Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Ankita Raina lead Indian tennis' charge in a year when singles players had more headlining acts
The 2018 season was another testing ground for Indian singles players like Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Ankita Raina. But now that they have tasted success, there's hope for an even better show next year.
At his first Davis Cup tie as non-playing captain, in Bangalore last year, Mahesh Bhupathi talked about 'good depth' in the Indian team. The skipper was referring to a crop of singles players looking to make inroads into the uber-competitive ATP World Tour. This came at a time where Indian tennis was going through a transition phase. The gritty Somdev Devvarman had retired, and veteran Leander Paes' form had started slipping.
It was time for the younger guard to step up. And as the 2018 season nears its conclusion, India has an unprecedented three singles players in the top 150 and five top 100 players in the doubles. In Prajnesh Gunneswaran, there's a new India no 1 (World No 104), following a remarkable second half of the season, while Divij Sharan, ranked 39 on the doubles front, briefly overtook Rohan Bopanna (37) and has made significant progress.
Prajnesh's fortunes this season changed at the zonal Davis Cup tie in China. India had fought back to level the score 2-2 after Ramkumar Ramanathan and Sumit Nagal lost their singles rubbers on the opening day. With the shaky Nagal expected to play the decider, Prajnesh, originally the reserve player, decided to approach the captain.
"It was Prajnesh who came up to us and said that he would like to play," Leander Paes had told Firstpost after the tie. "He was the one who set the ball rolling. More importantly, it showed a lot of character from him."
Prajnesh, then ranked 263, played an almost flawless match against China's teen sensation Yibing Wu and scored a famous win for India away from home. And after that match, played in cold conditions in Tianjin, he struck hot form.
A few weeks later he won his first the $150,000 Challenger in Anning, China. Prajnesh, who had lost five years to injury in what are prime years for a pro, then progressed through the qualifiers at the Stuttgart Open and beat then World No 23 Denis Shapovalov in his first main draw ATP match. The 29-year-old even almost made it to the French Open. He was in line for entering the main draw as a 'lucky loser' but had already entered an event in Italy the following week and could not sign on.
At the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, his first multi-sport event, Prajnesh toiled on in the humid conditions to secure a bronze medal. As the performances improved, so did his belief. The southpaw's shots always packed a punch, but he has started finding greater consistency this year. Playing at the Challenger, tour level has sharpened his game and his game plan.
Just over a week ago, he picked up a second $150,000 Challenger title at the Bangalore Open. The resulting 125 ranking points and the additional 30 he'd earn by reaching the final of the Pune Challenger last week takes him up to 104 in the world, after starting the season ranked 246.
Another Indian left-hander, Sharan, rose to as high as 36 in the world rankings after a consistent season. Though he has just one title to show for in the 2018 season, the $75,000 Canberra Challenger, he reached the semi-final of nine ATP tour events. His most successful run this year, however, came at Wimbledon, where he partnered New Zealand's Artem Sitak to the quarter-finals after coming through two five-setters.
Playing for the national team though, Sharan kept up India's dominance over the men's doubles title at the Asian Games, when he partnered with Bopanna to win India's fifth gold medal in the event at the last seven Asiads. This title incidentally, was Bopanna's biggest achievement this year as well. The veteran had started the year promisingly, reaching the final in the mixed doubles event at the Australian Open, but has since struggled with form and injury.
Another player who had a successful run at the Asian Games was Ankita Raina. The 25-year-old became the first Indian woman since Sania Mirza to win an Asiad medal, earning a bronze after losing in the semi-final to top seed Zhang Shuai of China.
2018 has seen Raina break new ground. She had shown glimpses of hitting good form by making it to the quarter-finals of the WTA 125K Series Mumbai Open in November last year. But at the Fed Cup in February, the Ahmedabad-native remained unbeaten in four singles matches, pulling off upset wins over the then World No 120 Lin Zhu of China, and former World No 27 Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan – who was ranked 81 at the time.
Raina, who rose to a career high of 181, also became the first Indian since Mirza to compete in the singles event of a Grand Slam, when she made it to the qualifiers of the French Open and Wimbledon. Recently, she paired up with compatriot Karman Kaur Thandi to win the doubles title at the WTA 125K Series event in Taipei.
While Raina and Prajnesh made rapid moves toward the second half of the season, it was Yuki Bhambri who had started the year on a high. The 26-year-old became the first Indian player since Devvarman to play the main draw of every major in a single year. Along the way, he picked up significant scalps en route reaching a career-high 83. He got the better of Nicolas Mahut and then World No 12 Lucas Pouille after coming through the qualifiers of Indian Wells. A month later he won the $150,000 Taipei Challenger.
Though Bhambri played the main draw of all four majors, he still hasn't been able to register his first win. The Delhi lad also picked up a knee injury during the clay season, and thus was below par at the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open. Injuries have long plagued his career and they continued to haunt him in the second part of the season. Bhambri was forced to play a reduced schedule – hasn't played since October—and has slipped to 137 in the rankings.
With Bhambri on the mend, Ramkumar made a big cut for Indian tennis at the Newport ATP event. Using his aggressive serve and volley tactics, the 24-year-old went all the way to the finals. He defeated two top-100 players – Denis Kudla and Vasek Pospisil—to become the first Indian since Somdev Devvarman in 2011 to reach a summit clash at a tour event. Ramkumar went down fighting to World No 48 Steve Johnson (5-7, 6-3, 2-6) in the final.
The younger generation of Indian tennis has made significant strides on tour this year. Prajnesh is on the cusp of making it to the main draw of the Australian Open, and with no significant points to defend in the first half of 2019, his ranking is bound to improve. At the same time, Bhambri and the over-worked Ramkumar will look to use the off-season to reload.
The 2018 season was another testing ground for India's singles players. But now that they have tasted success, and are pushing each other to greater heights, there's hope for an even better show next year.
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