It was a year ago that Prajnesh Gunneswaran found his name in international media. The Indian had a chance of making it to the main draw of the 2018 French Open when an eighth spot for a ‘lucky loser’ opened up. But having lost in the final round of qualifying, Gunneswaran had already left Paris and signed up for a Challenger event in Italy by the time the opportunity came along.
This time around though, Gunneswaran has made sure that he doesn’t have to rely on any twist of fate to get him through. The 30-year-old has had a remarkable 12 months and sealed a direct entry into Roland Garros.
He will be the only Indian playing in the singles event at the French Open 2019 as Ramkumar Ramanathan and Ankita Raina lost in the qualifiers. Meanwhile, four Indians will participate in the doubles. Divij Sharan, ranked 39, Rohan Bopanna (40), Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan (72) and Leander Paes (82) will be competing in the men’s doubles event.
Turning it around
During his Parisian sojourn in 2018, Gunneswaran was ranked 183 in the world and still gaining confidence in the bigger events. He shrugged off on the missed chance at Roland Garros and started to work on consistency.
In his next big outing, the ATP event in Stuttgart, the Indian made his biggest kill till then by beating world No 23, Denis Shapovalov, in the opening round. On a stage and surface alien to him, Gunneswaran battled on for three sets to stun the talented Canadian youngster.
It has been a fairytale year for the player who lost almost five years of his prime playing years to recurring knee injuries. The Indian returned to the pro tour full time only in 2017 and has taken steady strides since. In his serve and forehand, Gunneswaran had the money shots to make it to the top-100. But he needed to harness them enough and fortify his belief to actually cross the hurdle.
Gunneswaran won his second ATP US$ 150K Challenger event, in Bangalore at the end of 2018, made his Grand Slam debut by qualifying for the Australian Open, broke through into the top-100 and played his first ATP 1000 Masters event in Indian Wells in February – all in the space of four months. It was at Indian Wells that Gunneswaran really unfurled his A game. Having come through the qualifiers, he subdued the maverick talent of Benoit Paire and stunned world No 18 Nikoloz Basilashvili to make it to the final 32 in his first Masters event.
Over the off-season, Gunneswaran had worked on being more aggressive on the court and his confident play has reaped him the rewards. He has played a healthy mix of Challenger and Tour events, making sure he is getting enough matches while also constantly testing himself against the better players. Gunneswaran, who had won his first ATP US$150K event in Anning last year, returned to the site of his triumph this time around with a different goal in sight. The Indian made it to the finals, and even though he lost the title, he made sure he sealed his spot for the French Open, and Wimbledon.
Winning a five-setter is still uncharted territory for the Indian. He has played in a Grand Slam only once: a first-round defeat to eventual quarterfinalist Frances Tiafoe at the Australian Open.
However, on the back of some good results in the past four months, Gunneswaran will enter Roland Garros this year as a more assured player. And unlike most Indian players, clay is not a surface completely foreign to the 30-year-old. He has trained at the Schuettler-Waske Academy in Germany for the past few years and is well-acquainted with the European red dirt. He will kickstart the French Open campaign against Bolivia’s Hugo Dellien, with a possible second-round clash against Stefanos Tsitsipas on the horizon.
Will doubles deliver?
India’s doubles prowess has been on the wane in the past couple of years. Rohan Bopanna was the last to win a major doubles title, when he claimed the 2017 French Open mixed doubles with Canada’s Gabriela Dabrowski.
Even though India has four entrants in the men’s doubles events, none of them have done well on the big stage thus far this year. At the season’s first Slam, Bopanna-Sharan, Paes and Nedunchezhiyan all suffered first-round defeats.
Bopanna and Sharan had started the year brimming with confidence and basking in the glory of the Pune Open title. But the partnership was called off only after six events. Sharan will play the French Open with Marcelo Demoliner, while Bopanna, ranked 40, will team up with Romania’s Marius Copil.
The 30-year-old Sharan has made a push in the big league for the past couple of seasons and is currently the highest-ranked Indian doubles play at 39. He has also been the most successful player from the country so far in 2019. The Delhi native has played three events with Demoliner this year and made it to the finals of the Munich Open and lost in the semis of the Geneva Open.
Bopanna, meanwhile, has struggled on clay this year. The 40-year-old has played six tournaments on the surface in the run up to the French Open and has won all of two matches. A veteran on the doubles tour, the Indian is used to adapting to different partners but he will quickly have to forge an understanding with Copil, with whom he is teaming up for the very first time, if they are to make a mark in Paris.
Neduncheziyan, ranked 72, usually flies under the radar, but the Chennai lad has done quite well this year along with fellow Indian Purav Raja. The duo made it to the semi-finals of the ATP 500 Dubai Open and lost out narrowly – 10-12 in the match tie-break – to Ben McLachlan and Jan-Lennard Struff. They also made the semi-finals of the Sofia Open and quarterfinals at Lyon. The Indian, who has teamed up with the experienced Mischa Zverev, will be making his French Open debut.
Meanwhile, Paes, is the lowest ranked Indian at the French Open this time. Placed at 82 in the ranking charts, Paes’ entry into the Grand Slam was helped on as he is teaming up with world No 51 (singles) Paire. Paes has famously partnered more than 100 players on the doubles tour and his tact of dealing with different characters has been key to the team’s decent success. Paes has been able to temper down the Frenchman’s flash. The duo hasn’t quite set the double stage on fire, but managed to make to it to the semi-finals of the Sud de France, Montpellier and the Grand Prix Hassan II, Marrakech. The results on the ATP Tour have lifted Paes, who has been playing primarily on the Challenger tour for the past two seasons. The Indian had dropped to 96, his lowest ranking since 2000, in March, but has made some improvement since and also made it to the final eight at the ongoing Lyon Open with Paire.
Even though the aging Paes seems to have lost the winning touch, no Indian player knows how to win as well as he does.
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Updated Date: May 26, 2019 14:59:09 IST