Prajnesh Gunneswaran finalist in second US Challenger event in row, regains India No.1 tennis ranking

The left-handed player finishes runner-up in back-to-back hard court event in the US, regains his position as India’s top singles player.
By Rutvick Mehta | Hindustan Times, Mumbai
UPDATED ON NOV 23, 2020 08:32 PM IST

Prajnesh Gunneswaran saw the restart to the pandemic-halted tennis season meet with heartbreak in the US, narrowly missing out on a last-minute entry into the main draw of the US Open in August. The Indian, however, has ended it with two consecutive runner-up finishes in the country.

The southpaw lost to talented American teen Brandon Nakashima 3-6, 4-6 in the title clash of the ATP Orlando Challenger on Sunday, a week after faltering at the final step of the ATP Challenger in Cary, North Carolina. The deep runs marked a fruitful end to the stop-start season for Prajnesh, who on Monday moved nine spots to reclaim his position as India’s highest-ranked singles player at world No. 128.

“If I had won one title and lost in the first round in the other, I may not have felt as bad because I lost both the finals, and that’s a bit hard to digest right now. But it’s good progress, the way I’m playing,” Prajnesh said over phone from Orlando.

The 31-year-old still looked back at making two final appearances on the challenging US hard-court swing with content. Prajnesh won a couple of matches from a set down in Cary, including against former top 10 American Jack Sock in the Round of 16.

He won the first set of the final against second seed Denis Kudla but “then got a bit passive” to squander the lead last Sunday. With a relatively kinder draw in Orlando, Prajnesh breezed into the final by dropping a solitary set before the exacting schedule of playing nine matches in two weeks took its toll.

“Overall, I’m extremely happy with the way I’ve played in the last month or so. I felt I was playing well and slowly starting to get back to my old level,” Prajnesh said.

Ranked a career high world No. 75 in April last year, injuries, personal loss and the pandemic-induced break pegged Prajnesh back in the last 12 months. After missing out on the US Open, Prajnesh played six tournaments in Europe including the French Open, where he lost in the second round of qualifying. Gradually finding his form and rhythm after the break, he entered the semi-final of the Ismaning Challenger last month after winning three three-set matches.

“It took me some time to get back to this level. I was not serving well. Ismaning was my first tournament on carpet and I played well there and pulled off some close matches. That gave me a little bit of confidence. I needed to get used to handling the pressure situations again—the 30-alls, the tie-breaks, facing break points. Once that happened, I started getting better. In these last two weeks, my mentality saw me through because I’ve played better tennis than this.”

The reward is leapfrogging Sumit Nagal and wearing the tag of India’s top-ranked player again. “It’s always nice to have the tag of No.1. It’s definitely something that feels good and I know about. But when it comes to world rankings, it’s important to be inside the top 100. So that is still my target.”

Staying back in the US

The Chennai native has decided to stay back in the US and do pre-season training in Atlanta due to the quarantine issues in coming back to India. With no clarity yet on the start of the next season, and a possible scenario where players might have to fly into Australia as early as next month for the Australian Open in January, Prajnesh wants to stay put in the US.

“The quarantine issues are why I did not plan to come to India. I don’t know when and where I’ll be starting the next season. As of now, it looks like it will be in Australia. There’s nothing concrete at all; they’ve not let us know what the dates will be, we’re still waiting. If that gets pushed back, I might come home for a bit,” Prajnesh said.

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