On Wednesday morning at Indian Wells, California, Prajnesh Gunneswaran finally took a break from playing tennis. It wasn't the way he wanted -- following a loss in the third round of the Indian Wells Masters -- but it will give him a moment to take stock of things. "I'll do a bit of fitness work but I won't be going to the stadium," he says. "I don't plan on doing much. I'll perhaps go to a mall or maybe just sit in my hotel and watch some of my matches. I just need to take a bit of a break before I go to Miami and do all of this all over again."
Replicating his performance at the Miami Masters next week would be pretty great. The 29-year-old is coming off a good week. He first won three qualifying rounds to make his debut in the Masters 1000 tournament. History wouldn't suggest he had much hope at this stage -- he was 1-6 in all ATP main-round matches in his career till then. But Gunneswaran more than turned those numbers around.
He played a former world No. 18 in the first round, the mercurial Benoit Paire, and came out the winner in straight sets. Then he went on to register the biggest scalp of his career when he ousted world No. 18 Nikoloz Basilashvili in three. And while his longest run at an ATP tournament might have come to an end against big-serving Ivo Karlovic, there's plenty he gained over the course of the week.
His ranking is at a career-high 84 and then there's the fact of his having beaten two far higher ranked players. Of course, he hasn't done it for the first time in his career: he had beaten then world No. 23 Dennis Shapalov in Stuttgart in June last year. The wins over Paire and Basilashvili though gave Gunneswaran the confidence that that earlier victory wasn't a one-off. "Any player can have a lucky day," he says. "After beating Shapalov, I wasn't sure whether I could replicate it."
The win against Basilashvili was especially significant in boosting that self-belief since that match was decided in the third set. "It wasn't that I just had a lucky start and surprised him," says Gunneswaran. "After I lost the second set, I had to focus once again in the third set. Of course it would have been good to win the match in two sets but the fact that I was able to find a way to beat someone of that quality was a good feeling."
The match against Basilashvili also gave Gunneswaran a peek into what it takes to be an elite tennis player. "It's only when you play against these sort of players that you know where your level is," he says. "He's a measuring stick to know how good you are. Of course, there is still a long way to go but when you beat players of that standard, your path seems to become clearer. You know what it is that you need to be doing."
'That', says Gunneswaran, is pushing himself far more in every aspect of his game. "You have to put your foot on the gas pedal at this level," he says. "There's no margin of error. The lower stages like the Challengers [where he won two titles last year] are a lot more forgiving. If you lose a service game, you can still find a way back. But not at this level. You have to be keyed in mentally all the time."
"When I started the year, I had simple, short-term goals. I wanted to break the top 100 and play a Grand Slam. I've done that already [by competing at the Australian Open]. Now I want to be able to play consistently at the World Tour and Grand Slam level." Prajnesh Gunneswaran
This is an area Gunneswaran is specifically trying to improve on. "I've heard the complaint that I'm a little passive when I play and that is true," he says. "I tend to rally a lot. That's the style I've grown up playing and I suppose old habits die hard. But I'm working on being more aggressive."
The further he improves though, the more Gunneswaran realizes he has to go. "Each day I'm trying to figure out how to get better," he says. "If my first-serve percentage is at 60, how do I get that average up to 65? How do I hit a pass a bit better? How can I move better or more efficiently? How can I improve my endurance so that it doesn't take me two points to recover after a really hard rally?"
These are difficult questions but Gunneswaran is glad he gets to try and answer them at this level. "Perhaps if I had had these same results at a lower-rated ATP tournament or Challenger, I might have finished with 125 points [instead of the 45 he will get at Indian Wells] but that's not good enough for me," he says. "The challenge of playing in the Masters and Grand Slams is why we became tennis players at all. It's a lot harder at this level, but it's a lot simpler too. You are making more money and it's easier to bring along your physios and coaches. This is where you want to be."
Gunneswaran wants to go higher still. He will be playing the qualifying rounds once again at the Miami Masters but he hopes he will eventually be able to earn a main-draw spot directly. The fact that he isn't defending any ATP points until late April suggests a few good performances might see him break the top 70 -- good enough for a spot in the main draw. "When I started the year, I had simple, short-term goals," he says. "I wanted to break the top 100 and play a Grand Slam. I've done that already [by competing at the Australian Open]. Now I want to be able to play consistently at the World Tour and Grand Slam level. I need to earn that right but I think it's very possible."