Prajnesh Gunneswaran interview: India's top-ranked singles tennis ace on his injury struggles, future goals and more

Prajnesh Gunneswaran: India No 1. That ranking came on Monday, when the Chennai-born player won top honours at India’s Bengaluru Open. The 29-year-old, who has been battling serious knee injuries, has had perhaps the most successful year of his career so far, at an age many consider tennis players to be “too old” or over the hill. But Prajnesh is gunning for more.

File image of Indian tennis player Prajnesh Gunneswaran. AFP

File image of Indian tennis player Prajnesh Gunneswaran. AFP

Now at 110 in the ATP singles rankings, Prajnesh is poised to reach approximately World No 104 at the Pune Challenger next week, should he win. On the cusp of the top 100, the ace is all too aware of the pressures it entails.

Being No 1 in India was a goal, he says, not the goal. “It’s just one of the goals that I’ve had, but it’s definitely an added bonus. I’m always looking to push forward — I always have been. Of course, it depends on where you’re sitting. You set your goals, and my goals are further than this. I’m aiming for the Top 100, main draws at Grand Slams, the sky is the limit.”

At 29, Prajnesh is older than the average tennis player (although perhaps not any more, with the current top players), and that is a fact he acknowledges. “I’m 29 now, and time isn’t necessarily on my side,” he says, “so I do hope I can achieve the goals I have set out to.”

Prajnesh has had his fair share of injury struggles in the past — including a knee injury that almost ended his career. That saw him miss a large chunk of the circuit, temporarily derailed his professional career, and necessitated intense therapy. After years spent off and on the circuit, Prajnesh was able to return at some level of strength in 2016, playing 18 tournaments; the year after, in 2017, he competed at the qualifiers of the US Open.

From where spectators are sitting, however, Prajnesh is more than poised for success. 2018 has been his best year yet, with the ace winning the Challenger title at the Kunming Open in Anning, China. He took over that crown from defending champion Janko Tipsarevic — who won the title at the age of 33. This year, the ace was also instrumental in winning India’s Davis Cup tie against China, and won bronze in the men’s singles at the Asian Games, continuing the momentum on what has been, to somewhat paraphrase Queen Elizabeth, an annus mirabilis.

Now, Prajnesh is the title holder at the Bengaluru Open and has hit his career-highest ranking — and it’s been a long journey.

How it began

“I started playing really early,” he says. “I was four, maybe five years old? Pretty much since I can remember, it’s just been something natural that I started doing. By the time I was seven or eight, I had already begun to win tournaments and matches, so it progressed naturally. It was a family thing, too — my grandfather was passionate about tennis, and seeing my success, he pushed me further, to achieve more and more in a sport I was already passionate about myself.”

At 14, Chennai-born Prajnesh moved to train in Bengaluru, joining a program by CS Sunder Raju, who, to date, is the secretary of the KSLTA. Prajnesh’s coach at the time was seasoned coaching veteran M Balanchandran, who also continues to coach young students.

“I had a great team, an amazing physio, and honestly, I was lucky to get that sort of set-up so early. It was invaluable in shaping me into the player I am today, and it is really important to shape players into who they become,” he says.

Good coaching, and that too early on, Prajnesh says, is crucial in helping determine a player’s success — and could well mean the difference between career success and obscurity. He also acknowledges that although a player might have exceptional talent, not being able to find the right coaches or coaching programs, or being able to afford the facilities one needs could end a career before it has even begun.

Hitting the big time at 29

At 29, Prajnesh is older than the average tennis player when they first hit success — but the player himself has no regrets about how his career has played out so far. “I’m happy it didn’t come when I was super young too,” he says. “Now that I’m older, I appreciate where I am and what I’ve done more than ever.”

With victories in 2018 coming in quick succession, Prajnesh says that the speed at which those victories have come after recovery has been “surprising”. “But it’s just the speed at which it is happening that has surprised me,” he says, “not the fact that it is happening. Now that it’s happening, I’ve realised I can do more. It makes me happier than I’ve ever been.”

Stagnating at goals, however, is not the player’s personal credo. “I’ve acknowledged to myself that it’s a big thing, hitting India No 1. But I’m not one to stay content there. My next big goal is hitting the top 100 - and hopefully from there, on to Grand Slam main draws.”

A title win at the Pune Challenger, which commences today, will push Prajnesh up to approximately 104 on the ATP singles rankings - on the cusp of the Top 100, his next “big goal”.

Personal highlights from 2018

"My favourite moment, honestly, was my bronze medal match at the Asian Games. It was on the world stage and something I was so proud of, winning honours for India. There are few things that can compare to that feeling. My win over (Canadian ace Denis) Shapovalov also felt really great.”

This year, Prajnesh beat the Canadian wunderkind and current World No 27 7-6, 2-6, 6-3 on the grass courts of Stuttgart; Shapovalov finished the year as a contender for the ATP Next Gen Finals. “It wasn’t just winning that match — even playing it felt great,” he says. “And the Davis Cup tie, I think, rounds off my three biggest moments this year.”

Prajnesh was instrumental in India’s Davis Cup win over China earlier this year, taking the fifth rubber against Yibing Wu.

“Now,” he says, “I know the approximate rankings I will hit with each victory, so my next fight is towards Top 100 and then onwards from there.”

Success has been a long time coming for the ace, he says, but a goal that he has been consciously, and carefully, working hard towards. “The injuries hurt, physically and mentally. But I honestly believe that you have to want it bad enough. I did. I always have.”

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Updated Date: Nov 21, 2018 17:31:06 IST

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