Around this time last year, Sumit Nagal was world No 306 and struggling with an injury. A year later, the 22-year-old is all set to play Roger Federer on his Grand Slam debut at US Open.
Qualifying for your first-ever Grand Slam main draw after a sensational fightback, drawing the most successful player in the first round to be played in the night session at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in a match televised all over the world: for any young tennis player, this is a huge career moment.
But for a young man from India who has been struggling to make ATP tournaments, it doesn’t get better than this. With his steady run in the qualifiers and the top-name draw, Nagal has suddenly been catapulted into the global limelight. In his own words, it’s the best outcome possible.
“Playing the US Open for the first time, qualifying, and playing Roger Federer it is amazing it’s the best thing that could have happened to me. I am really looking forward to the match on Monday night,” Nagal told Scroll.in from New York.
From not getting an entry even in the qualifiers of the Maharashtra Open – India’s only ATP World Tour event – in January this year to the biggest court of the US Open, it’s been quite the season for the youngster from Haryana after a forgettable 2018. After ending 2017 with his first ATP Challenger title in Bengaluru, he had a poor 2018 as 18 first-round losses combined with injury layoffs.
Nagal has now reached a career-high 190 after starting the year at 361 and has had consistent runs in the Challenger circuit, making five semi-finals in seven consecutive tournaments. The 22-year-old also qualified for the main draw of the ATP 500 event in Hamburg, another career first.
Incidentally, the US Open qualifiers was the first time he played on hard courts since March. But the run on his preferred clay courts – despite no trophy – has helped him immensely, not least in getting his ranking high enough to play Major qualifiers.
“I have been playing well, taking the positive things from every week, every match I compete in, every time I win. I need to build up my own game and create myself in a way where things work for me. At this age, it is important that I learn every time I step on the court and that is what my focus has been on,” Nagal, who won the junior boys doubles at Wimbledon in 2015, said.
Another positive for him this year has been Nensel Tennis Academy in Peine, Germany, under head coach Sascha Nensel and his team. Sascha has coached former Top 10 players Nicolas Keifer and Julia Goerges in the past. Milos Galecic, who is the director of fitness at the academy and Somdev Devvarman’s fitness trainer, is also working with him.
“They have pushed me and they believed in me when not too many people did. I am really thankful to them, we enjoy working together, it’s fun to work with someone you look forward to seeing,” he said of their contribution.
The difference, in not just in his game and fitness but also his mental makeup, is clear for all to see. At the Maharashtra Open in 2017, he had to go through the qualifiers before making his ATP World Tour debut. In the first-round loss, he was unable to control his frustration after poor shots and lost points.
Too often in the past, nerves have gotten the better of him. But in the qualifiers last week – especially in the last week – he showed great fortitude to fight back from a set and a break down to beat 210th ranked Joao Menezes 5-7, 6-4, 6-3.
Nagal admitted that he almost lost the plot against Menezes, but worked hard to restore his calm and belief.
“The first set was really close we both were playing really well and I was just unlucky that I didn’t win it. In the second, he started well again but the thing was that I was feeling a little nervous so when it became 3-0, I calmed myself down. I let my strokes go a little loose but from that point on, I started playing better and better, held serve and 3-1 and the momentum changed. I started believing and playing better and then with each game, I got better,” he recounted.
Despite his issues with the Davis Cup squad, the youngster’s Major debut marks an important milestone for Indian tennis. This is the first time there will be two Indian men in the singles main draw of a Grand Slam since Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi played Wimbledon back in 1998.
He is just the fifth Indian man to qualify for a Grand Slam singles this decade after Somdev Devvarman, Yuki Bhambri, Saketh Myneni, and Prajnesh. Crucially, at 22 Nagal is much younger than all of them.
At this stage, against a man with 20 Grand Slams, his aim to enjoy the grand stage he has got on debut and not think of the result.
“It’s my first Slam, so I am not looking at the result as such. I am playing someone who has been the best tennis player so I don’t think I am going to focus on the result, all I am going to do is to enjoy and live the moment” he said.
Irrespective of the occasion, opponent or result, his first Major match is sure to help Nagal enjoy his tennis a lot more in the time to come.