U.S. Open heartbreak for Prajnesh despite long New York trip

Prajnesh Gunneswaran's hopes of making it to the U.S. Open crashed as the organisers did not conduct qualifiers due to the COVID-19 situation.

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Prajnesh Gunneswaran arrived in New York the night before Thursday's U.S. Open draw and watched Egypt's Mohamed Safwat qualify for the main draw.   -  R. Ragu

Indian tennis star Prajnesh Gunneswaran flew halfway across the world in the hope of qualifying for the U.S. Open's main draw, but suffered an expensive let-down when he missed out by a single spot.

The tournament's organisers (USTA) did not hold qualifiers this year in a bid to reduce the number of people in their bio-secure bubble in New York and compatriot Sumit Nagal was the last man to get a direct entry in the initial list.

Yet with many players deciding against travelling to New York due to the pandemic, the Chennai-based Prajnesh, who was ranked five spots behind Nagal at 132 when the initial entries were announced, felt he still had a chance.

“I wanted to give myself the opportunity to play another slam, I wanted to make the effort to come here and see what happens,” the 30-year-old told Reuters in an interview.

Prajnesh has previous experience of disappointment. He was on the cusp of his Grand Slam debut as a lucky loser at Roland Garros in 2018 when Australian Nick Kyrgios withdrew late due to an injury.

Yet the Indian had already left Paris to travel to Italy for an ATP Challenger event following his loss in the third and final round of qualifying for the French Open.

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He went on to qualify for his first main draw appearance at last year's Australian Open, where he lost to American Frances Tiafoe in the first round, and has played in all Grand Slams since Melbourne.

Prajnesh arrived in New York the night before Thursday's U.S. Open draw and watched Egypt's Mohamed Safwat, placed just ahead of him in the list of alternates, sneak in.

“When I was three out when I left (India), I felt I had no chance or very low chance. And then all of a sudden a couple of guys pulled out and I was one out,” he said from the United States by phone.

“I was hoping that maybe some sort of a miracle could happen, but unfortunately it didn't.”

There could still be more U.S. Open withdrawals before it begins on Monday but the USTA's COVID-19 protocols mean that vacant spots will be filled from the doubles draw.

In a year when professional tennis players earned nothing for over five months due to the pandemic, Prajnesh spent thousands of dollars to be at the Open and will now have to plan his travel ahead to the European claycourt events.

“I am disappointed but I also have to accept the fact that I'm in this position based on my ranking,” said Prajnesh, who reached a career-high 75 last year but has slipped to 136.

“I have to get better if I want to guarantee myself positions in the main draws.”

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