For Indian tennis players, the pandemic-truncated 2020 season posed especially tougher challenges. At a time when even organising top tournaments was difficult, the lower tier events such as ATP Challengers and ITF events, especially in Asian countries – where Indians generally play for the bulk of the season – suffered.
Among Indians in the top rung, the interrupted season and revamped rules were perhaps the hardest on Prajnesh Gunneswaran. The 31-year-old missed out on direct qualification for the US Open by a heartbreakingly narrow margin. After playing the last five Grand Slams in a row, he was first on the list of alternates but the bio-bubble rules prevented him from playing despite flying to New York.
But the left-hander managed to put that behind and end his season a high note, finishing as the India No 1 after two consecutive runner-up plates on the tough ATP Challenger circuit in the USA. He was against experienced players and got several crucial wins to bring a semblance of momentum back into his game.
Normally, two second-places in two weeks is not an encouraging sign. Not at a time where ATP Tour events and qualifiers were in hand. But in a strange year, it all comes down to perspective.
“It’s obviously been difficult and tricky for everybody… not having matches and not knowing when the tour will restart but we are better off than a lot of other people. The Grand Slams happened, one without qualifiers, but players were given some financial support so all in all not as bad,” Prajnesh told Scroll.in from the USA.
“For me, the last couple of weeks have been good. Obviously, I would have liked to come home with at least one title, I put myself in a position to fight for them but it wasn’t to be. I didn’t play well enough in the finals but I’m fine with that because at least I’m doing the right things and getting good results. I look forward to preparing as well as possible for next year and hopefully, we have a better schedule,” he said.
Commenting on the close US Open miss, where a doubles player got his designated alternate singles spot because the new rules put in place, he said: “A lot of things could have been better... For example, the alternates in the US Open which I don’t agree… I’m not saying that should be 10 but there could have been five, five more players in the bubble wouldn’t really have made too much of a difference. I know that there are always two sides of the story, they had their reasoning and they did it and but overall I think it’s okay.”
After injury and personal loss affected the end of his breakthrough season in 2019, he started 2020 with two ATP Tour events in Pune and Dubai after the Australian Open. But the restart didn’t go as planned as he played six tournaments in Europe including losing in the second qualifying round of French Open, with minimal success. But he slowly found form, reaching the semis of Ismaning Challenger before the sustained run in America.
“I had a bit of a rough start, I couldn’t practice for three months as we couldn’t leave the house and then coming to Europe and starting was very tough. It took me some time to get going but I’m pretty happy with the way I finished the season,” he said.
The extended lockdown in India, unlike some other countries, also put Indian players at a disadvantage because of lack of training options. In Prajnesh’s case, it was again a mixed bag as he got some unexpected time to recover physically but also lost out on match conditioning. The 31-year-old played an odd doubles events in Europe as well, in order to get more matches and play in pressure situations, something he doesn’t do often because of fitness reasons.
“I don’t think it really helped me too much other than the fact that I got rest for my shoulder to recover… it takes time to build muscle and endurance. I became pretty lean and now I need to put in as much effort as possible in the preseason... If I had access to a gym maybe then would have been a very good three months. But I’m still playing well and am injury-free, so there are positives to this as well. So it’s a decent season, considering the circumstances,” he said.
Consistent success on the American Challenger circuit is rare given the level of competition and Prajnesh ended up playing deciding sets in most matches in the first week, including in his win over form world No 8 Jack Sock.
“Here, you may end up playing a few tougher players because there are some college guys. I didn’t come here expecting to do as well because I wasn’t in the kind of form where I had great confidence. But this showed that I’m always there in the match, willing to fight and there’s always a chance,” he said.
The Chennai-based player is staying back in Atlanta for a couple of weeks to continue his training with a friend, who’s also a coach. With the start of the next season still uncertain, working of his fitness is his main focus.