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Prajnesh Gunneswaran turns world beater in Stuttgart

AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

Little over three weeks ago, Prajnesh Gunneswaran gaped at a flashy, fair-haired teenager practice intently on an adjacent court in Paris. He turned to his coach and asked: "What makes this guy so much better than me?" Smiling, coach Bastian Suwanpradeep threw an arm around the 169-ranked Indian and offered an unsuspecting response. "Nothing. You can beat him."

At least 700-odd miles away in Nottingham over a slightly grainy live stream, Bastian watched his words come true. Prajnesh had beaten the precociously talented world No 23, Denis Shapovalov, the earlier subject of admiration, 7-6 (8-6), 2-6, 6-3 in the opening round of the Stuttgart Open. It was the 28-year-old Chennai player's biggest career win, in his maiden ATP World Tour event.

"He (Shapovalov) shows me that I can be so much better, so much more aggressive. I think that's something I tried today," he says a few minutes into a patchy call from Stuttgart. "I was more aggressive than I usually I am and the results showed."

He will next play Argentina's Guido Pella on Thursday and a win may set up a possible quarter-final match-up with Roger Federer, who is returning for the grass-court season.

Prajnesh's opponent, Shapavalov, was crowned 2016 Wimbledon junior champion and had the world sit up and take notice when he beat Rafael Nadal before a boisterous home crowd in Montreal last year. The Israel-born Canadian, a slightly unorthodox player with big shots from both wings and a game than can throw people off, then went on to have a searing run at the US Open, becoming the youngest to make the last 16.

Prajnesh knew all of this going into the match against the fellow lefty. He started by breaking Shapovalov in the first game and then held his nerve to win the tie-break 8-6. He also knew he couldn't afford to play passive after squandering four match points in the decider. "He punished me for it. He's always attacking so you have to keep it close. I knew I had a chance if I just kept being as aggressive as I could."

The groundwork for this win, according to coach Bastian, was laid at least six months ago.

"We've been working on his fitness and bringing more variation to his serve. In close points, he was rushing to finish earlier. But today the way he hung on at 5-3 was a happy sight." Bastian trains Prajnesh at the Alexander Waske Tennis-University in Germany and occasionally travels with him for tournaments.

"The only thing he was missing up until today was the self-belief that comes with beating a top player" Bastian Suwanpradeep, Gunneswaran coach

A few weeks ago, the Indian was on a flight to Italy for a Challenger tournament when an incredulous French Open main draw opportunity opened up. It may have been his fattest pay cheque. But he was already in the Vicenza draw and it was too late to get out of it. However, there's little visible hurt or regret over the missed chance. "I didn't earn it you know," Prajnesh says after a pause, "I'd lost in the qualifying so I didn't really feel like I was giving up something."

Even his Stuttgart appearance was up in the air for a while. "Had I got a main draw entry into the Nottingham Open, I would have played there. But that didn't happen and it probably worked out for the best. I've been mixing it up a bit over the past year or so, training in Chennai, then in Bengaluru at (Rohan) Bopanna's academy and of course in Germany, trying different things. Everything added up. This is definitely a massive win for me."

Coach Bastian, who traveled with Prajnesh to Roland Garros last month says he was certain of an impending big win. "I could see that Prajnesh had rounded into a more complete player on many fronts. The only thing he was missing up until today was the self-belief that comes with beating a top player. Now, he has that too. When few weeks ago I told him he can beat Shapovalov, I wasn't being kind. I was pretty damn sure he could."