| Mumbai |
Updated: September 3, 2020 8:12:21 am
Once Sumit Nagal got back to his bench and put down his racquet, he broke into a big smile. No longer was there any disbelief on his face. He knew this was real, and now he wanted to savour the feeling. In that New York Minute, immediately after he won his first ever Grand Slam main draw match on Tuesday at the US Open, he was reminded of the struggle for the past few years.
“It was very emotional for me. I had been waiting for this,” he says, putting into perspective what the win meant to him. “I had a lot of injuries in my career which pushed me back, and I blame myself for it a lot. And today, after winning my first round, I could finally smile .”
In a display of composure, determination, patience and skill, Nagal registered a 6-1, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win over American Bradley Klahn. With the win, he secured a second-round match against World No. 3 Dominic Thiem on Thursday. Nagal’s win brings to an end a seven-year wait to see an Indian singles player in the second round of a Grand Slam.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 1, 2020
The last time it happened was at the US Open in 2013, when Somdev Devvarman beat Lukas Lacko. “It’s been way too long unfortunately,” says Devvarman, who retired in 2017. “Our boys have had quite a few chances, but it’s good to see an Indian win a round at a Slam again. But this needs to continue, we can’t wait another seven years. Sumit’s on a good path now. But we need to not celebrate this as much as we need to work on doing this more often.”
The win, despite it coming after such a long time, was no accident. The world no. 124 had prepared himself to make the breakthrough. And when the tennis tour was suspended in March because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 23-year-old made the crucial decision to stay in Germany rather than return to India. In late May, the German government allowed professional players to resume training, and Nagal, based in Peine where he trains at the Sascha Nensel Academy, started to put in the hard yards once again.
He played exhibition events in Germany and Switzerland before heading to Prague for a Challenger, followed by the trip to the US Open. And the improvement is evident. “Everybody had time off, but I think he used his time off very well, very smartly. He looks an improved player, he looks fitter, different parts of his game have improved a lot,” Devvarman explains. “He’s much better mentally now than he was earlier. He’s a much more mature player now than he was two years ago, and even last year, without a doubt.”
The improved mentality made the difference on the day. Nagal played a steady game, patiently putting balls back in play while Klahn went for broke without much success. Eventually, Nagal conceded just 17 unforced errors compared to his opponent’s 40.
“I served well, stayed focused through most of the match and kept my emotions in control. That was a big step for me today,” the Indian adds.
It just goes to show how far he has come from where he was back in January last year.
A shoulder problem rendered him unable to compete without pain, and without good results. It reached a stage where Nagal was forced to hang around the courts at the Tata Open Maharashtra in Pune, in the opening week of the 2019 season, hoping to get a spot in the qualifying draw. But the 361 rank he had dropped to was not good enough. In fact, he struggled for a while to secure entry into tournaments, amplifying the frustration.
“You had no idea if you’d get into tournaments. I was getting emails around Thursday or Friday saying ‘hey, you got into this tournament,’ then you have to rush to get there,” Nagal told The Indian Express last year. “It was tough and was getting very annoying, mentally, and financially. You were never really prepared to play a particular tournament because you spent most of the time just hoping you can get in.”
But Nagal just wouldn’t go away. He kept at it, grinding away as his physical ailments steadily healed and the results started going his way. He pulled off solid wins over former world no. 17 Albert Ramos-Vinolas and former world no. 24 Martin Klizan. And then he went through the qualifiers at the 2019 US Open and played a certain Roger Federer in the opening round, surprising everyone by winning the first set.
The journey from the start to his second outing at the US Open has been long and winding for the boy from Jhajjar. Once a cricket lover, his father enrolled him into the DD Tennis Academy in New Delhi. A few years later, he impressed Mahesh Bhupathi, under whose guidance he was sent to train in Canada for three years in 2011, and then later in Germany.
Despite having played 28 exhibition matches during the lockdown, the Austrian has been rusty after returning to the tour. He folded rather easily against Filip Krajinovic in his first match at the relocated Cincinnati Masters (losing 6-2, 6-1), and was not at his best in his opener at the major against Jaume Munar – who retired to hand Thiem the match. “He doesn’t look like the same Thiem that reached the Australian Open final this year,” Devvarman says.
But then again, he does have the experience of playing on the big stage, not to mention the firepower off both wings. “(Nagal) is going to have to play well, step up when the opportunity comes, play clutch and stay focused during the whole match,” Devvarman adds. “Not give up freebies or have a lapse in concentration. All we’re looking for is Sumit to play well and give himself a shot.”
The one thing we do know about Nagal is, now that he’s tasted the success of winning at the Slams, he’s not going to give up that easily.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
© The Indian Express (P) Ltd