I want to be in the top 20: Prajnesh Gunneswaran

Prajnesh Gunneswaran, India’s top-ranked male tennis player, believes he has what it takes to be among the world’s best. But at 29, with an injury-riddled past, he knows he will have to nurse his body to get there

Updated - March 16, 2019 02:24 pm IST

Published - February 22, 2019 11:38 pm IST

CHENNAI: 08-02-2019--- Prajnesh Gunneswaran (IND) in ation against James Dukworth (AUS) in ATP Chennai Open 2019  in Chennai. Photo: K.V Srinviasan

CHENNAI: 08-02-2019--- Prajnesh Gunneswaran (IND) in ation against James Dukworth (AUS) in ATP Chennai Open 2019 in Chennai. Photo: K.V Srinviasan

Prajnesh Gunneswaran has risen remarkably over the last few years, from No. 484 at the start of 2016 to No. 97 at present. Just the third Indian to break into the top 100 this decade — Somdev Devvarman and Yuki Bhambri, the others — the 29-year-old from Chennai is currently the country’s No. 1 singles player. In a chat with The Hindu , Prajnesh talks about his journey, his game, his injuries, and his goals. Excerpts:

Back in 2013, after winning a Futures event in Chennai, you said breaking into the top 100 was the only ranking improvement that mattered. You’ve done that. What has the journey been like?

It has been up and down… I wouldn’t say it was one steady progression upwards. There was a time where in one year I did not actually make many [ranking] places. I have had to work pretty hard to get where I am now. So I am not dwelling on it too much, but I am happy to be in the top 100. At the same time, I know being here just for one year is not enough.

A string of injuries hampered your junior years. What caused them? What was that time like?

I just had to deal with the fact that I was injured. I couldn’t find any answers but I went about my rehab. I accepted that I couldn’t play unless I was fit. I was in India for long periods and the coaches back in Germany [Waske Tennis University] kept asking me to come back. They referred me to physios and new training methods, but somehow nothing was working and I could never fix it. The reason for the injury was a combination of overtraining and some muscular imbalance.

Was there a point where you thought of giving the game up? Can you tell us about your support system back then and the people who helped you?

Yes, there were a couple of times I nearly threw in the towel. I had almost decided to quit in early 2015. [But] I decided to just play as many tournaments as possible that year and see one last time before quitting. Luckily, everything fell in place and I was able to continue.

One key person who helped me was my trainer Christian Bosse. I have known him since I was 15, from my time at the High Performance Centre in Bengaluru. He is now with the Netherlands’ Olympics team. I asked him to design a programme for me. I think the entire credit should go to him. I just executed whatever he asked me to do.

In terms of a support system, my parents, especially my dad, really helped me. It was he who suggested that I play one more year in 2015. It was tough on them as well because at times even they were not sure. Without a support system, I would have quit long ago after being injured for three to four years.

Over the last three seasons, did you set yourself targets each year? If so, how did you go about reaching them?

The first target was to be injury-free and play a full season, which I had not done till 2016. Even that year I played only about 19 events and ended the year No. 320. I think 2017 was my first full season where I played 29 tournaments, but as I said before I did not make much of a jump, finishing only No. 250 [243].

It was during that time that I had to figure things out about my game. I was losing matches because I was tired… was I wasting energy due to my game or was it due to nervousness? I did not have the endurance to last five matches over a week. By the third match, I was running out of steam. At the same time, I had to accelerate that learning process because I was not young either.

If you had to pick a few matches that gave you belief at each stage of your progression, what were they?

The match against Denis Istomin during the 2017 Australian Open wildcard playoff event was definitely one because he had already been a top-40 player. At that time I didn’t understand how close I was, but I realised that if I could get closer then I could get there eventually. But at the same time it was important to ensure it was not just a flash in the pan.

After that, the first Challenger win in China [in 2018] gave me a lot of confidence. I did not beat any top-100 or top-120 players, but I produced consistent performances over the week. Another match was in the Davis Cup — the deciding tie against Wu Yibing [of China].

The match [win] against Denis Shapovalov at Halle last year… in fact I had played three good matches including during the qualifying in that tournament. But that gave me confidence about my play and a lot of belief.

How has your playing style evolved over the years?

It has not changed much because the basics that you have built your game on remain the same. I still have a big forehand and a serve. The core of your game doesn’t change. You then just try to improve your overall game, footwork, aggression and so on. Over time you read the game better and plan how to beat a player ranked 50 spots higher than you.

You are 29 and playing your best tennis. Realistically, how do you see the next two years?

I genuinely believe I can be in the top 30 or 40, and it is a matter of how fast I improve. I don’t know what the toll on my body will be and how long I can play for, but the top four have proven otherwise. Players’ career spans in the top 100 have increased. So the challenge for me is to understand and preserve my body.

I have to maximise my tennis skills to win matches rather than just hope to do it with the body by trying to outlast the opponent. If I play brute tennis, there is a chance I could burn out.

At the moment, I am not defending points in the first half of the year and with a few good results, I could be in the top 70 by the middle of the year. But the challenge then is to stay at that level and move up without having wild swings, the big ups and downs. Eventually, I want to be at least in the top 20, but we will see how it goes over the next two years.

If you had received the right support in your formative years, could you have been a notch higher by now? In terms of the specifics, what do you wish you had — something future generations could benefit from?

Sure, that would have helped. But at the same time, you have to [work] with what you have. I have to say I was very lucky and privileged that way because I got the best training that one could get in India. I went to the High Performance Centre in Bengaluru and worked with coaches like M. Balachandran, Jonathan Stubbs and Christian Bosse.

To be successful in this sport, you need a good coach and trainer, but at the same time, parental support is very important. What we need in India right now is a system that can produce high-quality coaches. Once you have the right coaches, you will have a pool of quality players against whom you can measure yourself and improve during the formative years. That is why the standard in Europe is so good.

Like our players, our coaches also need exposure from the best and have to go abroad. We need a national centre with the right coaches and trainers where some of our best juniors can go and train. That is the starting point, that’s how you breed success.

We don’t lack talent, as Ramkumar [Ramanathan] and Sriram Balaji have shown with how they improved once they went abroad.

We have seen in badminton what can be done and we need to find out how they did it and adapt the right methods from there to tennis.

Whom do you enjoy watching on tour? Anybody you’d like to play and test yourself against?

I don’t have a particular favourite… I just enjoy watching tennis. I like to watch the top four [Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray]. At the same time, I like Dominic Thiem, especially on clay, or a Gael Monfils. These are players with different styles and attitudes and somehow have managed to succeed on their own. I would like to test myself against the top four because they are the best at what we do and maybe I could even draw one of them in the first round of the French Open.

How do you deal with defeat? Do you have a system of processing it so you can improve?

I don’t talk to anybody for a day [laughs]. Every defeat is tough but some are very hard. I am a very analytical person and I analyse all my matches. I try to forget it quickly if I lost because of just a few small issues or mistakes. But if I feel there were bigger issues, then I try to focus and work extra on covering that base. Every loss is painful and every match is a knockout. Tennis is a brutal sport that way and there is no hiding here. You lose most of the tournaments you enter, but over time I have managed to do a pretty good job of overcoming a loss.

Finally, what does being India’s No. 1 player mean to you?

I am happy and lucky to be where I am today even though I wouldn’t say I deserve to be here or anything. Actually, it is something that happened really fast over the last year. I was quite far behind Yuki [Bhambri] and Ramkumar. Towards the end of last year, the Australian Open qualifying was the target. Then I reached the final of a Challenger in China and I thought I could get seeded for the qualifying. Then I won the Bengaluru Challenger and felt a main draw was possible if I could win in Pune. I lost in the final in Pune and though I wouldn’t say the thought of the main draw had an influence, it certainly did not make it easy. So over five events in just one and a half months, I made up nearly 300 points. It feels amazing to be No. 1 in the country. Now the challenge is to sustain it and probably motivate others in the country. I am going to be 30 this year and I hope any youngster watching is inspired, saying, ‘If he could do it, then I too can do it and should be even better.’

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