How India's Prajnesh Gunneswaran played an unlikely role in Novak Djokovic's Australian Open exit
The world number 319 had four match points against Istomin in the Australian Open Asia Wildcard qualifier semi-finals last week.
What’s the story ?
For the first time since 2006, two-time defending Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic has failed to reach the third round of arguably his favourite Grand Slam. He had won the tournament five times in the last six years, and was aiming to create a record by defending the title in 2017.
However, Asia/Oceania wildcard world number 117 Denis Istomin from Uzbekistan put in his most superlative performance till date, defeating the Serb in a thrilling five-setter, 7-6, 5-7, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4 to secure victory in just under the five-hour mark.
But little did we know that the Uzbek was only centimetres away from being knocked out in the Asia Oceania Wildcard qualifier against world number 319 Prajnesh Gunneswaran from India.
In case you didn’t know...
In 2015, Prajnesh's first season in professional tennis was cut short by injury. But he made an immediate comeback to the national Davis Cup squad as a substitute for their tie against Spain.
The 30-year-old Uzbek is no stranger to playing against India. Apart from several Davis Cup ties, he most notably lost the 2010 Asian Games final to Somdev Devvarman, despite being the highest ranked player at the multi-sporting event.
Heading into the Asia/Oceania wildcard Australian Open qualifier, Istomin was again ranked number 1. Lacking high seeds, the tournament also saw Prajnesh seeded fifth, far ahead of the rest of the 16-participant field.
After comfortable first and second round victories for both players, they squared off in the semi-finals, with Istomin considered the clear favourite.
The heart of the matter
The legend-killer raced to a routine one-set lead, clinching the opening frame 6-2. However, a series of inspirational games by the Chennai-based player followed. Prajnesh registered as many 20 winners in the second set, demolishing Istomin 1-6 to take the match to a final set.
In the third set, both players kept winning their respective service games. But Prajnesh dug deep and broke Istomin's serve to take a 5-4 lead. This was the moment he had dreamed of since childhood.
So what happened next in the match? Prajnesh raced to a quick 30-0 lead, with Istomin struggling big time. A devastating forehand winner by the Indian saw him notch up four match points and essentially put him just one match away from the Australian Open.
However, a determined Istomin fought back to equalise things. At 40-40, another forehand winner by Prajnesh, which seems to be the strongest weapon in his arsenal, saw him win back a solitary match point. This would have been his biggest victory yet. Alas, it was not to be.
A 25-shot rally culminated in a strong backhand by Istomin, which land on the outer edge of the line. It was originally given out by the Chair Umpire, much to Prajnesh's delight. However, upon consultation the point was awarded to Istomin.
A closer look and hawk-eye showed that Prajnesh was literally 1 cm away from pulling off the historic upset. The ball barely skimmed the outer white line, and helped Istomin equalise the score. The Uzbek got his act together, but not before a monumental battle. He finally took the set 11-9, and now the rest is history.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, Prajnesh said, “This gives me immense confidence, it was my inexperience that let him win those match points. I've learned from my mistakes and become a stronger player. I know I'm not too far away from that Australian Open first round level and I will put in all the hard work required to reach there very soon. It's an immense confidence boost.”
Before his Aussie escapade, Prajnesh trained under Somdev Devvarman for two weeks, earlier this month. He added, “I won't lie, I was gutted after the result, but these things happen in sport. I have to concentrate on my game and learn from my mistakes. I wish I had a longer run in the tournament, but yes that's how it is.”
The son of a Chennai-based builder, Prajnesh is one of the rising stars of Indian tennis. The 27-year old's best result came in December 2015 when he reached the final of the Pune Challenger. This particular outing also helped him reach his career high ranking of 284.
Whether he can build on his results and make the main draw of a Grand Slam, only time will tell, but his uncanny hand in Djokovic's exit should put a smile on every Indian's face.