By Ramanujan Nadadur
Featured Image Credits – Sonia Fleury
For nearly three hours on Saturday night at the BNP Paribas Open, India’s rising talent Prajnesh Gunneswaran traded body blows with Georgian tennis star Nikolos Basilashvilli, ranked number 18 in the world. Basilashvilli, built like a boxer, is known for his powerful groundstrokes and his ability to hit through his opponents. He brought this style with aplomb to his clash with Gunneswaran, cracking the ball from the baseline without mercy. Gunneswaran withstood each of these blows, and produced many of his own, inducing errors from Basilashvilli and playing a remarkably clean match.
At the end of it all – before a partisan Indian crowd that yelled words of encouragement at every possible opportunity, generating several pleas of “Quiet Please” from the chair umpire – Gunneswaran emerged victorious. This was without a doubt one of the biggest wins of the young man’s career. The BNP Paribas Open, the largest WTA-ATP combined event outside of the four Grand Slams, is known to many tennis fans as the Fifth Grand Slam.
Saturday night, however, was about much more than Gunneswaran showcasing his ethereal talent on one of the world’s biggest tennis stages. It was about the coming together of the Indian nation in a place far away from the subcontinent. There was an electricity in the air that made the match feel like a Davis Cup tie on home soil.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the support that Praj got during the match. I watched his Davis Cup matches in Calcutta a couple weeks ago, and I really thought that the crowd support that Praj received at Indian Wells was the best that he has ever experienced”Bastian Suwanprateep, Gunneswaran’s coach at the Alexander Waske Tennis University in Germany, where Gunneswaran trains.
The BNP Paribas Open attracts a huge Indian audience, with the growing popularity of the sport in India and the large non-resident Indian population that resides in California. On Saturday night, these fans were keenly aware that one of their own was on his way to a triumph. They poured into the intimate Court 9 at the outset of the match, taking up every seat available. After the guards closed the stadium to new traffic, the fans thronged the entrances, craning their necks to try to catch a glimpse of their hero.
Even doubles star, Rohan Bopanna, fresh off his own victory with partner Dennis Shapovalov, rushed over to Court 9 after their win. The crowd was so large that Bopanna was forced to watch from the outside edges of the stadium, with standing room only for one of India’s biggest tennis stars.
Every one of these fans, those in the stadium and at the entrance, brought a palpable energy that Gunneswaran took advantage of throughout his match against Basilashvilli.
Suwanprateep emphasized that the crowd made a huge difference. “Praj thrives on energy from outside,” Suwanprateep said. “This was especially important at the end of the second set tiebreak, where I was hoping that Praj would be able to maintain his level or even step it up. The crowd helped him a lot, staying with him and pushing him to find a way to win the match.”
The chants on Saturday night came from everywhere and from every part of the Indian subcontinent. “If you win this, I will take you out for Indian food!” yelled one at a particularly tense moment. “Aaaare Prajnesh come on buddy!” pleaded another in response to an unforced error. “This is exactly what dreams are made of!” said yet another as he pointed out the triumphant Gunneswaran to his two small children seated at his side. The sounds of Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, and Tamil wafted through the air. One fan hurriedly spoke to his wife in Telegu and then yelled out “Vannakkam Prajnesh!” deciding to switch languages and cheer his hero on in Gunneswaran’s native tongue. India is known to many for its incredible diversity. For one night – in the appropriately named Indian Wells Tennis Garden – the unity in this diversity was on display.
At the end of it all, Gunneswaran held his arms high above his head, soaking in the adulation of the roaring fans. He stood with them in awe, posing for selfies and signing autographs for anyone who asked. “I do not even have a pen to ask for an autograph, but I just want to stand next to him!” said one star-struck fan from India. Gunneswaran lingered quite a bit longer than victorious tennis stars usually do, revelling in the moment for as long as he possibly could. “He has probably never seen a crowd like this, he is only a qualifier,” remarked another fan as he watched the crowd’s reaction in disbelief. Gunneswaran might only be a qualifier, but he has already made a wonderful showing at one of the most prestigious tournaments on the tennis calendar.
Once this magical night in the desert had reached its end, the droves of Indian fans in attendance descended on the sleepy town of Indian Wells to celebrate their native son’s victory. A visibly overwhelmed employee of one of the only Indian restaurants in the area was forced to turn away hungry customers, exasperated and shaking his head. “We have run out of food, and we have to close early,” he said. A humble suggestion: Indian restaurants in Melbourne, Paris, London, and New York should get prepared. As Gunneswaran continues to move onward and upward in his career, there is little doubt that the Indian Tennis Nation will be following close behind him.