s dream run ultimately came to an end against hard-serving Croatian Ivo Karlovic in the third round, his late career surge is impressive. There is little doubt that the tennis-loving Indian population will be following close behind him, wherever he plays.
Ramanujan Nadadur is a lawyer based in California.