At the US Open last year, Indian tennis followers were happy to cheer a loss as Sumit Nagal made his Grand Slam debut at the grandest stage – a qualifier against Roger Federer on the Arthur Ashe court – and made it memorable by taking the first set off him.
A year later, now as India No 1, Nagal made a direct entry in the main draw and became the first Indian to win a singles Grand Slam match in seven years as he beat Bradley Klahn in the first round. But yet again, it may be his loss at the US Open that will be remembered more as this time he played second seed Dominic Thiem in the second round.
The Indian lost 3-6, 3-6, 2-6 to the world No 3 and three-time Major finalist but the learning he got from his second outing on Arthur Ashe was a gain.
In the last one year, Nagal has played Federer, Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka and now Thiem across the US Open, Davis Cup and Prague Challenger. Three Grand Slam champions and a runner-up at Majors.
The 23-year-old didn’t win any of those encounters; he wasn’t expected to. But the chance to play against the top players on the big stage is a rare opportunity.
“It was a great experience to play someone like Thiem. I have played Roger, Cilic, Wawrinka and Thiem so far. All of them are great players and you get to learn so much from them, how to be disciplined and focus on the right things,” Nagal told Scroll.in from New York.
Against Thiem, the world No 124 had his moments and despite the difference in rankings and being two sets down, Nagal didn’t fade away.
He admitted to starting the match nervously but recovered to break Thiem back in the first set after a fighting fifth game. He got one more break in the second and was impressive on the forehand flank, an on-the-run loopy winner even eliciting a ‘bravo’ from Thiem. But he was unable to string together points on his serve and that served up the biggest lesson for him.
“I played some decent tennis. Of course, I could have been better but I have not played much. There is so much room to improve in every aspect and that is the positive side of it,” he said.
In his assessment of Nagal’s game, Thiem said: “He also has 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.”
Federer had said something similar last year.
“I think his game is based on being really consistent,” Federer had said. “He moves well, moves the ball around well. Sort of very much a clay-courter.”
It’s important to understand that while the 23-year-old is the India No 1 and has played at the Arthur Ashe twice now, he is still relatively inexperienced at the level.
He has played in the main draw of an ATP Tour event only three times, apart from his two US Open appearances, and has just the one win against Klahn in the first round. His career high ranking is 122, achieved last week.
Viewed from this perspective, Nagal’s Grand Slam experiences against the toughest competitors is actually good news and is certain to improve his game.
In 2019, he stayed injury free to play a full season and climbed up the ranks from world No 361 to 127. The rise helped him maintain his position in 2020, a year where tennis and rankings came to a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic. Before heading to New York, he made yet another good run at a clay-court Challenger and was in peak physical form.
And against Thiem, just like last year playing Federer, he made the tennis world take notice.
Nagal had an interesting take when asked what area he would like to improve on after his US Open experience.
“To stay composed and focused throughout the match. For me, staying disciplined from beginning to end will be the main goal,” Nagal said.
The answer stands out because he didn’t feel he was lacking physically. Rather, it was the more intangible concepts of composure and focus; qualities that can only be learned through experience and playing the big stars. No video can help. Composure and focus cannot be taught in theory. To experience what it means to play the greats means one has to be on the other side of the net; the videos don’t even get close.
During his ATP Tour debut, back as a qualifier at the 2018 Maharashtra Open in Pune, he struggled to maintain his focus in crucial moments... a bad call or a break point seemed to ruffle his feathers.
At the same venue, playing a Challenger in late 2019, Nagal was more composed, staying in the game even after poor points. At a Grand Slam level, this is a completely different ball game, given the best-of-five format. And to both recognize that and work on it a step in the right direction.
Any player close to the top 100 and playing in the main draw of a Grand Slam has more than a fair idea of their game and where they stand. And that is true of Nagal as well. The real challenge is to apply what he has learned from the big matches to his game on a consistent basis.
His court coverage, praised by Federer and Thiem, is the foundation of his game and in his forehand, he has the one big weapon needed. If he can add more consistency to his first serve, he will have a more complete game that can hold steady at the top level too. And the more cerebral learning from actually playing the ones you want to emulate is what will help him make his mark in the future.
Up next for the Indian is the French Open qualifying, where he will hope to play his third Grand Slam, this one on his favourite surface: clay.