Stoic Prajnesh on the rise

Can the 28-year-old continue his purple patch and add an Asian Games medal to his kitty in Jakarta?

Firmly focussed: Prajnesh Gunneswaran’s game is not as defence-centric as earlier, and that has paid dividends.   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Prajnesh Gunneswaran is not a man in a hurry. He was earmarked for success more than a decade ago, after claiming the national Under-16 and Under-18 titles. But so injured-ravaged has his career been that it is only now, after two-and-half relatively pain-free seasons, that he is making good on the promise.

A defining victory in the Davis Cup in March against China with the tie locked at 2-2, a USD 150,000 ATP Challenger title, qualification for the French Open as a lucky loser (though he couldn’t play since he was not present at the site), a win over Canadian wonder-kid Denis Shapovalov on grass, a career-high singles ranking (152) and repeated forays into the main draws of ATP 250 events, have all been achieved this year.

Another feather in the cap could be an Asian Games medal in Jakarta, where, as India’s third-best singles player, he will lead the charge alongside Ramkumar Ramanathan. “I have been trying to win matches at these levels for quite a while now,” Prajnesh told Sportstar. “It somehow never happened. But now I am better both physically and mentally. If I keep up this tempo over a period of time, I can keep improving.”

No more one-dimensional

The 28-year-old attributed this to a shift in his mindset. Before the win in Stuttgart over Shapovalov, he was best known for running Uzbek Denis Istomin, the slayer of Novak Djokovic at the 2017 Australian Open, close. “I was much more defensive back then,” he said. “But playing defensive was not getting me to where I wanted to be. I had to make that change. Now, when I get the opportunity to hit, I do.”

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“The most improved aspect is from being able to hit one good ball from the baseline, to following it up by coming forward and attacking the second or the third [ball]; finding my way more into the court. I am still not doing it as well as I would like to. But that’s what my focus is on.”

‘A lot of ability’

It is this drive to excel which has endeared him to Mahesh Bhupathi, India’s Davis Cup captain, who handed him his debut. “He is a player with a lot of ability,” said Bhupathi. “He has often struggled for confidence but after the Davis Cup and the Challenger wins, he has that belief. So you can see him repeatedly qualifying for ATP Tour level events and that’s the stage he belongs to.”

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“The confidence to play big points well and do things you are not comfortable doing is the change,” opined Zeeshan Ali, the captain of the Asian Games contingent. “You can’t beat Shapovalov on grass from the baseline. So on that day, he believed he could volley.”

“Also, we Indians have this habit of seeking results too soon. One should understand that these are long-term commitments and we have always seen a pattern where our players have started doing well a bit later in their careers.” Prajnesh is in no hurry indeed.

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