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This article was first published on Indian Tennis Daily.
Part 1 of the series: Prajnesh Gunneswaran: The inspiring story of a tennis player once written off for good
Mr S.G. Prabhakharan, as the father of Prajnesh, has been the guiding force in the tennis career of Prajnesh Gunneswaran. Based in Chennai, Mr Prabhakharan is a self-made man himself. Having had his beginnings with no background except education, Mr Prabhakharan is the Chairman of XS Real Properties and Promoter and Stakeholder in the Lakshmi Vilas Bank. He is also the past President of Madras Chamber of Commerce. He is currently nominated by the H.E. Governor of Tamil Nadu as the Vice President of Indian Red Cross Society – Tamil Nadu.
Prajnesh Gunneswaran is one of those rare athletes who had everything at his disposal, could have easily given up and followed a set path in the world of business or other fields. He instead took the path to pursue his dream and passion, overcame multiple setbacks that took away 5 years of his primetime career, overcame 2 heart-breaks of Grand Slam main draw opportunities and still pursued the path to reach No. 1 spot in the year-end 2018 Indian Tennis rankings at the age of 29.
Mr S.G. Prabhakharan is a strong believer in the mantra – ‘If one puts his heart, soul and bet everything, success is the logical end result.’
Here is the journey of Prajnesh in his own words through an interview:
On Prajnesh’s entry into Tennis
My father-in-law had a passion for sports. He was the one who got him into Tennis. Prajnesh’s cousin used to play tennis and he followed her to the courts – the journey began from there.
Prajnesh’s foundation in Tennis
Hemant Bendrey trained Prajnesh for an year when he was 12. His real coaches from then on were Jonathan Stubbs (British, now is the ITF Development Officer & Owner of Court28) & Balachandran (Bangalore) from KSLTA Advanced Academy that was set up specially by Sunder Raju (Owner of ACT telecom and Atria hotel in Bangalore) as Secretary of KSLTA then. Though other academies offered him 100% scholarship of stay and training, KSLTA Sunder Raju offered Cambridge A level studies as well, at a pretty packet that was unheard of then!
Best year in Junior Tennis
2007 was his last and best year. He played in the same week in Under 18 Nationals and Men’s Finals in Delhi. He won in the morning, the Under 18 title and ended up as runner up in the evening in the Men’s National Championship. Unfortunately, apart from playing so many matches in a row, he was also overawed by TV cameras of Delhi and the CM, Sheila Dikshit watching the match!
Prajnesh’s tryst with injuries and the attempt at College Tennis
For the last 6-7 years, Prajnesh has been training with Bastian at Alexander Waske Tennis-University in Frankfurt. This was post one year stint at the University of Tennessee, which he reluctantly picked out of 4 top Tennis Universities which tempted him and me with 100% scholarship to visit them at their cost to choose one of them in 2009. He also got offer from Harvard, which he didn’t want to take up since they were lower down the NCAA ranking in Tennis! I was hoping he will pick Harvard since I thought he could have great options in both Tennis and studies! But nope.
Prajnesh actually didn’t want to leave Jonathan in Barcelona Academy since he trained under him for almost 6 years – 2002 to 2008. 3 years at Bangalore and 3 years at Barcelona. But injury struck him in his playing forehand and he had to go through an operation at Barcelona urgently by beginning of 2009. But during that 3 months break, at the recommendation of Univ of Tennessee Head Coach, I persuaded Prajnesh to try out US College Tennis, when he was in bed!
He picked University of Tennessee since they were ranked 7 or 8 in the NCAA rankings. Once he left for the US, he just didn’t like to play only weekend tennis since he was used to 6 to 7 hours training regimen at Barcelona! So he decided to quit college and US and came back to Europe.
Journey at the Alexander Waske Tennis-University
By that year (2010), Jonathan had left Spain. Then Prajnesh found Alexander Waske academy at Frankfurt.
Unfortunately, around the same time, it started a long and frustrating downslide for him with persistent knee stress fractures which no one in Europe or the US or India could actually fix. So it was 3 months at the Alexander Waske Tennis-University and 4 months at the best physio centre in Munich. No tournaments worthwhile to talk about.
The hard calls that had to be taken
Yes, the hard call I had to take was there is no one except Prajnesh to take over my business!
Entire family members, my inlaws and 2 senior Bureaucrats included, tried to persuade him to quit and take over the business since 5 years ago as I went through a major surgery. Prajnesh was confused and didn’t know what to do. Reluctantly he asked me whether he can quit and come into the business . I said I don’t need you now and follow your passion for couple of years at least to reach some decent ranking before you quit. (2 years – Just to put that guilt feeling away from him!) Because you will never forgive yourself in life after pursuing a dream from age 8 to to 25.
Give your best shot at tennis and I will call you when I think I need you.
Even 5 months back when my top team was wondering what’s going to happen to the company (during RE crisis) when I became a bit sick, Prajnesh came in to assure them that he will come in and take over once he finishes his career. Then they cheered up and now they are also convinced that he has done justice to his passion. Now Prajnesh is part of our Corporate WhatsApp group!
Time for some snapshots from our 179th AGM !
First up,our President Mr.S G Prabhakaran kick-starting proceedings pic.twitter.com/IuoCyxeHcD
— The Madras Chamber (@MadrasChamber) July 2, 2015
Since I have survived current health issue as well, I want him to target Top 50 this year. God Willing!
Writing Undergrad Exams in between the Roland Garros matches!
Prajnesh got his Business Administration degree from University of London. He wrote 4 exams in Frankfurt and the last one at Paris in between his Roland Garros first round and second round on the off day! Hats off to his will power and strong mind. I admire him.
One should pursue one’s passion
I believe one should just pursue one’s passion with heart, soul, hardwork and on top of all super confidence and self belief. There always used be arguments between Prajnesh, including Alexander, and me as to what’s first. When I say Confidence and Self Belief before a win they used to say Win first! My answer was win can never happen without confidence coming in first. How can even a Federer win if he is not confident!
Several times I have told him how Rama had to kill Vali in Ramayana. Vali had a boon of taking over 50% of opponent’s skill and power and could never be defeated by his brother Sugriva, though Vali took over Sugriva’s wife and monkey kingdom against all ethics. As a return favour to Sugriva, who helped Rama by locating Seetha in Sri Lanka under the capture of Ravana by sending all his troops across 8 directions and Hanuman towards Sri Lanka, Ram had to kill Vali only by hiding behind a tree!
I have told Prajnesh that boon according to me is nothing but Super Super Confidence of a competent individual. (Read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers where he has researched and writes – one becomes an expert only after 10,000 repeats.) You have trained the shots all these years more than 10,000 times. You have the game and a vicious forehand with a reasonably powerful serve. What more do you need to be confident! When he was thinking of a Confidence Coach, I told him I am there for that. I started from nothing except education and arrived at wherever I am only because of my super confidence. Told him several of my experiences in life.
Now that he has had a good run this year, he should perform much better next year. You can’t beat a Denis Shapovalov without confidence when one is around ATP 230 or so.
I want athletes, players and anyone in general to believe in what they are pursuing. Because life is hopeless for too many of them without a background. Inspiration always keeps people alive!
Prajnesh’s formative years. What did he do well and what basically lacked in his training? What areas do you think he could have focused more.
Prajnesh focused on Tennis full time (he quit school after 7th Standard and ultimately wrote his Cambridge A level) by joining a good Tennis academy run by B’lore KSLTA. But the fact remains, his physical fitness was a question mark then. Possibly over training beyond what his thin body could bear at that age, affected his career later stage when he was 18. What is important is fitness training that suits one’s body the best. Unfortunately Indian kids are not that focused (nor do we have a family eco system for fitness like the Western world) during their teenage on their food and physical fitness which form the bedrock of solid tennis once they become a Pro after 18. One needs a solid body, apart from solid tennis to be a successful Pro.
Many Indians who have done extremely well currently with their talent, game and brains – haven’t been able to break into the Top 50 because of sheer lack of focus on physical fitness. There is no ecosystem to educate either the kids or the parents on this aspect. No coach gives an overview of how to reach Top 50. That’s not the target for anyone in the system. Everyone learns by one’s own mistakes and unfortunately isn’t wise enough to learn from others. But for that, I think Indian Tennis would have had at least 5 solid Top 50 players by now. Somdev is the only exception.
Does anyone give a road map to be a Top 50 player either to a child or a parent when the child is 12 or 13? Does anyone ask, do you want to be a Grand Slam Winner? Then what’s the target? To be an also-ran and to get a University admission? How do you instil that target and passion to excel?
AITA can conduct a study on what the other smaller countries have done to produce Top 10 players and what should be the road map for an Indian child. That study can be broken into target components age wise and be distributed to every coach and academy across the country, put up prominently online and offline.
There are multiple styles of play which young players can follow to reach Top 10 or 20. Each coach has his or her own belief and makes the ward to follow that. Neither the ward, nor the parent knows what style the coach wants to follow to make the player win matches and tournaments. More information and details should be given to the player and the parents on the style. Ultimately when the player understands his or her body, game and flair, can decide whether that style is the right one or not. (Federer, Nadal, Novak etc have very different styles, but are the Top players. So there is no hard and fast rule about which style a player has to follow.)
If one aims for the Sky, one at least will land on a tree top!
If you were to advise any upcoming players, where should be the focus from 8-11, 12-15 and beyond?
8-11 should be the testing stage to know the the depth of kids’ interest and passion for the game. Without a passion from inside, forced game will be a fiasco at a later stage. Have an example.
There was this boy (of Prajnesh’s age) from Mumbai (originally from South) who was beating all boys of his age hollow in Tennis. Solid (body) boy with great talent. He would win U12 and U14 titles back to back when he was 12 and so on. His father always used to be with him, training him, having a notebook jotting down every point that he played in a match and what mistakes he had made.
Straight after the match, boy’s father will take him to a practice court to teach him and correct his mistakes. He wouldn’t allow the boy to even talk to another boy of his age. We tennis parents saw that tournament after tournament. An absolutely dedicated father for his son to shine in the Tennis World. We used to envy the family. Alas, once the boy was around 18, he couldn’t take his father’s pressure to excel, and threw the racket and quit tennis one day! All of us were aghast! Lesson we learnt was, if the child has no passion and if we parents are trying to play vicariously the game in it’s true sense, it will never work and can only backfire. Ultimately it will be wasted effort, time and money for the family. So identify the child’s interest levels before stepping on the gas!
12-15 is the formative age for tennis. If there is innate passion to excel, provide the best tennis coaching, keep a very keen eye on food and physical training to make it to suit the body. No under or over doing. Once talent and passion is there, instil high targets to achieve. You Can Do It should be the Mantra. Kids should know that Champions have no companions during the last mile. So don’t copy your colleagues and don’t just do what they do. Otherwise you will end up where they would. Showcase every inspiring story of every successful athlete, his or her style of game (tennis) and the difficulties and odds they faced. There are enough and more such stories to showcase.
Once they are beyond 15, they are into the real competitive environment and hence provide the right support and help them to play international tournaments as much as possible. Take them into the western tennis ecosystem, if possible. Teach them self confidence and to believe in themselves. There are only 3 things that we parents can provide. Confidence, Confidence and Confidence. That too in abundance. Bordering on arrogance. Its a thin line that separates. Then the kids will be on auto firing mode. Nothing can stop them or their progress.
I always tell Prajnesh, Play the Ball, not the Opponent and never get out of a match court until the umpire says you have lost the match, now get off the court, man! Always believe you can beat the opponent, whoever it is. When you are ATP 230, you can’t beat a Denis Shapovalov of ATP 23, if you don’t believe in it yourself. Can you?
There are 3 components that decide the outcome of a match on a given day. Tennis Skill, Fitness Level and Confidence Level of both guys on that day. While you can’t do much on the first 2 factors when you step onto the court, what you can pump up enormously is Confidence. That can make a huge difference to the outcome of the match that day. Even a Federer or a Rafa would lose a match on a given day if they are off colour.
How important is it to play on different surfaces growing up? (i.e., Clay and Hard)
I don’t think there is too much choice for Indian kids unless they happen to come from well to do background. They got to learn to play on the surface they get in their towns. But slowly introduce them to different surfaces to the extent possible. They will find their favourite one. Let them first do well on whatever surface they get to play on. That will give them confidence. Then they will adjust to other surfaces as they start playing tournaments. At any rate, in India its mostly hard court. Only those fortunate kids who can travel to Europe, get to play on clay during summer either through camps or tournaments. Joining a European Academy is still a far cry for Indian kids.
Did you ever doubt whether this is all worth it. If so, what keep you going? Did he any resistance from any of his friends and relatives?
I am an entrepreneur. I take risks in business. I never think of failure until it stares at me direct and pulls me down. Still I get up to try once more. Never Give Up and Never Say Die. Rise like a Phoenix. Have done it in my life. So I had no problem with Prajnesh pursuing Sports as a career. So I was fine funding the high cost of Tennis since I could afford it. No second thoughts for me on that.
But at one stage when Prajnesh was injured and not able to move further on in Tennis, I wanted him to turn to education to excel in life. Took him to even IIM, B’lore campus, introduced him to a Prof friend of mine there to talk to him. Show cased that venerable institution, buildings, students and what they get to become in life later etc. As we were walking out of the campus. I asked Prajnesh whether he would like to drop off Tennis and become an MBA. (As a lawyer and Company Secretary, I always had admiration for those IIMs and ISBs, though my company employs them!)
But pat came the reply from Prajnesh. Dad, I want to play Tennis, Only Tennis. I decided at that moment to go whole hog since he was willing to bet his life and career on Tennis.
His goal and ambition became ours. My wife and I wanted to give our best to him in every which way. (Even now when I talk about certain target ranks and timeline to him, he would laugh and say, you are dreaming. In the same vein, my reply has been, ‘Yes, Dreaming is my job and Execution is yours’ !) We talk only about Tennis and about how the Top 4 play, their strategies, different game style etc etc. Nothing else in the conversation at any time of day or night among the 3 of us. Over phone or in person. Its 99% tennis talk and 1% (if at all) about anything else. If we start talking about any other subject, he is off immediately to watch some tennis video or some such stuff. He eats, drinks, breathes, lives only Tennis. Nothing else is of any interest to him. So we know we can talk only about tennis, if we want him to spend even 5 minutes with us on those few days in a year that he spends with us at Chennai.
Prajnesh is our only son and hence both my wife and I have made his ambition our ambition. Now that he has become India No 1 and also the 9th best Indian in ATP Ranking in the Open Era of last 45 years with his career best ATP 104, we believe its all worth it. Taken 2 decades of his relentless passion, hard work and focus. But he has made a mark in Indian Tennis and is an inspiration for all those who doubt themselves.
Money can’t bring this happiness. Whatever I might have achieved in my life with my relentless and confident attitude has been dwarfed and pales into insignificance before Prajnesh’s achievements at the international level at 29. Prajnesh has made both my wife and I proud. You can’t put a value to it. It’s priceless.
Regarding resistance from family and friends, there were plenty at one stage. Same grandparents who created that burning desire in him to pursue tennis, his very supportive uncle and aunt, and some close friends wanted him to quit tennis and come into my business to support me and take over when I became sick, especially since he was also not going anywhere in Tennis at that time. Half heartedly he was wanting to know what he should do. But I put a full stop to that doubt that he had at that time, 5 years ago, since I believed in him. Told him I will call him if I need him. He has to be a chip off the old block, and cannot but succeed in his life’s ambition. He has done it now. Though Grand parents are gone, same uncles, aunts and friends are celebrating him now more than we do!
It doesn’t matter whether he would become Top 50 or No.1 in the world (he can do it), we are extremely delighted with his current achievements. But our dream continues. Never Quit. Get up every time you fall. You will succeed eventually.