The last time Roger Federer played a Grand Slam match, he was a point away from lifting a record 21st title against the world No 1. He may not have looked close to that player, when he took the court at the US Open on Monday, but facing him at a Major is always a challenge, whether as top seed or wild card.
The task can only get more daunting when you are a 22-year-old rookie making his Grand Slam debut after playing three qualifying matches. Add to that the fact that you are world No 190, have never won an ATP World Tour match and are playing under the lights in the largest tennis arena in the world.
The occasion would have overawed most people but not once did Sumit Nagal look out of place as he got the “best thing he could have hoped for” in his first Major match. Not once did he let up when he returned what is arguably the most clinical serve in men’s tennis. Not once did he look uncomfortable while hitting his inside out forehand to the Swiss’ one-handed backhand. Not once did he look like he was going to give up – even when his opponent was serving for the match.
And that is what made Sumit Nagal’s debut all the more impressive. This spirit, this intensity made him stand out as much as the shock first set win and the four break points while Federer looking to serve it out. The 38-year-old third seed secured a battling 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory, but not before the qualifier made his mark.
Even before the match began, Nagal knew there was a minuscule chance for victory. But this is the match-up he wanted – on the biggest stage. It was never about the result, it was about the impression he could make, the lessons he could learn. The first-set win was a bonus, and it actually derailed his game for a bit. But it, in his own words, is a learning curve.
Nagal was broken in his very first service game as Federer took a 2-0 lead. In most circumstances, that would be the decisive break. But the youngster from Haryana took the chances on offer to exploit Federer’s error-strewn game and broke right back.
It was the rookie that got the decisive break and claimed the first set, with Federer’s first-serve percentage a lowly 48% with 19 unforced errors.
It would appear that Nagal didn’t have to do too much to get the lead but don’t let the scoreline fool you. He did the basics right even as Federer was shanking forehands. He was loading the spin on his groundstrokes and keeping his own serve clean. He was running all over the court and keeping the ball in play like this was clay, a surface he favours.
Even after Federer showed up in the second set, the young Indian made the veteran work for all his points. He saved three break points before losing serve in the first game again Federer needed seven set points to close it out despite being a double break up.
After dropping the next set and looking visibly annoyed at his mistakes, Nagal found his calm again. For someone who has often in the past struggled to keep his emotion in check during a match, the Indian’s response was admirable in the crucible of nerves and pressure.
He finally got a break back in the fourth set with that impressive inside out forehand, a shot that impressed throughout, but was unable to sustain the level for long before going down in two and a half hours.
The Swiss great, who joked his game was rusty as his stubble, had only words of encouragement for his opponent and offered an interesting analysis of the match.
“I thought he was getting a bit down on himself naturally after set two and three. That’s why it was key to stay ahead, and I did,” Federer said.
“[It’s] never easy to come out and play your best. Even though it’s kind of what you live for, you dream about, playing on the big stage. So I think he did that very well,”
Federer added: “I think he knows what he can bring. That’s why I think he’s going to have a very solid career. But, of course, it’s not the game that comes out with the biggest surprises. It’s really consistent. I think he did it very well tonight.”
“I think his game is based on being really consistent. He moves well, moves the ball around well. Sort of very much a clay-courter. That’s also the surface he’s played basically the entire year almost.”
For a player from India, though, a battling loss is almost a positive. The spotlight is the biggest asset, even if a double-edged one.
The country has not produced a consistent men’s singles player in a while and the hunt for the next star is almost an obsession. But at the end of the day, this is the first time in over 20 years that there were two Indian men in the main draw of a Major and he is only the fourth Indian player to win a set in a Grand Slam singles main draw this decade.
Nagal, himself, is very much aware that hype is a mirage and the real work to be done is on the grind of the Challenger circuit. When asked what are the aspects he needs to work on, his answer was brutally honest: “Everything. I am lacking in all departments and need to get better everywhere.”
Up next for him is another Challenger in Italy as he aims to break into the Top 100 by the end of the year. Five semi-finals out of seven clay-court Challengers got his ranking high enough to get into the qualifiers and reach this stage. Now he hopes more success will make him a permanent fixture there.