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Prajnesh Gunneswaran 'steps up' to produce biggest win of career

Mar 10 (AZINS) Prajnesh Gunneswaran was rather subdued the moment he won his maiden ATP Masters match against Benoit Paire on Thursday, dishing out a mere first bump. On Saturday, the celebrations were much more animated as the Indian went a step ahead by beating World No. 18 Nikoloz Basilashvili in the second round of the ATP Indian Wells.

The contrast in emotions wasn't merely directly proportional to the magnitude of the achievements, but also because Prajnesh was well aware that he had to raise his game by a few notches from his victory over the mercurial Frenchman if he were to get past the meticulous Georgian.

“Honestly, I don't think I played a great match to beat Paire,” Prajnesh told DNA from Indian Wells on Sunday. “I knew that if I played at that level against Nikoloz, I would get rolled over.”

Neither did he play at that level, nor did he get rolled over.

Continuing his juggernaut at the prestigious ATP Indian Wells, Prajnesh – India's highest ranked singles player at world No. 97 – stunned Basilashvili 6-4 6-7(6) 7-6(4) to register the biggest victory of his late-blooming professional career as well as his first over a top-20 player in the world.

Red-hot form

The 29-year-old has been in red-hot form in the desert of California, winning his two qualifying matches to make it to his first ever ATP Masters 1000 main draw and backing it up with twin upsets against higher-ranked players in Paire (69) and Basilashvili (18).

The left-handed Indian will next take on the big-serving Ivo Karlovic of Croatia, ranked 89 in the world and standing at 6'11'', in the third round.

On Saturday, Prajnesh broke Basilashvili in the fifth game of the first set to earn the advantage but the latter bounced back in the tiebreaker of the second to level things up. The Indian had the chance to close out the match while serving at 5-3 in the decider but was made to sweat further in another tiebreaker to cross the finish line in just over two-and-a-half hours.

“It's definitely the biggest win of my career,” Prajnesh said. “I felt like I had the match in control the whole time. I kept up the pressure pretty much throughout the match. I broke him in the third set and should have held at 5-3, and I paid the price for it.”

One of Prajnesh's commendable abilities is to wipe out memories of what happened in the previous points and look ahead. Thus, despite losing the tiebreaker in the second set, he was not too fussed about the match being decided by another one.

“It didn't matter to me. It was a brand new tiebreaker, and I was only focussed on winning that. It got very close, but the difference was that I didn't make too many mistakes (in the second tiebreaker),” Prajnesh said.

One would imagine that the win over Paire on his Masters debut would've injected a high dose of self-belief in the Indian qualifier, yet Prajnesh felt he took away little from that historic victory.

“There was so much wind during that match that it was just about making the ball and keeping it in play. That win didn't give me too much confidence, and I knew I had to step up,” Prajnesh said.

The wind factor was minimal on Saturday, which meant the southpaw could bring out his most destructive weapon from his armoury against Basilashvili – the flat forehand winners.

“I made him work hard and took the match down to the wire. I am glad I could win a match that way against a player like that. It gives me much more belief going ahead,” Prajnesh said.

The challenge is to be consistent

The Chennai man has had such moments of spark before as well, most notably last year when he beat the then world No. 23 Denis Shapovalov of Canada at the Stuttgart ATP 250 event.

The challenge for him now will be to produce these creditable results in big tournaments over a consistent period of time, and Prajnesh doesn't see any reason why he can't do so.

“The bigger the tournament, the more motivated I am,” Prajnesh said. “These wins make me believe that if I keep improving, I am good enough to beat these top guys at the big level. And if I can do it once, I can do it again.”