Men’s tennis in India is at an interesting juncture. For years, there has been a steady decline, despite a few stand-out achievements along the way. Late last year was the first time since 2005 that no Indian singles player was ranked in the ATP top 300. It’s a streak that continues till this day. But as Sumit Nagal demonstrated over the course of the Indian Swing of ATP Challengers, a revival may not be far off.

On March 20, when the ATP rankings were updated, Nagal became the India No 1 singles player again. And it comes at the end of a lengthy spell where a series of injuries – and a hip surgery – kept him away from the sport. The man who was ranked as low as 638 in October is finding the rhythm again.

“The points that I have made in this month, I did not make last year. It’s a good start. I didn’t make any points in January; didn’t make many points last year,” said Nagal, who reached a career high of 122 in 2020, to Scroll during the recent ATP Challenger in Pune.

During the Indian Swing – three back-to-back Challenger events in Chennai, Bengaluru and Pune – Nagal picked up 59 ranking points. It started with his semifinal finish in Chennai (where he started as a qualifier), followed by second round losses in Bengaluru and Pune. But he was the only Indian to have even won a main draw singles match during the three-week swing. And with it, the belief is returning that his body will hold up for the brutal grind of the game.

Injury woes

That ‘belief’ though was not there a short while ago.

“I had the hip surgery in November 2021. Playing tournaments was miserable because I couldn’t run to my forehand side properly till September (2022). I didn’t have enough confidence. And I’m used to sliding on the clay but I couldn’t slide. Because I couldn’t slide, the footwork was so different. One side of the brain was saying slide, the other side was saying I’m scared. I was mistiming a lot of shots. The footwork was gone, strength was gone. That’s why it took so long to start moving freely,” said Nagal, who moved up to world No 374 and is the only Indian singles player ranked in the ATP top 400.

The confidence did not come back as quickly as he had hoped because of a freak injury mid-match in the first round of a Challenger in Heilbronn, Germany. He made the main draw cut of the event in May 2022 after going through the qualifiers.

“I was up 5-1 and tore a muscle in my stomach. It happened when I was just running for the ball. That’s when I fell really frustrated, I was thinking, ‘I didn’t play for 7-8 months and I’m back to play and this is what happens,’” he recalled.

“I was out for six-odd weeks, and then I started struggling with my body. I didn’t have confidence in my abdomen. I started feeling better in September and then I got Covid. That was very frustrating, because there were lot of starts and stops. No rhythm. I just wanted to be done with that year as soon as possible.”

Belief still there

The harsh reality that was 2022 seems distant now, as the 25-year-old from Jhajjhar embarks on another ‘start’ in his journey. He’s already built some momentum as he heads into his favourite clay swing. The game – with that big, whiplash forehand – is coming back, and so are hopes and memories of that 2019 season which saw him take a set off Roger Federer at the US Open.

Even in a loss against Federer, Sumit Nagal’s heart and forehand make an impression

That was a match, he asserted, that he still remembers often.

“You need to believe. Playing at the highest level gives you the confidence, the bigger picture of yourself. I definitely I do think about it, I do see it and believe that I can be there again,” he said.

“Now I feel normal, like the 2019 season. Now I just have to take a little more care of the hips. More rehab, more physio, stretching, put another 20-30 minutes a day on your hips.”

The benefit of playing in India, even if it just was for four weeks (including the season opener ATP event in Pune), means the familiarity of playing under home conditions, with home support close at hand. Also close-by during the Challengers was his mentor and former India No 1 Somdev Devvarman.

“He’s very different than I am. He was a very different tennis player; very different person. He’s on the calmer side, I am very aggressive side. I need to learn those things from him, how to be calm on certain points, how to think through the match. He was very good at it, he saw the game very well,” Nagal said of Devvarman.

Early on in his tennis journey, Nagal had laid down a long-term goal. ‘Project 61’, he called it – inspired by what the Japanese federation created Project 45, which saw the creation of Kei Nishikori.

Nagal’s version though is to beat the world No 62 ranking that Devvarman had reached – the highest achieved by an Indian man this century.

“That’s a big goal,” Nagal added.

Slowly, he’s taking steps back in that direction.