The singles discipline of Indian tennis got an encouraging boost last week after Sumit Nagal and Karman Kaur Thandi won titles at the Tampere Challenger and W60 ITF in Evansville respectively.
The lacklustre performance in singles was evident in the first three Majors of 2023. But the past decade has witnessed moments that compelled Indian tennis fans to keep their fingers crossed. Thus, we reflect on some significant match wins by Indian tennis players at the bigger stages of the game in the recent past.
Ankita Raina d. Nao Hibino – 2016 BJK Cup
It was not easy to miss the exponential graph that Nao Hibino was tracing in the 2015 WTA season. Courtesy of her maiden tour-level title at Tashkent at the tail-end of the season, the Japanese, who was ranked outside the Top 200, leaped 148 spots to finish as the World No.66. She carried her form in 2016, reaching the quarterfinals of Auckland, defeating two Top 100 opponents. As a result, she achieved a career-high ranking of No.56 and became the new Japanese No.1. The year is 2023, and Hibino has reclaimed the Japanese No.1 spot.
The week after Hibino’s quarter-final run in Auckland, a 23-year-old Ankita Raina made the quarterfinals of an ITF event in Aurangabad. The World No.307 was chosen to represent India at the Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup) in an away tie for the fourth consecutive year. Sania Mirza and coach Zeeshan Ali carried a young Indian contingent with Raina, Prerna Bhambri, and Prarthana Thombare to Thailand.
After a 0-3 loss to Thailand, the Indians drew the Japanese. India would lose the tie against Japan but with a silver lining. In the singles rubber, Raina stunned Hibino 6-3 6-1. It was the biggest win of Raina’s career and to date remains so in terms of the opponent’s rankings. Raina has been representing India at the BJK Cup each year since 2013. The Indian No.1 has been a part of 40 ties at the event and is 20-17 in singles rubbers. She was conferred the Heart Award by the ITF in 2022 for representing India with distinction over the years at the BJK Cup.
Sumit Nagal d. Cristian Garin – 2021 Buenos Aires
Cristian Garin has displayed his affinity to clay courts ever since his breakthrough year in 2019. A winner of five tour-level clay court events between 2019 to 2021, the South American defeated the likes of Casper Ruud, Matteo Berrettini, and Diego Schwartzman in the finals. However, Garin had a steady build-up to his stellar years. He won three of the five finals he reached on the Challenger tour in 2018. In one such Challenger event in Genoa, the Chilean crossed paths against Sumit Nagal in a Round of 16 match. Garin notched a comeback win after losing the opening set.
Three years later, both players had made substantial progress. Garin was now a Top 25 player and Nagal had leapfrogged 156 spots in the span of these three years. Ranked 150, Nagal had made solid progress in the qualifying draw of Buenos Aires, earning him a main draw entry. Yet again, in a Round of 16 match, the Indian faced Garin, who was seeded second for the ATP 250 event. While Garin had got a bye in the first round, Nagal comprehensively defeated Joao Sousa 6-2 6-0.
The match between Garin and Nagal saw 12 breaks of serve. At the end of an hour and 48 minutes, the World No.22 lost the match 4-6 3-6. Nagal impressively managed the opening set against fifth seed Albert Ramos-Vinolas, but would eventually lose the match. To Garin’s dismay, he won the wooden spoon for the event. To date, the triumph over Garin remains the biggest win of Nagal’s career.
Prajnesh Gunneswaran d. Nikoloz Basilashvili – 2019 Indian Wells
Out of the blue, Nikoloz Basilashvili won the 2018 Hamburg title (ATP 500) as a qualifier and broke into the Top 40. If that was not enough, three months later, he would defeat Juan Martin Del Potro to win the finals of Beijing, another ATP 500. In 2019, right before Indian Wells, he made his debut in the Top 20.
Prajnesh Gunneswaran’s best win till 2018 came against sixth seed Denis Shapovalov in Stuttgart. In 2019, two finishes in the final four of the Bangkok and Chennai Challenger events guided him marginally within the Top 100 for the first time. The then Indian No.1 had cut for the qualifying draw of Indian Wells.
Gunneswaran’s 2019 run at Indian Wells is one of the most memorable runs that Indians could cherish on the singles circuit. The Tamilian made the main draw of the ATP 1000 event. He faced former Top 20 player Benoit Paire in the first round. Astonishingly, Gunneswaran wrapped up the match in under 90 minutes. In the second round, he drew Basilashvili.
The Georgian was a fresh entrant of the Top 20. But his feathers did ruffle, as Gunneswaran took the opener 6-4. The World No.18 took the next set 7-6(6). In the decider, Gunneswaran got an opportunity to serve for the match at 5-3. But Basilashvili was no easy customer, and he leveled the set 5-5. Fittingly, a final set tiebreak decided the outcome. After 2 hours and 30 minutes, Gunneswaran won the marathon match 6-4 6-7(6) 7-6(4). A month later, the Indian would reach his career-high ranking of World No.75.
Yuki Bhambri d. Lucas Pouille – 2018 Indian Wells
Lucas Pouille was one of the most consistent performers on the ATP circuit between 2016 to 2020. He won five titles of the nine he reached between 2016 to 2019. A regular feature of the Top 20 during this period, Pouille had yet another red-hot start to his 2018 season. The Frenchman had won the title at Montpellier and had runner-up finishes in Marseille and Dubai. All geared up for Indian Wells, the World No.12 was the ninth seed at the hard court Masters event.
Meanwhile, Yuki Bhambri was hustling to break back into the Top 100. A runner-up finish at the Chennai Challenger inched him closer to his goal. He was ranked No.110 before Indian Wells and was registered for the qualifying draw. Bhambri did not drop a single set in the qualifying draw and registered a hat-trick of straight sets wins by winning the first round of his main draw match against Nicolas Mahut. He drew Pouille in the second round.
Interestingly, this was the third part of Bhambri and Pouille’s rivalry. Both players were 1-1 in the head-to-head and both those matches played on hard courts in 2014 required three sets each to declare a winner. After four years, Pouille, now a Top 20 player was facing Bhambri, ranked No.110.
Bhambri’s first serve percentage was an impressive 75% in response to Pouille’s mediocre 59%. A total of six breaks of serve were exchanged. After an hour and 20 minutes, Bhambri won 6-4 6-4.
Ramkumar Ramanathan d. Dominic Thiem – 2017 Antalya
Dominic Thiem does not need much introduction. The former World No.3 who won the US Open title in 2020 is a winner of 17 tour-level singles titles. The Austrian broke into the Top 10 in 2016. The following year, he was ranked No.8 before the grass-court season.
Ramkumar Ramanathan began his 2017 season outside the Top 220. He had an impressive outing at the Davis Cup, going 4-0 in his singles matches in the Davis Cup World Group play-off. He also reached his maiden Challenger level final in Tallahassee where he finished as the runner-up.
Ramanathan’s favorite surface is grass. At Antalya, he made it through the qualifying draw without dropping a set. After defeating Rogerio dutra Silva in another straight sets win, he drew Thiem in the second round of the main draw. A minute shy of the one-hour mark, Ramanathan churned a memorable upset over Thiem (6-3 6-2). He hit 10 aces, served 5 love games, and won 17 more points than his opponent.
The quest to find consistent results in the singles discipline of Indian tennis continues.