Prajnesh Gunneswaran breaks into top-100 for the first time

Shahid Judge
Despite a semifinal defeat in the Chennai Challenger on Saturday, Prajnesh has earned 29 ranking points which take his total tally to 579, and will potentially push him up to a new career high of 96. (Source: PTI)

At this time last year, Prajnesh Gunneswaran's ATP ranking was a lowly 242. By April, he had dropped further to 266. Aged 28 at the time, he had never managed to play in the main draw of an ATP tour event, and the odds were stacked against him in finding a meaningful place for himself in the upper echelons of the sport.

But he was, and still is, new to the tour. He only entered the circuit full time in 2016, after overcoming five years of injuries to both knees. Armed with a big serve, a big forehand, and a backhand that's steadily been improving, the hunger to make up for lost time is evident. After April he found some rhythm and rode the momentum to get to where he is-India's no 1 singles player.

And on Monday, when the ATP rankings are updated, he will have broken into the top 100 for the first time in his career. Though he bowed out to Australian Andrew Harris in the semi-final of the $50,000 Chennai Challenger on Saturday, he has earned 29 ranking points which take his total tally to 579, and will potentially push him up to a new career high of 96.

"I don't think it's any accident that I have gotten to this place in the rankings," he had told The Indian Express in January, back then he was closing in on the top 100. "I have always believed that I was good enough to get here. I have understood my game well. The turnaround was really fast, maybe two or three months. But I guess that's how it happens a lot of times, when you find the momentum or you just find the right way to play. Then it happens all at once."

The 'turnaround' he refers to is his rapid increase in rankings by a whole 170 places.

Being in the top 100 will make him only the third Indian player in this century-after Somdev Devvarman and Yuki Bhambri-to break the mark. It's a rank that will allow him direct entry into bigger ATP tournaments which will take away from him the need to grind through the qualifiers events or hope for a wild card.

It all started last April when he volunteered to play a live fifth rubber for India in the Davis Cup tie in China, when he beat the hosts' teenage sensation and Junior US Open champion Yibing Wu in straight sets to secure a spot in the World Group Playoffs for the Indians. That match was played under intense pressure, but Prajnesh put on a remarkable display of composure, power and skill.

It gave him the belief in himself to win the crucial points and finish off matches that he was earlier losing.

"Winning a match like that (against China) is a huge mental boost," Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali had said in April. "You get the confidence to help you carry on in the tour."

And by the time Prajnesh finished the 2018 calendar year, he had won two $150,000 Challenger titles, in Anning and Bangalore, had an upset win over then world no 23 Denis Shapovalov, and earned a bronze medal for India at the Asian Games in Jakarta/Palembang.

With such a streak, he knew the top 100 breakthrough was coming.

"I think it's just a matter of time, and that it will happen. When I do break it, I'll be very happy," he said.

In January he added another new achievement to his steadily improving list of results. Starting in the qualifiers of the Australian Open, he played three solid matches to make it to the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time in his career.

Since then the form has dipped a notch. He lost in the first round in Melbourne to eventual quarterfinalist Frances Tiafoe, and lost both his singles rubbers at the recent World Group qualifiers of the Davis Cup to top 50 opponents, Italians Mateo Berretini and Andreas Seppi.

At his hometown event, the Challenger in Chennai, the 29-year-old lost out, rather unceremoniously, to world no 347 Andrew Harris of Australia. But that was after he made it to the semi-final of the event and secured his first foray into the top 100.

Preparation for future events, with his new ranking, for now hasn't changed though.

"There will be some priorities, like serving accurately on a day to day basis, not just one or two matches. Being a bit more aggressive and consistent on the backhand, moving up to the net…," he said after his match. "It’s a lot of the same things I’ve been doing before. Just continuing on it. When I play up one level, at the tour events, I’ll know what’s missing out. I’ll focus on doing the same thing that I’ve been doing."

He's given himself that shot to get up to the tour events now, as he steadily claws his way up the tennis ladder. It's been a long journey for the southpaw, in a career still so young.

The next challenge for him though is to stay within the top 100. Devvarman had remained at that level for a total of 83 weeks, and Bhambri has been there for 37 weeks. On Monday Prajnesh will be in that category for the first time.