Prajnesh Gunneswaran: Foundation laid at Indian Wells, time to build

Shahid Judge
Before reaching the third round of the Indian Wells tournament, Prajnesh had played in six main draw matches at ATP events but won just one. (Source: Reuters)

At the start of the Indian Wells Masters last week, Prajnesh Gunneswaran did not carry with him a particularly impressive record when it came to ATP-level events. Sure, he's won two $ 150,000 Challengers and has broken into the top 100, but on the highest level of the tennis circuit, he's featured in 13 tournaments and played only six main draw matches – winning just one.

In January, he made his first main draw appearance at a major, coming up from the qualifiers at the Australian Open only to crash out in the first round. As such, expectations may not have been too high on the 29-year-old to make a mark once he secured a spot for himself in the main draw at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

By Sunday though, the southpaw had exceeded all expectations.

He played a former world no 18 in the first round, the mercurial Benoit Paire, and came out the winner in straight sets. Then he went on to register the biggest scalp of his career when he ousted world no 18 Nikoloz Basilashvili.

His longest run at any ATP event, let alone it coming at one of the nine Masters tournaments, ended in the third round though, losing 6-3, 7-6 to the big-serving Ivo Karlovic. But there was a lot more that he gained in return.

"The important thing is he's started to believe that he can beat these big guys," says India's Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali. "Getting a win over two players who are higher ranked than him, and one of them being a top 20 player, will give him a lot of confidence going forward. And it'll give him the motivation to push forward and evolve, which he has been doing."

Among the biggest changes the world no 97 has brought to his game is a stronger and more effective backhand. Ali remembers practicing with Prajnesh in the week ahead of India's away Davis Cup zonal tie against China in April last year. A lot of emphasis during those sessions were on Prajnesh perfecting his double-handed backhand.

"The improvement has been amazing," Ali says. "He already had a big serve and big forehand. Now the backhand has become a lot sharper, it's easily a weapon now. He can generate pace on it and find the angles, and he's started hurting opponents with it."

With performances like this, and an increasingly threatening playing style, expectations have started growing that the player, who had lost five years of his career to knee injuries, will soon break into the top 50. Getting this far at Indian Wells will give him 61 ranking points and will potentially take his rank up to a career high 82 – the highest for any Indian player since Somdev Devvarman reached 62 in July 2011.

In fact, every win for India's no 1 singles player will take his rank higher since he's not defending many points till April.

Rapid rise

At this time last year, Prajnesh's rank languished beyond the 200-mark and had to play a Futures event till he travelled to China for the Davis Cup. Thereon, his rise has been rapid, and he even managed to get a win over then world no 23 Denis Shapovalov – his only win at the ATP level till last week.

"Prajnesh now has to plan his schedule carefully since he's not defending any points," Ali says. "His rank is going to go up, and he no longer will have the 'underdog' tag wherever he goes. At Indian Wells he wasn't expected to win, but in other tournaments there will be expectations. So he will have to learn to handle it."

The game is there – a hard-hitting skill-set off both flanks. Now it's all about the mentality. And it all starts with the belief.

"I'm proving to myself that I can be at this level," Prajnesh said after his win over Basilashvili. "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."

A higher rank and bigger accolades beckon, for he's put himself in a strong position. It's now up to him to get them.