Nine years after he made his professional debut, Prajnesh Gunneswaran will finally play in the main draw of a Grand Slam. He had to go through three rounds of matches to do so, beating Japan's Yosuke Watanuke in the final hurdle at the Australian Open qualifiers on Friday. It's a result that's significant in Indian tennis -- the 29-year-old is only the fifth Indian since the turn of the century to qualify for the men's singles main draw at a Grand Slam.
"I got here much later than most people do," he says over the phone from Melbourne. "I am very proud that I stuck to it and put in all this work. It's something that I've always dreamt of."
Although he had dropped the first set of the match that he eventually won 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 against Watanuke, Gunneswaran insists there was never a moment of doubt. There wasn't any flashback to the time he had come ever so close to qualifying for the main draw before, only for the opportunity to slip through his grasp.
It was only last year that Gunneswaran had been a single round away from the main draw of the French Open. He had lost then, and subsequently missed out on qualifying as a 'lucky loser' when he decided to go on to participate in a separate tournament. Gunneswaran says that turn of events didn't really play on his mind. "The last time I was this close to a main draw, it didn't work out for me the way I wanted it to but I had put my head down and got on with the rest of my year," he says.
Results would show he had more than made up for that misfortune. He had begun the year ranked 243 in the world but had risen to a career high of 104 following a series of strong results, including victories over world number 26 Denis Shapovalov and two Challenger titles. Indeed, the 29-year-old Gunneswaran, who battled career-limiting chronic knee injuries over the early part of his career, is now making up for lost time.
As India's highest-ranked singles player, he now believes he belongs at this level.
"I definitely believed that I would be qualifying for the main draw," he says. "My ranking [currently 112] showed that I should be making it." That indeed had been his target for the Australian Open. "I first wanted to make the main draw. That was the first hurdle I had to overcome before I could start to dream. That dream is to travel a lot further in tournaments. I had a great 2018 and when I was getting ready for 2019 I had a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve. I knew I could break into the top 70 by the end of this year. I'm pretty confident of making more Grand Slams."
With lofty ambitions for the season, it was important to do well in Melbourne. "It's a very big deal to have got to the main round," he says. "It was really important for me to start the season well. It's just a reminder that I am on the right track."
But Gunneswaran also has a long way to go. His first-round opponent is world No. 39 Frances Tiafoe. The 20-year-old American is considered one of the best prospects in world tennis and is expected to travel far in the draw.
Gunneswaran, who hasn't played Tiafoe before, is aware of the challenge he is up against. Which is why after securing his place in the main draw, he's focused on his recovery and then Saturday's training session ahead of Monday's match against Tiafoe. He isn't celebrating just yet because he isn't satisfied with just making the main draw. "Yes, it's a big deal but there's no point celebrating," he says. "In the top 100, there's not a single player who will be celebrating just making the main draw. I'm still in the tournament and it has only just begun. That's how I have to be thinking now."