For India’s No 1 singles tennis player Prajnesh Gunneswaran, it has not been an easy end to a career-defining season, both on court and off it.
The top-ranked Indian had a sensational start to the year, making his Grand Slam debut, reaching the third round at his first Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells and breaking into the top 100.
However, an injury hit and his form suffered in the last few months.
Since reaching the Anning final in April, he has had middling results on the ATP Tour and did not make finals on the Challenger circuit before wrist injury forced him to pull out mid-match at the end of October.
And last week, his father passed away after a prolonged illness that had worsened over the last few months.
The injury, combined with the deteriorating health of his father, seemed to have understandably taken a toll on the 30-year-old over the last few months. In fact, he is still not a 100% with his left wrist.
In such a case, it would have been understandable to give his final tournament of the season a miss. However, the India No 1 is back on court playing at the ongoing Pune Challenger, with a strapped wrist, to fulfill the wish of the man who made him the player he is.
His father SG Prabhakaran was his biggest motivator, pushing him to not give up on tennis when he lost five years in his early twenties due to knee injury. The risk paid off as in the span of one year from 2018, he made the transition to the top 100 in the world with multiple Challenger titles.
“He wanted me to continue and not change anything for him,” top seed Prajnesh said after his round of 32 win in Pune. “When I did find out just how sick he was, I wanted to stop, but he wanted me to continue on the path that I’ve put myself on. It was his last goal and dream to see me continue to succeed, and I will try to do everything I can to do that.”
“I did not know earlier, the timeline… how long he had. I was kept in the dark for a reason. It’s unfortunate and it’s a tough phase in my life,” he added.
Fighting through pain
While Prajnesh was candid about him not being fully fit, it takes commendable spirit to compete given his condition. He admitted that his mental focus is still fluctuating.
“It comes in waves. It depends, sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s easy. You never know when it’s coming,” he said, answering the difficult questions with poise.
The injury to his left wrist makes it near impossible to use his big forehand effectively. He managed to win in only 49 minutes against a much lower-ranked Chandril Sood on Wednesday, but acknowledged that he might not be able to match his last year’s run to the final.
“I think I still need some time to completely recover, I am not really using my forehand much or even my serve. I am not really sure how long it will take to recover, this is first time I am getting an injury like this so just have to wait and see how [next round] goes,” he said.
Assessing the match, he added: “With what I had, I think I played really well.. I played pretty much the entire match on my backhand so a scoreline like this is always good. I served all right. I needed to use my wrist a lot more but I didn’t want to do it unless I really had to. Overall, pretty solid mentally I think.”
And the keyword there is: mentally. He truly had to dig deep to compete and win, even if it was a routine fixture on paper.
Another reason for playing the season-ending tournament at home was to potentially ensure he can defend some of his points from last year. At the end of 2018, he enjoyed an upsurge by winning the Bengaluru Challenger and reaching the Pune final in consecutive weeks. With the Bangalore Open cancelled, Pune was a chance to make up some points as he winds down the season.
It may still not be enough as the world No 95 is set to fall out of the top 100. This also means that he may have to play qualifiers for the Australian Open and not get a direct entry like the last three Grand Slams he played.
Points at stake
Ending his ATP World Tour breakthrough season on a low note may seem a smaller setback in perspective, and he is honest about where he stands and where he goes next.
“It’s just one more tournament, I had it in the calendar and I thought I would finish it off. No, it’s not so much about the points. I guess coming in with the condition that I’m in, if I make anything less than a semis it won’t do much to my rankings.
“I’ll drop quite a lot.. I think I will drop to the 140s depending on how well I do at this event. But there isn’t really much I can do about it unless I play another tournament next week, which I don’t want to do. I am just going to prepare for next year, get as fit as I possibly can... not just about injuries, but also in terms of improving my conditioning.”
As of now, he is planning his off-season in Germany and starting his 2020 season in Canberra, Australia before the first Grand Slam. If things go well, he will have a few more points before 2019 ends. But even if they don’t, Prajnesh has his task cut out and is well aware of what he needs to do.
For now though, he will continue to fulfill his father’s wish and give his best shot in the final tournament of an eventful season.