RAJDEEP PURI | 13 JANUARY, 2019
Prajnesh Gunneswaran - India’s Lone Singles Hope at the Australian Open
Indian fans have something to cheer about.
Amidst all the emotional talk around Andy Murray's retirement plans, Indian fans have something to cheer about as a certain 29-year-old from Chennai has qualified for the main draw of the Australian Open.
Prajnesh Gunneswaran recently became the third Indian in five years to qualify for the main draw in a Grand Slam. He did so by defeating Japan's Yosuke Watanuki in a tight three-set encounter which lasted slightly over two hours.
It was the hardest match he had playing during the qualifiers as he lost the first set in the tie-break. However, he came back fighting, in the Melbourne heat, to win the next two sets 6-4, 6-4 to confirm his place in the main draw where he will be taking on USA's Frances Tiafoe in the wee hours of Monday morning (IST)
For somebody who almost quit the sport and lost around 5 years due to constant injuries, this is a huge step in the 29-year-old's career. A few years ago, nobody had even heard of him as he struggled with injuries off the court. Constant stress fractures did not allow him to come out on the court for prolonged periods from 2010 to 2014. However, he did not give up and came out stronger in 2015. With the help of Christian Bosse - his German trainer, his injuries gradually went away and Prajnesh was able to compete once again.
"I lost around five years to injuries. I could not compete, I don't have a chance. I would have done all this five years earlier if I wasn't injured. 2017 wasn't too bad either. I was inside the top 250, but it took me longer because I needed to improve certain things," said Gunneswaran while speaking to Sportskeeda at the Australian Open.
"That was my first real year on the circuit so I wasn't good enough to perform at this level. But I improved with each training block and 2018 was when I truly flourished," he said.
Once he came back from injuries, he slowly began to make a mark for himself, notching up a few big victories here and there. 2017 was a decently successful year for him where he cracked the top 250 in the world. Fans began to take notice of him when he successfully completed India's comeback in their Davis Cup playoff encounter in April 2018, winning the last tie against in straight sets. India were down 2-0 in the tie before they came storming back to win it.
2018 turned out to be a breakthrough year for him. At the end of it all, after winning two Challenger titles at China and Bengaluru and reaching the final of the Pune Challenger, Prajnesh ended 2018 as India's no. 1 ranked tennis player. He had even reached a career-high ranking of 106 in the process. Due to the high amount of tennis he played in the final few weeks of the 2018 season, he had to withdraw from the Australian Open Wildcard playoffs. He was probably confident enough of cracking the main draw of the Slam - and fortunately, he was!
He entered 2019 ranked 107 and got a wildcard to take part in the Maharashtra Open. Unfortunately, he lost in the first round.
He did not let this result affect him as he produced some exceptional tennis on the courts of Melbourne to qualify for his first ever Grand Slam main draw. He opened his account against Viktor Galovic and won it quite easily - in straight sets. He followed this up with another straight-set victory over Enrique Lopez Perez. And then, the match against Japan's Yosuke Watanuki, of course, which he won in three sets.
However, he is not going to have it easy in the first round by any means. Up against a budding youngster in Frances Tiafoe, Prajnesh will have to be at his level best to defeat him. One thing which might go in his favour is that Tiafoe has had an extremely poor start to the year. He failed to win a single match at the Hopman Cup, losing to a player ranked below him as well. Shortly after that, he was knocked out in the first round of the Sydney International as well, losing to home favourite John Millman in a tough three-setter.
This string of losses might either give Prajnesh the advantage or they might even give the world no. 39 Tiafoe that extra motivation to make a comeback after a poor start to the season.
Whatever it may be, Gunneswaran will have to go out there and give it his all in order to get a positive result in the match. If he does happen to win, it will be the first time in 6 years that an Indian would have crossed the first round of the Australian Open. The last time this happened was way back in when Somdev Devvarman reached the second round in 2013.
All eyes will be on the 29-year-old from Chennai when he comes out on Court no. 15 on Monday morning in his first ever Grand Slam encounter. If he crosses the first hurdle, he could be up against world no. 6 Kevin Anderson in the second round. Anderson has been in terrific form over the past year or so. He reached the final of the Wimbledon Championships and performed consistently well throughout the year. He won the Maharashtra Open as well just a couple of weeks ago.
A match against the South African would give Gunneswaran the opportunity to play on a bigger court in front of thousands of people, and who knows, it could give him the chance to create history as well!