Istomin’s success comes as validation for Prajnesh

In the 2017 Asia-Pacific Wildcard play-off for the Australian Open, held in China in early December, the Uzbek saved three match points against Prajnesh before prevailing 6-2, 1-6, 11-9 in the semifinal. It was the toughest match of the tournament for the top-seed, who captured the wildcard with a 7-5, 6-1 victory over Korea’s Duckhee Lee in the final.

“I still think Djokovic is the better player, but Istomin is one of the best ball strikers out there. It shows that, on a good day, I have it in me to challenge the best players in the world," the Chennai lad says.   -  S. R. Raghunathan

Novak Djokovic has a word of praise for Istomin after the Uzbek shocked him in the Australian Open second round.   -  REUTERS

Denis Istomin stunned defending champion Novak Djokovic in the second round of the Australian Open on Thursday. It was the biggest win for the 117th ranked Uzbek, who came into the main draw as a winner of the Asia-Pacific Wildcard play-off.

“It is the biggest win for me. It means so much so now I feel I can play with these guys and be with them on the same level,” Istomin said after pulling off the biggest upset of his career.

In Chennai, away from the scene of action, Istomin’s victory was instilling a similar sense of belief in Prajnesh Gunneswaran. It was not merely because an underdog had triumphed — it is a common occurrence in sports; the 27-year-old had better reasons to feel such intensified emotions.

Prajnesh had, in fact, unwittingly paved the way for the Denis Istomin show at the Australian Open.

In the 2017 Asia-Pacific Wildcard play-off for the Australian Open, held in China in early December, the Uzbek saved three match points against Prajnesh before prevailing 6-2, 1-6, 11-9 in the semifinal. It was the toughest match of the tournament for the top-seed, who captured the wildcard with a 7-5, 6-1 victory over Korea’s Duckhee Lee in the final.

Interestingly, the Indian had defeated Lee in the Pune Challenger tournament in October.

Recollecting the encounter against Istomin, Prajnesh said: “I began nervously as he was the top seed and had been a top-30 player. He rushed to a 4-0 lead, before I managed to pull things back a little. I found my rhythm in the second set and was beginning to play really well in the third. I could have finished it off when I was up 5-4. But we began to play really long games and I couldn’t match up to him at the end.”

But Istomin’s win over Djokovic has the left-handed player dreaming big. “I still think Djokovic is the better player, but Istomin is one of the best ball strikers out there. It shows that, on a good day, I have it in me to challenge the best players in the world. His win definitely gives one confidence,” the Chennaiite, who has been included in the Davis Cup squad for the New Zealand tie, said.

The Indian, ranked 317 in the world, lost 6-7(2), 2-6 in the final round of this year’s Chennai Open qualifiers to Jozef Kovalik. He matched the Slovakian stroke for stroke in the first set, before slackening in the second. Kovalik went on to stun top-seed Marin Cilic in the second round. Yes, you read that right!