Mr. Jonathan Stubbs was the Director of the High Performance Tennis Center (HPTC) set up by Mr Sunder Raju of KSTLA back in 2004. Prajnesh, Jeevan and several of our top juniors were part of this program back then. Jonathan has had a huge role to play in the player and the personality of Prajnesh that we see today.
We got a chance to speak to Jonathan about his journey at a high level and for more detail on Prajnesh.
Mr Jonathan is currently working with ITF as the Development Officer for South, South East & East Asia.
This is the 8th article of the 9-part series on Prajnesh Gunneswaran
- Prajnesh Gunneswaran – Inspiring story of a once written-off for good Tennis player
- A parent’s perspective into the journey of Prajnesh Gunneswaran
- 1987 Davis Cup final team members share their thoughts on Prajnesh Gunneswaran
- The man whom Prajnesh SOS’ed and who revived Prajnesh’s career – Christian Bosse
- If he says something, then you know he is doing it – Bastian Suwanprateep on Prajnesh
- “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
- ‘Beating a top class player like Denis Shapovalov on his favourite surface was the pivotal moment for Prajnesh’ – Alexander Waske
All the articles are also published on http://www.thebridge.in
You had a broad-ranged International experience as a Tennis Coach. You started with India back in 2003. How did this journey come about and what triggered the move for you personally?
At that point, I was living in Europe. I do not remember the circumstances exactly but I had met some people from India. I had known Mr Balachandran (Balu) for sometime by then. I got introduced to Mr Sunder Raju, secretary of the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association (KSLTA). He was looking at starting a High Performance Tennis Center (HPTC) back then. We started off with a junior world ranking event trip to Syria and Egypt with his two sons, Jeevan and couple of others. We also had a training camp and Balu came over to help with that. We had the camp for about a month and after we were done, we had decided to setup the HPTC in Bangalore.
Photo credits: The Hindu
The goal was to have a full-fledged academy which includes what everything a junior player needs. This was something that Mr Sunder Raju always wanted to do and he made it happen.
I was the one there initially with a strength and conditioning coach from Spain, who was there for 6 months. After he left, we had another guy from Ireland, who was also there for 6 months. Meanwhile, Balu joined the setup after 8 months and then joined by Christian after a few months. We 3 formed the core group for couple of years after that.
Your initial impressions of working with Prajnesh back in Bangalore (2003-06).
I worked with Prajnesh when he was 14 to 19 years of age. When he first joined, he was probably the highest ranked U14 player in India. He was quite tall, skinny, no muscle – a good player but physically quite limited. It is generally the case in India and other Asian countries where the physical aspect is not developed very quickly.
From your time in India, what impression did you get about the tennis infrastructure in India ?
Back in 2003, India had lot of places which one would call Academies but they were nothing more than places to play Tennis. My understanding of Academies from Europe was that you would have lot of players training throughout the day professionally, with probably Academics added on top.
The only academy which came somewhat close to that model was Mahesh Bhupathi’s academy but apart from that, there wasn’t one. We were charging about Rs 30,000 per month for all (incl probably education, food & accommodation) – which at that time was still a lot of money. Now I believe, the fees go up to about Rs 1 Lakh – so it has really boomed. However at that time, it was quite a new concept which speaks volumes of Mr. Sunder Raju, who was quite a visionary. When he believes in something, he gives it all from the bottom of his heart – a very good person.
What prompted the move to Spain and how was your involvement with Prajnesh during this phase.
I was very happy to be working in Bangalore but due to personal family reasons, we decided that it was time to move back to Europe. I set up an academy called Spain Tennis Academy in Barcelona with an old friend of mine who was a coach when I was a player myself in the 1980s.
It was a typical setup in Barcelona – 8-10 players max and the coaches are really dedicated to those players and travel with them to the tournaments and so on.
Prajnesh, Sandhya Nagaraj and Akash Gujarati from Pune came over almost immediately.
Prajnesh’s career threatening injuries started around this phase – According to you, what was contributing to these severe injuries? It must have been tough for you as a coach.
No, Prajnesh wasn’t injured much during this phase. He didn’t get injured initially. He left for College tennis at the age of 19. Before that, he had a quite a long period where he was reasonably successful but wasn’t getting his first ATP point. We went together to a tourney in the north of Spain and he finally got his ATP point there. He was ranked around #900 then.
It was around this time that he started getting some problems. He had an elbow problem in the nerve which needed a surgery – done by Nadal’s surgeon actually. He was the Doctor for the Spanish Davis Cup team. It was after that that he started having more problems. He went to the US Collegiate Tennis and that did not work out.
After that, he started having the knee problems. So he didn’t have big problems in Spain, the only problem he had was the elbow.
Have you been in touch with Prajnesh / Mr M Balachandran – Have you followed Prajnesh’s progress since then?
We have been in contact quite regularly. When he was playing the Davis Cup in China, I was in Beijing – met with Mr Balachandran after that. Prajnesh managed to get himself to play the last rubber which was a good decision by the captain.
I follow his progress quite often and more than anything, he is a good friend of mine now. His family is really nice as well. I am just interested to follow his fortunes and see how far he takes himself on the Pro tour.
You then moved to HKG to take on a new role – what prompted this move?
I was in Spain for about 4 years by then. I was sourced by the Hong Kong Tennis Association through a friend of mine, who was the director there. He got me over for a job which we decided to do for 3 months and see how it goes. I moved in October 2010. Then he finished his contract and I took over from him as the Director of Player Development.
Thoughts on the last year for Prajnesh. What brought about this great run?
You should ask him this question but from my perspective, the biggest part can be that he keeps at it, he doesn’t stop. This is biggest aspect for any athlete, to keep evolving – this is the strength of Prajnesh.
I spoke to Balachandran, who was here for the ITF Coaches Conference in Hong Kong. He opined that Prajnesh has started to play aggressively which in my opinion is the way that Prajnesh should play. He has got a big serve, forehand and so if he plays more offensive by staying inside the court – that probably is going to have a big factor. At the higher level, you can’t wait for things to happen, you have to make things happen yourself. If he has decided to change here, then thats a big factor and that is what will take him ultimately to the top-100.
What is the one thing that stands out to you about Prajnesh, that he should never change?
When he first came to Spain, we drove him up to the tourneys here. In one of the matches, he was playing against a big Spanish player and here was this young skinny boy yelling come on, pumping his fists and pepping himself very vocally! It was very funny but showed his competitive spirit.
He is also very hardworking. Ofcourse he is tall and is a big hitter. One thing that has changed drastically as well is his physical capacity – his strength, the power and his overall physical qualities. This was possible because he is working with good people. This obviously changed his game completely.
Your role as the ITF South, South East & East Asia Development in-charge
I am the development officer here and it is segmented into 5 sub-regions. My colleague handles Central Asia and I handle South, South East & East Asia. I cover 23 countries. India, China and all the way across to Korea. It is a very multifaceted role – right from events around these regions, which I sometimes monitor as a supervisor, to assisting the countries with their player development programmes – right from the structure and training to coach education – it is a direct role with the national associations.
Basically anything to do with Tennis development in these countries as a representative of ITF.
Are you still involved with the Hong Kong Tennis Association?
Yes but as a representative of the ITF. We just recently held a regional coaches conference where Coach Balachandran came over as a speaker. After that, we held the session for the people who lead the ITF Coaches Education courses and deliver them. I am also helping them with various other initiatives.
Ofcourse I live in Hong Kong and so I am closer to them than most other countries.
Karan Rastogi is based there as well..
He works for the Sports Institute which is a slightly different structure. We have been in contact but I haven’t met him yet even though we live in the same country. Now my job is quite different and I travel about 5 months of the year. When we had the conference at the Sports Institute, he wasn’t in town. I know he is here, we just haven’t run into each other yet. I know his former coach from Chennai quite well too.
We’ve been talking about Prajnesh’s injuries – he is already 29 years old. However, his body might be fresher than what it looks given that he has not had to grind it for so many years. Your thoughts on this.
You may be right. It is a very good question. Certain aspects of his body might be close to 22 but on the other hand, other aspects of his body might be much older. It depends on the wear and tear and in which area. I don’t know what his knee problem is. I know what the elbow problem was and it is not a factor anymore.
The most important part is to keep pushing it hard and continue being aggressive.
The Indian Juniors tend to do well on the ITF Juniors but struggle to translate this success onto the Pro Tour.
This is a larger Asian problem. They focus a lot on the Juniors but do not put the same rigor early to prepare for the Pro tour. Mens tour is very different, it is much more physical. I am a firm believer in the approach that you get onto the Men’s Tour as early as possible. 15 year olds should be transitioning to the Pro Tour where possible because mentally it is a different ball game.
In the ITF Juniors at the top level, they don’t make many mistakes but also don’t hit the ball that hard. Now it is changing and it is becoming powerful even in the Juniors.
It was the same case with Prajnesh too. I remember driving Prajnesh from Barcelona to all the way down to South of France to play in a Grade I event so that he could qualify for the French Open Junior Grand Slam. We drove there for 600 kms, lost in the first round and drove back 600 kms. I wasn’t happy with the match at all. For me it is a waste of time.
For lot of the boys, it is about doing well in the Juniors and making it to the Grand Slams but they don’t think about the real Grand Slams. There are many factors around this
- They focus too much on the Juniors
- They don’t develop physically as fast as their counterparts in other regions
- From my recent experiences of working with indian Juniors – they are seriously overtrained. 6 hrs of poor quality training. No purpose, no intensity – if they continue on this mode and not focus on explosive aspects like aggressive return of serve, which is something that one does when they are fresh and not after 4 hours of training – things will not change.
We need to upgrade the coaching methodologies. I am looking forward to going to India and see if we can work on some of these approaches, organize some camps and try and get some methodology there.