By Sufyan Ibrahim, 5th May, 2018.
Prajnesh Gunneswaran has had a dream last couple of months. It all started with his brave win in the deciding rubber of the Asia/Oceania Davis Cup tie against China in China. He beat the reigning Junior US Open singles and doubles champion, Yibing Wu. quite authoritatively. He seems to have carried that confidence and form to the pro circuit, and the results have shown in the last one month or so.
He recently won his first ATP Challenger title in Anning on the red clay in China, winning the $150K(+H) event (the highest level of Challengers that there is). He had lost out in his other only Challenger final, a couple of years back in Pune. The great run in the Challenger circuit has given him a chance to showcase his skill in the French Open Qualifying starting in a couple of weeks.
Amidst this hectic last couple of months, Prajnesh found some time to catch up with Indian Tennis Daily for an interview. He talks about his entire journey as a tennis pro in this free-wheeling chat.
Q) First of all, how does it feel to pull off that amazing victory in the deciding rubber of the Davis Cup for your country? Has that moment sunk in yet? What was your psychological framework before that match?
It took me a little while, but it definitely has. After the match when we were all sitting together, it sort of sunk in. It is probably the best feeling that I have ever had. I mean, it couldn’t have come at a better time, you know, playing the 5th and deciding rubber for your country and coming out on top. It was an honor for me.
Honestly, I didn’t think much before the match. I just knew that I had to play very aggressively. If I dwell too much on the weight of the situation, I wouldn’t be able to play my game. So, I didn’t let myself think too much about that. And fought it out on the court.
Q) You started playing tennis at the age of seven, but you’ve told it many times that you have played far fewer matches than your peers, owing to multifarious injuries that you had to go through. What would you want to tell about the current fitness regime that you are following? Any advice that you would want to give to the juniors?
I have been working with my German fitness trainer in Bengaluru, since the age of fourteen, who plans for my fitness sessions. He currently works with the Netherlands’ BMX Olympic team. And also I also train at Schuttler-Waske along with that.
Advice is pretty simple: find the right support system, the right coach, obviously your parents will support you, and follow somebody who has achieved it previously so that you know you are on the right track as it could be very confusing sometimes.
Q) Could you elaborate a little bit about your background, what made you get into tennis? You family and financial support, etc.?
My grandfather was the one who got me into tennis in the first place. He had a passion for sports. My cousin used to play tennis and I used to follow her to the courts even when I was like a toddler. And I guess they saw that I had the interest to run behind the balls and discovered what I wanted to play. I was one of the first tods to play in the mini-courts in YMC when they were established.
Financial support initially by my granddad and then by my dad. Since then it has always been them and whatever I make from tennis.
Q) After having won the U-16 and U-18 titles, you seemed to have been through a state of hibernation. Your transition from the futures to the challengers’ tour took a longer time. This probably has been a problem with most other Indians who usually do very well in the ITF Futures. What do you think is the reason behind this?
To be honest, there are quite a few reasons. Primarily, we do not have enough tournaments in India. And we do not have enough competition, to begin with. When you are only competing with other Indians and you don’t realize what the tour level is, and then when you eventually go abroad and find yourselves in the deep end of the sea. So it takes a while to make that transition.
It’s not that we are not capable of playing at that level. It’s just that we lack a system but not the potential. Because you can see that we are successful in other sports right now, like Badminton, which is also a very physical sport. So, clearly, it can be done.
Like other tennis players have been saying, be it Somdev or Yuki, we need the changes in the grassroots’-level because that is what will create champions. Because you need to do the right thing from Day 1 and the chances of you making it after 20 or later are significantly lesser.
Q) How has been your life on tour so far? What are some of the best experiences that you have had? How is your bond with the other players on tour and Indian compatriots?
I dunno. I am enjoying the Tour. I have been injury-free for the last couple of years (touchwood!). I am getting to play the full schedule of over 25 tournaments per year. I dunno, I’m really enjoying it!
Over time I have made friends on the circuit. Initially, when I was playing, I didn’t even know whom to ask for being a practice-partner, unless there were fellow Indians. But now I know most of the players who are in the circuit, sort of more familiar.
Best experience: there is nothing to compete with the Davis Cup for me. Playing for your country, that team-spirit is itself exhilarating, which you don’t get to feel on tour. Then, probably making the debut in the qualifiers of the previous two Slams was amazing, even though I couldn’t do that well.
I am very close to most of the Indian guys traveling on the circuit and share a good relationship with most of them.
Q) How did you decide on going to the college in the US? What were the factors that you considered? What are the pros and cons?
I didn’t have any plans of going to a college. I got injured for a little while and was doubtful if I will be able to compete again professionally, and decided that if I need some time then playing the college tennis is the best option. Many colleges approached me and eventually, I chose Tennessee.
I felt that I still had the potential to play at the highest level. I didn’t have any timeline in my mind back then. And after one year I felt like I was ready to go. Unfortunately, I got injured again for about 3-4 years, I barely played. In hindsight, that could have gone better.
Playing college tennis definitely helps financially, lessens your burden mentally and physically. You get your education as well. It also depends on which college you go to. There are few guys who have done it outright at the highest level without going through the college route. If you are doing well and rising faster already, then you should continue playing professionally. Again, everything depends on what you want and stuff.
Q) You are one of the most talented players to have come out of India but injuries have always held back your progress. What is causing the various injuries and how has your journey been with them?
I had a few minor injuries when I was younger. I did have some setbacks but nothing too bad. But the major injury after college was very difficult. I couldn’t get the exact clinical diagnosis. I went to a lot of experts but they couldn’t give me a clear answer. It never got fixed and took me a very long time. Eventually, I found a method to get rid of it.
Q) You are one of the few Indian players who has consistently done well on the European Clay circuit. Is Clay your strength? How has your stints in Spain / Germany (Schuttler-Waske) impacted your game?
Yeah, I am pretty good on clay because I trained a lot on clay back when I was 16-17, in Spain. I can generate more power and spin on my forehand. So, that could be the main reason. Other factors that make you a better clay-courter include your fitness and patience to play the longer and slower rallies. But I still feel that I am slightly better on hard. But I have the potential to be good on clay if I work on it enough, as I feel I have the set up to be a clay courter if I work on certain aspects.
I have been working with the coach, Bastian Suwanprateep, for a very long time in Schuttler-Waske. He has always been there to support me from the very beginning. He has fixed many issues associated with my game. All the coaches there know what it takes to make to the bigger stages. Alex himself was a top 100 player. I am very grateful for all the help and valuable advises, the structure and the direction, that they all have put me in.
Q) Any changes in your game that you wish you’d have done during your formative years, you think would have been more ideal?
Ah! I don’t know. I tried as hard as I could to make it very successful aiming to be like someone in the top 10 or 20 in the world. Hardly did I realize that time that it would cause me such injuries. But, if I had to do it again, I’d do the exact same thing! Because I was very driven by passion and was not ready to slow down.
Q) How different is it to play the guys like Baghdatis (as in IPTL) or Istomin (as in AO-WC-POs)? Can we expect more Indians to beat these big guys in the coming years?
Of course! We now have Ramkumar doing very well. We also have Yuki in the top 85 after so many injury-struck seasons. That guy plays some amazing tennis, he’s got such amazing skills! Ram is such a fighter and is in top 120 now. He’s pretty young as well. I think these guys are already doing so well and will just get better. There’s no reason for them not to.
As for the rest of the Indians: when somebody does it and breaks the mold and tells that it is possible, then others will believe that they can achieve it with grit and determination too. It just sets a path for all upcoming players.
Q) Tennis-In-India v/s Tennis-Elsewhere? What are your thoughts? Any changes that you would like to be implemented, if at all?
It would be just about finding ways to organize a lot of tournaments. Have good quality tennis coaches and good fitness coaches in all the academies, which will just force the players to improve their standards. It will constantly keep getting better. It should be a holistic approach and not just one thing that needs to change in the way the system functions in India. Having the right structure and the personnel is more important than just the facilities, in my opinion.
Q) For a person who doesn’t play doubles much, you seem to be having phenomenal results in doubles. Finals of a $150K Challenger and the Semis with Bala couple of weeks before that. These are some of the best doubles results we had in the last 2 months. What is the trick here?
It might be that my game is sort of suited to play doubles as well. I have a good serve and I can play very good from the baseline. Nowadays doubles has changed quite a bit because it is not really necessary that you have to volley really well to play doubles. Like the Lopez brothers play a lot from the back. So, I think the game has evolved. And if you have the right kind of partner who compliments your game, then it works. Again, as I’m a singles player, I can play from both the sides. But just because I did well doesn’t mean that I’ll become an extremely good doubles player. I will be playing doubles whenever I get the chance, but my main focus will always be singles.
Q) You have already made it to the Slam Qualifiers of USO and AO. What are the goals that you have set for the rest of this year?
Right now, I am in the 260s and am unsure if I’ll make it to the French Open. (Interviewer interrupts to say that all Indian tennis fans hope that he does make it in the upcoming tournaments that he’s scheduled to play in China) (Praj giggles) It’s just that I didn’t want to play too many futures. I want to be able to do well in the Challengers consistently. That is my goal. And for that, I need to keep improving, play with better intensity constantly. And I feel that when I start doing that, it’ll get much better.
I don’t have any set goals for the rankings. It’s more of a process-goal that I want to be playing in a certain way and at a certain level. And if I get that, the results will follow. Maybe after the Davis Cup, I am playing a bit more aggressive, trying to keep the momentum going.
Q) What are your thoughts on the restructured ITF tour?
To be honest, I don’t know. It’s going to be tricky, I think. How difficult the Challengers are going to get? How many of the players in top 700 have won points playing ATP events, etc.? I don’t know. It will be a little bit of an experiment next year. The idea clearly has come after putting in lots of thoughts, otherwise, they wouldn’t be making a change. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see next year. To me, I really hope I do well enough in the Challengers and don’t have to worry about all that.
Few questions were asked after his maiden triumph in the ATP Challenger Tour.
Q) You have been much more dominating in this challenger win. For example, the comeback in the semis after the bagel. How amazing was that?
How was your preparation for the final, and what are the changes in your game this year that have catapulted your game to the next level?In the SFs, I lost 2 service breaks in the first set. But it’s a best of 3 sets match so I knew I would have a good chance irrespective of the score in the first set.
With regards to the Finals, I prepared the same way as I for every other match the whole week. Nothing special. Regular recovery work. Came back from a set down there as well. Was a wonderful week indeed.
Q) Now that you have qualified for RG, how do you feel to play for the first time there and how are you going to prepare for the grand event?
I have been working on playing with more aggression. It is paying off now. I feel good since I am coming off a big tournament win on clay. So it gives me a lot more confidence.
Q) With your current ranking now you should be able to play a few ATP250 Qualifiers too. Any plans on that? Will we get to see you often?
I will find the right mix of ATP 250’s qualifying events and Challengers depending on how I do in the next couple of months.
|Favorite Food||Rasam rice|
|Favorite Person||My parents (can’t think of one)|
|Favorite Movie||Black Panther (now!)|
|Favorite Song||Keeps switching|
|Dream Mixed Doubles Partner||Martina Hingis|
|Favorite City that you have never been to||Amsterdam|