I'm really happy and it's a huge moment for me, says Prajnesh Gunneswaran as he qualifies for the Australian Open main draw
'Better late than never' is easily one of the most overused phrases in society today, but it's also a statement that most accurately describes the situation of India's No. 1 tennis player, Prajnesh Gunneswaran.
Prajnesh, at the age of 29, battled the odds - and the Melbourne heat - to qualify for his first ever Grand Slam, overcoming Japanese Yosuke Watanuki in a hard-fought three-setter in the final round of qualifying.
The outcome is the culmination of tireless effort put in fighting injuries the past few years, and the 29-year-old, in an outpouring of emotion, expressed his joy at finally being able to mix it with the big boys of the tennis world.
"I'm really happy, it's huge. It's taken me a lot of time to get here. I lost a lot of years through injuries and I'm finally making the kind of progress that I want to. I'm really happy and it's a huge moment for me," he said to Sportskeeda moments after his historic victory.
While Prajnesh will be playing his first main draw match in a Major in a couple days' time, it is not the first time his name is in the Grand Slam mix.
The No. 1-ranked Indian had qualified for the 2018 French Open as a lucky loser, but missed out on his maiden Slam berth due to the fact that he had already flown out to Italy to compete in a Challenger.
For the 29-year-old, though, the setback was easy to overcome, inspiring him to continue trying to develop, with his current Australian Open run bearing the fruits of his past labors.
"That's different," says Prajnesh when asked about how his current situation compares to last year. "I didn't really qualify at the end of the day, I didn't win the final round which I did here. This is far more rewarding."
Despite missing out on a Grand Slam berth, 2018 was a resounding success for Prajnesh, who rose to become India's top-ranked singles player on the back of two Challenger titles and a run to the Asian Games semifinals.
At 29, it might seem like he is approaching the twilight of his career, but according to Prajnesh, he is improving with each year and is only now playing the best tennis of his career.
"I lost around five years to injuries. I could not compete, I don't have a chance. I would have done all this five years earlier if I wasn't injured. 2017 wasn't too bad either. I was inside the top 250, but it took me longer because I needed to improve certain things.
"That was my first real year on the circuit so I wasn't good enough to perform at this level. But I improved with each training block and 2018 was when I truly flourished. While the year did not start too well, I picked up pace through the summer and started to figure out what works for me and what doesn't. Ever since then, I have been getting better and better."
Even the greatest have been struck down by the unforgiving plague that is a career-threatening injury, with Andy Murray being the latest casualty. The three-time Slam champion announced earlier this week that he might be forced to retire following the Australian Open due to the unbearable pain his body is being forced to go through with each training session and subsequent match.
Prajnesh, who has had his fair share of injuries in the past, empathised with his compatriot's plight, stating, "It's really sad that such a champion has to throw in the towel because of injury, but it's part of life and eventually he'll learn to accept it."
The 29-year-old has certainly learnt to accept injuries as a part of the process, putting his past setbacks firmly behind him to become just the third Indian in the last five years to feature in a Grand Slam.
Whilst he has managed to rise out of the abyss that Indian tennis is in at the moment, and forge a career for himself, that has not been the case with so many other talented youngsters on the circuit.
The biggest challenge, according to the World No. 112, is the fact that the youngsters receive next to no support during their nascent stages.
"We need a better system in place, more support from the federation. Not just from a financial standpoint, but there also needs to be a structure with great coaches and great physical trainers so that it creates an environment of good players and they compete with each other over time and improve as they play against each other.
"That's something we do not have. We have only a handful of players and even they are not good enough to play at the highest level. So it takes a lot of time to break through and adapt. Maybe you do eventually, but many players stop trying because they feel it's too late, or it's a step too far to make it to the top.
"We need the kids to have that support to develop. We definitely do not lack the potential to make superstars."
Prajnesh's success isn't the only thing that has gone against the grain though. Contrary to most Indian players who aren't the most powerful and have to settle for a more counterpunching style of play, he has developed weapons capable of troubling the top players and it's this 'big' tennis that has yielded such success of late.
"I've always wanted to play big tennis. It just so happened that I always had a great forehand and that developed automatically and I also grew tall so it's become my second weapon. I can still do a lot of things to improve my serve, but it's definitely one of my strengths."
The serve is definitely one of his biggest weapons; one that he used to good effect during the qualification campaign as well. In contrast to most big servers though, Prajnesh does not tend to dally between points; and his quickness has become a feature of his game, often taking just 10 seconds between points.
This also means he is one of very few players likely to be unaffected with the advent of the new serve clock that was featured in last year's US Open and which will also be a part of the first Grand Slam of the year.
While many players, including Serena Williams, have voiced their disapproval of the serve clock, Prajnesh has thrown his weight behind the venture.
"I think it's fine, so far at least. I'm sure some players will complain, when there are brutal points 25 seconds isn't too fair, which I agree with, but aside from that, I see no reason for it not to be a success.
That is not the only change the 'Happy Slam' will witness in 2019, though, with the final set super tie break at 6-6 also set to be a part of the tournament.
While this decision received a lot of flak from fans on social media who felt that a large chunk of entertainment had been been snatched away from them, Prajnesh is of the opinion that players must be protected to a greater extent, and the introduction of the final set-tie break is a step in the right direction.
"I'm all for it. I feel like it's too physical if they have to keep playing. If they play an hour longer it's difficult physically, and they are at a disadvantage when they play their next round against someone who has played a quicker match.
"To be honest, I've never been in such a position so I can't be totally open about it," he added.
The Australian Open, for all its benefits, is also arguably the most gruelling Slam physically, with players having to battle it out for hours in soaring temperatures.
2019 promises much of the same with temperatures expected to hit the 40 degree-mark yet again, but for Prajnesh, who hails from Chennai, one of the hottest cities in India, the heat is of next to no concern.
"It's been cold these last few days actually," he says with a grin. "But yes, I'm from Chennai so it's no problem for me at all. My opponent felt it a little at the end of the second set. Maybe the heat affected him but it could also be the match that was pretty intense."
Indeed, while Prajnesh was hurtling along the baseline like a Kenyan on Speed, his opponent Yosuke Watanuki could be seen struggling to cope with the rising temperatures and the physical nature of the contest.
Despite the fatigue, Watanuki did manage to save a couple of match points while serving at 3-5 in the final set, forcing Prajnesh to step up and serve it out under immense pressure.
Amidst thunderous applause from Indians in the stands, the 29-year-old made no mistake but admitted that things were not as rosy as they appeared and that he could hardly hit a serve in that final game.
"He hit two brilliant winners on the match points on both returns that I made. Maybe I could've picked another side and run, but they were not easy returns to make in the first place. He executed brilliantly. I was hoping maybe he would give me 1 shot to take charge but he went for it, credit to him," Prajnesh explained.
"I was serving from the tough side as well, at 5-4. Being a leftie, the sun was really in my eyes, I could hardly see anything from that end. I knew I could not serve big during that game, so there was a lot of pressure. But somehow I managed to hold, despite just putting the serves in and starting the rally.
He must have had the same problem in the first set, but It didn't affect him too much."
A clash with rising star Frances Tiafoe in the first round beckons, but the Indian feels he is ready to take on any challenge thrown at him.
"If I play a bigger player, the crowds will be full, it will be on a show court so it'll be a huge learning experience. But I also want to gain some huge points, so it makes it a little difficult if I play the better players. I'll just take whatever comes.
"My goal is to go as far as possible and I'm looking forward to recovering and making a deep run. There's obviously going to be nerves and a lot going on in the first round, but I'll try to deal with it as best as I can and focus on going through."