What was Sumit Nagal’s highlight from a remarkable 2019 season? For most Indian tennis fans, the answer might be the US Open, where he took the first set off Roger Federer on Grand Slam debut. To some others it may be the remarkable climb up the ATP rankings.
But for the 22-year-old, the standout aspect of the season was maintaining his fitness.
“My fitness and not getting injured for the whole year. Unfortunately, I rolled my ankle while playing in Hamburg, but I don’t have that in my hand. There was no shoulder problem, no hamstring or hip problems. So that was I think that was the best part of my season,” Nagal said after his 2019 ATP season ended on Friday with a quarter-final loss to Ramkumar Ramanathan at the ATP Challenger in Pune.
On the first Monday of 2019, Nagal was the world No 361, not even making the cut for the qualifiers of the Maharashtra Open in Pune where he had made his ATP World Tour debut in 2018. In November, he is the world No 127 and the second-highest ranked player in India.
To say it has been a breakthrough season success-wise, is redundant. Yet when he feels his biggest achievement is staying injury-free, it tells one a lot about the mindset of the player.
Nagal has been a long-promised Indian tennis star, winning his first Challenger in Bengaluru as a 20-year-old in 2017. But injuries have taken a toll on his relatively young career. Even in Pune, he was playing with an ankle brace while his serve was affected by fatigue.
However, after a torn labrum in his shoulder in 2017 and a poor 2018 with as many as 18 first-round losses combined with injury layoffs, it all changed in 2019. In the second half of the year, he has finally turned a corner with consistent performances on the Challenger circuit and a solid fitness routine. He broke into the top 200 with five semi-finals on clay – his favourite surface, qualified for the ATP 500 in Hamburg and won his second Challenger at Buenos Aires.
The tournament in Pune was his first on hard courts after the US Open and the surface didn’t help against a player of Ramkumar’s style.
“I had my chances I didn’t take it but that’s part of tennis, you know? So overall it’s okay, last tournament of the year, against someone who is tough to play here, so can’t complain,” he said of his match.
But push him further about his aggressive game plan and he details how he didn’t want to alter his style too much just to face a serve-and-volleyer because he is building up his game with a long-term goal in mind.
“Looking at my size [he is 5’10”] and my game, I can’t just keep making balls so I need to have at least one weapon. That’s why I’ve been improving my forehand forever, I’ve been just working a lot on it,” he said, explaining the shot that troubled Federer not too long ago.
While the 22-year-old was frank while discussing the chinks in his service game as well, his comments suggested that he is hopeful of solving the serve problem soon.
“It’s like the shoulder is tired… I didn’t want to take too many chances because it’s the last tournament and I don’t have to go crazy for it. A new season is coming soon you know... good things are coming next year.”
“[the] Serve will come… looking at my shoulder history, it is not easy to go out and blast big serves. I have to be very smart about how I serve and I think every year…. if my shoulder stays good… It is going to improve, you know,” he said empathically.
He further explained: “My focus is not just to win this tournament, I want to be there at the next level where if I just push the ball, it is not going to work… Sure this is an important match, but I have a bigger goal, I have a bigger vision for which I will stick to my game.”
The bigger goal is a no-brainer. Nagal is yet to win an ATP World Tour match in his career but he is on the brink of making to the Tour events if he gets his ranking close to 100 at the start of 2020.
Nagal, who began training at the Nensel Tennis Academy in Germany this year, will start his pre-season training in Delhi and Chennai with his fitness trainer to get ready for the Australian summer.
Up next for him is the Davis Cup tie against Pakistan – an issue that is doubly contentious for him. He has refused to play for the team in the past, has had run-ins with the federation and recently tweeted in support of former captain Mahesh Bhupathi, his mentor. For now, he declined from commenting on the issue.
He plans to start his 2020 season with the Challenger in Canberra before the Australian Open qualifiers. Whether he can make a global impact for the second straight Grand Slam is hard to tell. But with a solid season under his belt and a solid vision for the future, it looks like Nagal is finally ready for the next step – Top 100 and upwards.