Prajnesh Gunneswaran digs deep to enter third round at Indian Wells

Shahid Judge
After coming through the qualifiers, Gunneswaran has beaten two higher-ranked opponents to make it to the third round. (File)

On the ATP website is a recent story on Prajnesh Gunneswaran-the five-things-you-need-to-know type. It's curious that such an article would be published describing the life of a 29-year-old, as if he were new to the circuit. But then again, it befits Prajnesh's sudden and rapid rise on the tennis tour.

The Chennai lad was placed 235 in the world rankings this time last year-and would go down to as low as 266 a month later. Now he's India's highest- ranked singles player at 97, the proud owner of two $150,000 Challenger titles, and in his first ever appearance at an ATP 1000 Masters event, he's come up from the qualifiers at Indian Wells and beaten two higher-ranked opponents to make it to the third round of the elite tournament.

On Friday, he pulled off an upset in his first ever main draw Masters 1000 match by beating world no. 69 (formerly 18th) Benoit Paire. But early on Sunday morning IST, the left-hander picked up his career's biggest scalp when he beat world no. 18 Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-4, 6-7, 7-6.

"I'm extremely happy. I'm proving to myself that I can be at this level," Prajnesh says. "It's good for me to beat players of this quality as it shows me what I am capable of doing and where I stand today. I use this to understand what I need to get better at and try to improve everyday."

On the day, he came on court to play a brand of tennis that could topple the 27-year-old Georgian, who has been on a decent run of form. And the weather conditions did provide a platform for both the explosive players to match each other shot for shot.

"This was definitely a different kind of match," Prajnesh says, referring to the windy conditions prevalent during his match against Paire. "There was much less wind today so both were able to play better."

Prajnesh took the onus early on in the match, finding a break on Basilashvili's serve in the fifth game of the first set and eventually claimed it 6-4. There were no breaks in the second set and the hard-hitting Georgian levelled the match by winning the tie-breaker.

The third would also go the distance.

"It was a tight third set. I had to make sure I reset a bit at the beginning of that set and play it like a fresh set," Prajnesh says. "I had control of and was close to winning the second set. I had chances but didn’t convert. So if I held on to that kind of negative emotion, thinking that ‘oh I was so close but didn’t finish it,’ that third set would have run away very quickly. It was important to be ready for the third, and I did that today."

He was indeed steady in the tiebreak-particularly when he was up 6-4. On Basilashvili's serve, the pair played a 13-point rally that ended with the European playing an inside-out forehand wide.

The temperamental Paire and Basilashvili however, aren't the only big-name scalps Prajnesh has picked up since his rise up the tennis ladder. Ever since he won the fifth rubber in the Davis Cup tie against China in April last year, he played his first ATP 250 main draw match on the Stuttgart Open grass and beat then world no. 23 Denis Shapovalov. At that time, the Indian was ranked 169 and still had some way to go to prove it wasn't a one-off feat. He was still relatively unknown on the tour then.

The ATP-published story described Prajnesh's hobby of reading up on technology, his love for movies and television shows, and that he once created an email id with legendary Australian Patrick Rafter's name in it.

But that was before he picked up his career's biggest win. There was a sizable crowd on court 9 of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on Saturday. On one side a few-the ones who knew him-in the audience broke into chants of "Let's go Prajnesh, Let's go" after he sealed the match.

Now there will be quite a few who know who he is.