At a stage when it looked like his US Open second-round match was all but decided, Sumit Nagal hit an on-the-run, over-the-net-post, loopy, spin-laden forehand winner that dropped on the edge of the line and won the point.
Such was the incredulity of the shot after an intense rally that his opponent Dominic Thiem applauded with a ‘Bravo!’ The same forehand had made quite the impression when he played Roger Federer in New York last year. It was the same forehand that Thiem said he was trying to stifle.
At two sets and a break down, it didn’t count for much but that winner and reaction should be big positive for the India No 1, who lost 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 in two hours. Nagal was not in contention for a large chunk of the match, dropping serve early in all three sets. But the moments of assertion and the fight he showed in the match were very encouraging signs for the future.
The 23-year-old Nagal, playing only his second Grand Slam, was on the Arthur Ashe for the second time. The last time he was here, it was his Major debut against Federer under lights. Much like Thursday, it was not a match he was expected to win.
Then, he captured the first set and showed a surprising fight against a 20-time Grand Slam champion. Now, against a three-time Major runner-up, he showed how much he has improved, even though he won a set less. And the loss will be no less of a learning curve.
A service problem
After gaining a direct entry into the main draw after a string of pull-outs in a coronavirus-affected season, Nagal capitalised on his chance by becoming thefirst Indian in seven years to win a Grand Slam singles match.
In a quirk of the draw, he had a player ranked below him in the first round and the second seed in the next. But the biggest stage is exactly what he needed. Playing against a top-level player on the main court is a learning experience that is hard to replicate and Nagal has got that twice now. For a player who has come a long way in terms of game and fitness, this is a challenge with nothing to lose but a lot to gain.
The match started with Nagal being broken in his first service game after a couple of errors and a double fault. That could well have set the tone for the set but Nagal got his game back in order and started staying in points with his quick movement and groundstrokes.
The highlight of the match from the Indian perspective came in the fifth game of the first set.
The grueling game lasted around 11 minutes, went to deuce five times and gave Nagal five chances to break, which he converted to put the set back on serve. The counter-punching, the groundstrokes, the court coverage... were all of a very high quality. From 0-2 down, he broke, consolidated to 15 and levelled it on 3-3. Momentum was back on even keel and Thiem, while a three-time Major runner-up, is by no means the most consistent.
But just as the possibility of surprise sparkled, Thiem shone a spotlight on the facet of Nagal’s game that needs the most improvement – his serve.
The Indian lost his next two service games across the first and second set and even though he managed to get one more break, it was not enough and the match was sealed with a break of serve as well.
As confidently as he stayed in the rallies and as zinging as his groundstrokes were, he was let down by the serve not clicking which meant he just couldn’t put together a string of easy points.
Even though he had more first serves in the match than Thiem (71% to 64%), Nagal won only about 56% points on his first serve and 38% on his second, with one ace and four double faults. He was broken seven times, despite saving over 50% of the break points he faced.
Crucially, his serve speed was at an average of 97 mph, which reduced to 86 mph on second serve. Against a player who stands practically next to the line judge behind the baseline, this was always going to be an issue. The serve speed seemed to affect his subsequent strokes as well as he couldn’t trouble Thiem with deep balls. The court at the Arthur Ashe is supposed to be faster this year and Thiem had some trouble adjusting to the speed in his truncated first match. But there were no such issues here.
While the serve is one area that definitely needs improvement, Nagal can take hope from several things, not least how his forehand worked against a player with one of the strongest backhands. He didn’t get many winners from it, but the cross-court and on-the-run shots showed the work he has put in the gym.
“He has also very, very fast legs. He’s moving around very quickly on the court. I was trying to play my fastest tennis to keep him on the backhand, to not let him dictate with the forehand,” Thiem said after the match.
The winner’s plan can be the template the vanquished can work on: keep the work on the movement and forehand, improve the speed and backhand. At only 23, Nagal has time on his hand to become the forerunner in Indian men’s tennis and make the US Open runs only the start.