The metamorphosis of Prajnesh Gunneswaran

In 2018, Prajnesh Gunneswaran clinched two Challenger titles, bagged a bronze medal in the Asian Games, made his first appearance in the main draw of a Grand Slam, and emerged as India's top-ranked tennis player.

Prajnesh Gunneswaran's semifinal appearance at the Chennai Open Challenger catapulted him to a career-best ranking of 97, making Prajnesh just the third Indian since Somdev Devvarman and Yuki to breach the coveted top-100 mark.   -  M. Vedhan

Last February, a tennis player was sitting in the stands, clad in a sky blue shirt and a white pair of shorts, chomping on a sandwich while watching his compatriot, Yuki Bhambri play in the final of the Chennai Open Challenger.

He had endured a forgettable outing himself, suffering a first-round exit. In the year that followed, we witnessed the metamorphosis of Prajnesh Gunneswaran.

The 28-year-old Chennai lad clinched two Challenger titles, bagged a bronze medal in the Asian Games, made his first appearance in the main draw of a Grand Slam, and has emerged as India's top-ranked tennis player.

His semifinal appearance at the Chennai Open Challenger catapulted him to a career-best ranking of 97, making Prajnesh just the third Indian since Somdev Devvarman and Yuki to breach the coveted top-100 mark.

Related: Prajnesh breaks into top-100 of men's singles rankings

Training at the Alexander Waske Academy in Germany, Prajnesh has evolved a new player who’s got the swagger and the game to back it up with. He's switched to a more dominant attacking style of tennis, isn't afraid to flirt with the lines on the court and has certainly become grittier.

“Reaching the top 100 was my first goal and I want to be in the top-50 at some point this year. I need to do really well to reach that target, so let's see where it goes,” he tells Sportstar.

Talking about his major takeaways from 2018, he says: “I learnt to trust the process, work hard and be patient. I also became mentally tougher as I played tougher opponents and I adapted over time.”  

A young Prajnesh Gunneswaran (right, in orange) during a training camp in Sri Lanka in 2006.   -  Special Arrangement

Prajnesh was out of the Indian tennis circuit for a good five years and had been written off, but he says none of that affected him. “I didn’t care. Everybody has their own reasons and make judgments. I was completely fine with it. I knew what I was doing and hoped that I would get a chance to compete again and be successful. I got a chance and I took it,” he says with a disarming smile.

He's quick to add that his rise to the top is not by 'chance.' “I was always good. I was the national champion and did well in juniors. It just so happened that I did not play for a long time and I trained abroad. It's not that I was not good in the junior circuit and suddenly became India's No. 1.”

Prajnesh’s career has been bolstered by the presence of a ‘lucky mascot’ by his side, so to speak. He has been under the watchful eyes of veteran tennis coach M. Balachandran for a little over a year now and the move has paid wonders.

Prajnesh Gunneswaran with veteran tennis coach M. Balachandran after his Bengaluru Open win in 2018.   -  Special Arrangement

Balu sir, as he is fondly known, has known Prajnesh from when he was a lanky little boy in 2005. They first met at the High Performance Centre in Bangalore and worked together for three years and have joined forces again now, albeit on a part-time basis.

Balachandran analyses all of Prajnesh’s matches  to the T and breaks it down for him post every game. “Prajnesh is very smart and is not easily convinced. If I tell him he has to improve on a particular aspect, he will go back to the match footage and see if he actually made a mistake,” he says.

“Once he sees that, it’s only half the job. I then recreate the same scenario in training the next day and guide him on how to get the better of the situation. He tries it out and only if he’s comfortable with it does he adapt the change,” adds Balachandran, who has been in the coaching circuit for the last 28 years.

Another key factor that has helped him scale greater heights is his association with German trainer Christian Bosse. The two had met in Bengaluru in 2005 and Prajnesh tuned to Bosse once again in 2015 in a desperate bid to get rid of the stress fractures in his knees.

The partnership resulted in an upswing in fitness as Prajnesh has remained largely injury-free over the last two-odd years. He continues to train under Bosse and to follows his training programme.

A resurgent, fully fit Prajnesh will look to ride the momentum as he heads into Bangkok Challenger, where he is top seed.