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Vol. XXIX No. 12, October 1-15, 2019
That Chennai is the tennis capital of the country is a well-known fact for well over 60 years now. Ever since Ramanathan Krishnan burst upon the scene in the mid- fifties, a player from the southern metropolis has generally been the flag bearer of the sport internationally. Whether Grand Slam events, the ATP Tour circuit or the Davis Cup, the charge has been led by the likes of Krishnan, the Amritraj brothers Anand and Vijay, and Krishnan’s son, Ramesh. In the last couple of decades, it has been the turn of Leander Paes and Somdev Devvarman to be the leading players in the country and both of them have had Chennai as their initial training base.
Under the circumstances, Chennai lads Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Ramkumar Ramanathan have a huge tradition to follow when they spearhead India’s challenge against Pakistan in the upcoming Davis Cup tie to be played at Islamabad on September 14 and 15 (The ITF decided to postpone India’s Asia Oceania Group 1 Davis Cup match against Pakistan to November due to the escalated diplomatic tension). If they do win as expected, they will have a bigger responsibility as India bid to claw back into the elite World Group.
Prajnesh and Ramkumar are the two leading Indian players on the ATP Tour. Ramkumar is younger by five years but the first to make his mark, achieving a career high ranking of 111 about a year ago. Since then, he has found the going hard and has slipped to rank 185. Prajnesh has done much better. He reached a career best ranking of 75 in April this year and is currently ranked at the 88th position. And while Ramkumar has been eliminated in the qualifying rounds for the four Grand Slam events, Prajnesh, thanks to his ranking, has bagged a direct entry into the three Grand Slams so far this year. Each time though, he has lost in the first round to a player ranked above him.
The 24-year-old Ramkumar has had one decidedly notable victory on the circuit – at the 2017 Antalya Open, he pulled off a major upset in the second round, defeating world no. 8 and top seed Dominic Thiem of Austria. This was his first match against a top ten player. Ranked world no. 222, Ramkumar won in straight sets 6-3, 6-2. He progressed to the quarterfinals where he lost to Marcos Baghdatis in a third set tie break.
Ramkumar, who has honed his skills at the Sanchez Casal Academy in Barcelona, is a tall right hander and his game is power packed. He has a brilliant serve-and-volley game and his smooth ground strokes are a blend of control and accuracy.
Prajnesh has had a number of notable victories on the circuit, too. His rise has been fairly meteoric. At the start of 2018 he was ranked 243, but by the end of the year he had risen to 104. Fully aware of the intense competition, the 29-year-old left hander gave himself more realistic goals for 2019 – getting into the top 100 and playing the Grand Slams. He has now achieved both and Vijay Amritraj is of the view that Prajnesh has it in him to break into the top 50.
It was at the BNP Paribas Open earlier this year at Indian Wells that marked a major turning point in Prajnesh’s career. It was at this star-studded arena that Prajnesh attracted considerable attention, alongside the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The BNP Paribas Open is the largest WTA – ATP combined event outside the four Grand Slams. It is known to many tennis fans as the fifth Grand Slam. Coming through the qualifying rounds, he defeated world No. 63 Benoit Paire in the first round, and then got the better of world No. 18 Nikoloz Basilashvili in the second round. This unexpectedly successful run was halted in the third round by the big serving Croatian, Ivo Karlovic. But Prajnesh has provided ample evidence of his growing stature.
Following his impressive showing at Indian Wells, Prajnesh won through the qualifying rounds to make the main draw of the Miami Masters, but could not replicate his stunning run at Indian Wells. He bowed out in the first round to world No. 61 Jauma Munar of Spain, 7-6, 6-4. Playing his second straight Masters 1000 main draw, Prajnesh performed creditably before going down to a player ranked more than 20 places above him.
The wins over Paire and Basilashvili were not Prajnesh’s first victories over players ranked far above him. In June last year at Stuttgart, he stunned world No. 23 Dennis Shapalov of Canada, making the tennis community take note of his rising star. The wins over the two players at Indian Wells gave him the confidence that the earlier shock victory was not a one-off.
Among the biggest changes Prajnesh has made to his game is a stronger and more effective backhand. Coupled with his big serve and powerful forehand, it has given him an increasingly intimidating playing style. Expectations have started growing that the best still lies ahead for Prajnesh – and Indian tennis.
The year 2018 was the breakthrough year for Prajnesh. He reached four ATP Challenger finals, winning two of them. He won his first ATP Challenger title at the Kunming Challenge in China, defeating Mohammed Safwat of Egypt in the final. Then, in an all-Indian final, he defeated Saketh Myneni at the Bangalore Challenger. He finished as the runner-up at the Ningho Challenger in China and at the Pune Challenger events and, in August, he won the bronze medal in the singles event at the Asian Games in Jakarta.
As he climbs the ladder, Prajnesh will find the going tougher; but he is confident about his own game. His exploits come as a breath of fresh air complete with the promise of more to come. He lost five years of his career to knee injuries, but he is certainly making up for lost time.