“Prajnesh is a fighter. Off court he’s smiling, but on court he’s a different beast altogether” – Mr. Balachandran, Prajnesh’s mentor as well as coach from his younger days

12th February, 2019

This is the 6th article of the 9-part series on Prajnesh Gunneswaran

  1. Prajnesh Gunneswaran – Inspiring story of a once written-off for good Tennis player
  2. A parent’s perspective into the journey of Prajnesh Gunneswaran
  3. 1987 Davis Cup final team members share their thoughts on Prajnesh Gunneswaran
  4. The man whom Prajnesh SOS’ed and who revived Prajnesh’s career – Christian Bosse
  5. If he says something, then you know he is doing it – Bastian Suwanprateep on Prajnesh

All the articles are also published on http://www.thebridge.in

Balu Sir, during his presentation at Asian Coaches Workshop in Delhi in 2004

Balu Sir, as he is fondly known in the Tennis circuit, (Full Name – Mr. M. Balachandran) is one of the most experienced coaches going around in the country. He has known Prajnesh since he was 15, and has been his mentor ever since.

Balu Sir and Prajnesh first met at the High Performance Tennis Centre(HPTC) in Bangalore in 2005. In this interview, Balu Sir shares details about his journey with Prajnesh, his own Tennis career, and much more.

You have been one of the stalwarts of Indian Tennis for several decades now. How did your journey into Tennis begin as a player?

I grew up in a small town called Pollachi, near Coimbatore. My father was a doctor there. He had a colleague, who was also a doctor, but was a huge Tennis enthusiast as well. So he decided to teach Tennis to his friend’s kids. As luck would have had it, my elder brother was picked initially, and I was not. But as it happens, I used to accompany my elder brother to the courts, and that is how I started playing Tennis.

I picked up pretty quickly and started taking part in a few tournaments in Coimbatore. People noticed, and advised my father to send me outside Coimbatore to play tournaments, because that is how Tennis worked. I used to travel with fellow players from Coimbatore, but my parents never accompanied me.

Then after 12th standard, I moved to Chennai, as I had gotten into Anna University. I spent four years doing my engineering, with Tennis to go along with it. It helped my game, as in Pollachi, all the kids had stopped playing, and Tennis had pretty much come to a standstill.

Can you give us a brief introduction to how you got into coaching and your journey as a coach

As I finished my engineering, I still continued to play men’s tournaments. But around the same time, Mr. Nandan Bal was starting an academy in Pune, and he needed a coach who could travel with the players. At that time, there were players like Nitin Kirtane and Saurav Panja at the academy. So my job was to travel with them to tournaments, play my matches, and help them as well. In Pune, I used to hit with them as well. So I was more like a part-time coach.

In 1995, I quit playing completely, and got into coaching full time. And then in 1999, coach’s education started, and I did my Level 1 and Level 2 courses. In 2004, ITF invited me, and I did the Level 3 course as well. So that is how the entire journey of a kid from a small town to an ITF Level 3 coach took place.

Working in Pune, with Nandan, there were players like Rohit Rajpal, Saurav Panja, Nitin Kirtane, and the others, I found myself working with the Davis Cuppers of that time. So everything really panned out perfectly for me at that time.

Balu Sir during his playing days

How did your involvement with the High Performance Tennis Center(HPTC) in Bangalore happen? Other players whom you were involved with, along with Prajnesh.

My involvement with HPTC happened through Jonathan (Stubbs). In 2002, Jonathan and myself took some players to Egypt, including Jeevan(Nedunchezhiyan), for a training camp there, along with a couple of ITF Junior events in Egypt and Syria. Jonathan got a fitness trainer from Tarragona(Spain) as well.

A few players from Karnataka were also there, two of them being Sunder Raju’s(secretary of KSLTA) sons. So Sunder got in touch with Jonathan, and convinced him to come to India. But then Jonathan suggested, since no one would know him in India, to attract kids, they need to get me onboard, since I was known around the tennis community by then. And since staying in Bangalore would mean I would be closer to Pollachi, where my parents lived, the decision to move from Pune became easier. Also, I knew that the work would be good, since Jonathan was a very experienced coach.

Players from different parts of the country moved to Bangalore to train at the HPTC actually. Apart from Prajnesh, Akash Wagh and a couple of others were also there. Jeevan also used to come and train. We had a Spanish trainer for six months, then we had an Irish trainer for six months, before Christian(Bosse) came in. We were like one big happy family.

How did your involvement with Prajnesh begin? What was your initial impression of Prajnesh – the player?

Prajnesh initially used to grind, which is a good thing. Actually he still does. And he is one player who thinks a lot. You don’t generally see a Tennis player talk about his own game so much, but Prajnesh does. It can sometimes be good, and sometimes it cannot be good as well. But it shows his involvement in the game. He was like that as a 15 year old as well. He always wanted to know more and was a keen person to know about his game.

Prajnesh with the other kids at HPTC Bangalore

After winning the nationals in juniors and being the finalist in seniors, Prajnesh has gone through a long tough phase with injuries – it must have been tough for you as a coach and as his mentor. How did you cope during this phase?

Unfortunately, Prajnesh has always struggled with injuries. It’s only in the last two years that he’s been able to play continuously injury free only for the last two years. During his tryst with injuries, he always used to talk to me and give me updates about the different types of treatments he was trying, be it physiotherapy or something else. The only thing we used to wonder was what the injury actually was and why it was not healing.

To look at the bright side, not all players would have hung in there like Prajnesh did. It gets very frustrating to go through such a phase as a player. In 2012, at Chennai Open, he beat Karan Rastogi. He was in okay shape for a week, then again got injured. He tried everything he could. In fact, if I remember correctly, he even consulted Bayern Munich’s physio at one point. But I guess all is well that ends well.

What he went through has made him a tougher, wiser, calmer and a more mature person. He looks at the bigger picture now. He now knows that he has to make the most of the present, as you never know what will happen tomorrow.

Prajnesh(in orange) during a training session in Sri Lanka in 2006

Prajnesh has always called out that he has been lucky to have been under a high quality team in Bangalore. Can you share a bit more detail on your working relationship with Jonathan Stubbs and Christian Bosse? Are you all still connected with each other as a group?

We are very much in touch. I am working for a grassroots programme in Kerala, for which I am in constant touch with Christian, taking inputs from him regularly. I’ve been touch with Jonathan for various reasons. Like whenever I visit Hong Kong, we meet up. I’ve known him since 1995, when he used to be in Dubai. We’ve always been in touch. After that, he was in India for three years.

About working as a team, we complimented each other’s strengths. For instance, I knew Jonathan and Christian’s strengths, and I really appreciated it. Similarly, they appreciated my role. All of us were in great appreciation of each other. So there was never any ego clash or anything, because all of us thought of the others as great human beings, and we were always learning from each other. I had separate appreciation for Jonathan for his organisation skills and attention to detail, and he appreciated me because of how well I planned things while traveling et al. Christian, as a fitness coach, I don’t think a Tennis player can have better. I say this because he’s played Tennis, is a no nonsense guy, very simple, but he knows his stuff. So basically, the three of us were feeding off each other. It rubbed off on the kids as well, as they knew that the three of us were collectively trying to help them.

Prajnesh has had a meteoric rise this year. What do you think as his mentor – caused his surge up the rankings? Any specific aspects of his game that have changed?

So Prajnesh used to be this very defensive player, who used to run around the baseline all day, drawing errors out of his opponent. During the Bengaluru Challenger in 2017, I told him “You’re not winning points. Somebody is giving you points”. Now the difference is he wins points on his own. He has a big serve, a big forehand. So he does not have to depend on his opponent to give him points. It doesn’t matter who’s across the net, as Prajnesh has the ability to win points on his own.

At the Futures level, the defensive approach might work, as those players are bound to miss balls. But at the Challenger level and beyond, those guys will make you run all day, and then win the point. So the main change has been his intention to be aggressive and win the point on his own merit. One of the other aspects was his resistance to move forward to the net when the opportunity came about. Even in Pune and Bangalore, he was trying to mix things up, slicing, drop shots, second serve to the forehand, etc, which is a good sign. Earlier on, at a close stage like 4-4, he would try nothing new.

I would like to give the credit to him for making this big change in his game. Because if a player has achieved a top 200 ranking, it’s very difficult to make such a big change to their game, because that is what that had given them the success. When Prajnesh was playing the first Challenger in Chennai this year, he was hitting all over the place. And he’s still a work in progress.

What do you think makes Prajnesh good on all three surfaces? Win against Shapo, challenger titles on clay, hard.

I think the main reason is his big serve, especially the leftie angle he can create. In addition, he has a big forehand, which he hits with a lot of spin. He also has a very underrated volley, a shot that he does not probably use much, but it’s really effective. So he’s able to adapt his game according to the surface.

But I think his favorite surface would be a medium paced hard court, which gives him to set up his forehand and give it a whack, and one that also gives his time to run down balls.

What is the one thing that stands out to you about Prajnesh (game or personality), that he should never change?

His biggest strength is he is always looking to improve. After every match, whether he has lost or won, he will come and ask  “What could I have done better?”. And that’s the best quality a player can have. His ranking might be at a 110 or a 120, but he always asks me how his game compares to a Djokovic or a Nadal, and if his game would hold up if he were to go up against one of them. So that’s what his mentality is like, being on par with the best in the business.

On court, he’s a complete fighter. He never gives up. Off court, he is smiling and looks relaxed, but on court, he’s a different beast altogether. These two qualities have brought him where he is. And there is no reason he has to change, and he will go far.

Balu Sir with Prajnesh, after the latter won the ATP Bengaluru Challenger, 2018
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