In what has been a largely indifferent year, Prajnesh Gunneswaran finally appeared to put recurring injury woes behind him and find a bit of momentum over the last couple of weeks. A runner-up finish in Orlando last Sunday followed another final finish in Cary, North Carolina a week before. The result in Cary had come nearly a year and a half since he last reached that stage on the ATP Challenger Tour, the second-highest rung of the professional tennis circuit, back in April 2019. His latest result took Gunneswaran to 128 in the world rankings, back as the highest-ranked Indian after having surrendered that position to Sumit Nagal earlier this year.
Gunneswaran, though, isn't going to be building on his moment. Although Challenger series events are still being played in South America, the 31-year-old Indian chose to stay in Florida in order to begin his off-season training for 2021. If Gunneswaran has decided to forgo the possibility of a few extra ATP points and a further bump up the rankings, it's because he learned the hard way to be judicious in his approach to picking and playing tournaments.
He'd been ranked a career-high 75th in April last year when he'd first noticed a twinge in his shoulder. He'd ignored it, in the hope of pushing himself through just a few more tournaments. "I was doing quite well so I wanted to keep playing. I was within sight of the Olympics as well and that had been a major career goal for me," he says. "And by playing through the injury, I made things worse. Because I wasn't getting any rehab work done, the shoulder pain was followed by a wrist injury. That took me out of the game for a few weeks and when I did start, I tried to push myself in a tournament without too much practice and then my elbow got an injury as well."
That combination of injuries ended up costing Gunneswaran a lot more than it should have. "If I'd just taken three or four weeks out after first picking up the shoulder injury, I'd have got back to playing a lot faster. But I was so desperate to stay at the level I was at, I had wanted to use the momentum. If I'd stayed at the same level, at the ATP level, I'd have gone even higher. Ultimately I didn't win matches or recover from my injury."
While Gunneswaran continued to play on, hoping for the best, his injury meant he was at a disadvantage. His go-to shot -- the forehand -- was largely neutralised since the injury to his hitting arm meant he couldn't really put any significant topspin on the stroke. "When I was playing the Australian Open, I was hitting my forehand really flat. It's the opposite of how I normally play. I managed to stay competitive (he came through the qualifiers to make the main draw as a lucky loser) because I managed to serve and hit my backhands well but it wasn't the same without my best shot," he says.
"One of the challenges I'm facing is simply a lack of match practice. My body feels fine physically but I'm still having technical issues like my toss. That's something that will go only if I play consistently." Prajnesh Gunneswaran
What made things harder was that, playing at the Tour level, there weren't ever going to be any easy games. "Even at the start of the year, I was about 70 percent of where I needed to be. But I was playing guys who were in the top 100. You have to be near perfect when you are playing against them," he recalls. "In order to compensate for not being able to put a lot of spin in my shots, I tried being really aggressive so I can avoid getting into a defensive situation and finish points early. But that's difficult to do against a high quality opponent when you don't have a backup shot."
As he limped to a 5-7 record over all matches, the cessation of the international matches owing to the COVID-19 pandemic came as a bit of a relief. "I wasn't able to practice for the first couple of months because of the lockdown in India but that ultimately worked for me because I was able to let my injuries recover," he says. "I wasn't in the gym but my body was getting the rest it needed. By the time the lockdown ended, my physical conditioning had suffered, but after more than a year, I was finally able to hit a high spin forehand pain-free."
This isn't to say that things worked out perfectly for him. Gunneswaran's lack of physical conditioning meant that he didn't hit the ground running on his return to the circuit. Gunneswaran admits that had he just focused on his recovery last year instead of pushing himself, he might have been better placed.
By the time he returned, in October, Gunneswaran's ranking had slipped down to 152 -- his worst in two years -- making it nearly impossible for him to get a qualifying spot in any ATP tour event. As such, his priority on his return was simply to get enough match practice under his belt. "One of the challenges I'm facing is simply a lack of match practice. My body feels fine physically but I'm still having technical issues like my toss. That's something that will go only if I play consistently. That's why I focused on the Challenger tour on my return. I'm someone who gets better the more matches I play," he says.
His success at this level over the last couple of weeks notwithstanding, Gunneswaran can't wait to get back to the ATP tour next year. "I've always believed I had the quality to break into the top 50 and to win matches at that level. To be at that level, you have to play the best players. The reason I play tennis professionally is to test myself against the very best players in the world and I won't get a chance to do that just at the Challenger level."
And that's why he decided not to travel to South America. "There's no point playing the Challenger tour just to improve my ranking a little bit. At this stage, even if it was tempting to make a few extra points, I don't want it to come at the expense of my preparations for the next season. I'd rather focus on getting stronger and getting into the best physical shape over the next couple of months, than try going for a title, and end up repeating my previous injuries and missing out the next season," he says.