PUNE: Prajnesh Gunneswaran earned a shot at a second consecutive title on the ATP Challenger circuit after conquering top seed Radu Albot in a gripping semifinal at the KPIT-MSLTA tournament here Friday.
Prajnesh, the winner of Bengaluru Open last week, had to sweat it out to beat the Moldovan 1-6 6-4 6-4 in exact two hours.
The 29-year-old southpaw had lost to Albot at the Liuzhou Challenger semifinal last month and it was again a test of skills and nerves but the Indian came out on top this time.
It is the second time that Prajnesh has reached the final at this tournament, having ended runner-up in the 2016 edition to Frenchman Sadio Doumbia.
It will be the fourth straight year at the Pune Challenger that a home player is in the final.
It was only in the inaugural edition in 2014 that no Indian could reach the final.
Fourth seed Prajnesh will now fight it out with Swedish third seed Elias Ymer, who sent packing Canadian Brayden Schnur 6-3 3-6 6-3 in the other semifinal.
In their previous and only meeting at this year's French Open qualifying, Ymer had beaten Prajnesh in the third and final round.
Besides Prajnesh, the Indian pairing of Ramkumar Ramanathan and Vijay Sundar Prashanth are also in title contention after their 7-6(7) 6-0 win over Andrej Martin and Hans Podlipnik-Castillo in the semifinals.
Albot came with a clear plan, hitting mostly on the backhand side of Prajnesh, whose forehand is fierce and strong.
Albot peppered the Indian left-hander with shots on his backhand side and it worked immediately.
The Moldovan drew first blood, breaking the Indian in the third game and consolidated the break by serving the next game at love.
He led 3-1, much to the disappointment of about 300 fans in the stadium and soon made it 4-1 with another break of serve.
Prajnesh had two chances to break back in the sixth but Albot did not let the Indian capitalise.
Prajnesh's power-packed forehand was silent, not helping his cause as he made a lot of errors on his favourite stroke.
However, the Indian left-hander found his touch in the second set as he succeeded in involving Albot in long rallies.
The Moldovan had kept points short in the opening set.
Prajnesh's forehand started to talk as he hammered a winner to earn his first break opportunity in the second set and converted with a return, which Albot netted.
He was serving much better, which was the key in the turnaround.
Long rallies worked in Prajnesh's favour as he unleashed his power-packed forehand to win points.
The break stayed with Prajnesh, who served out the set at love in the 10th game with an ace.
Albot did try to re-employ his strategy of hitting it on the backhand side of Prajnesh but could not do it as consistently as he did in the opening set.
In the decider, it was Prajnesh who nosed ahead.
At 15-15 in the third game, Albot hit a forehand wide and followed it up with a double fault, handing two break points to the Indian.
Prajnesh hit deep returns on both the flanks.
Albot, trying to finish the point, attempted a drop shot with his backhand from the left flank but it could not clear the net.
Prajnesh faced his first breakpoint in the sixth game when he hit a forehand long but saved it, thwarting the danger.
Albot was not throwing in the towel and kept the home favourite under pressure wit his excellent game.
He also stayed strong on his service games.
There were no easy points.
A dog-fight was on.
Two forehand errors put Prajnesh down by two more breakpoints but he bailed himself out with strong serving to eventually lead 5-3.
Serving for the match, Prajnesh began with a double fault but held nerves to close it out.