Every time a tennis Grand Slam rolls out, the talk in India usually revolves around the big names.
But, while the focus of tennis fans is firmly fixed on the crème de la crème, there are always eyes looking out for the Indian participation.
However, at the US Open this year, it was an Indian player that dominated the headlines ahead of the opening night at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. After all, it was ‘one of our own’ who was handed the marquee slot at the biggest tennis arena in the world.
Making his Grand Slam debut in New York, it was a 22-year-old Sumit Nagal who was in for a baptism by fire as he lined up against the the great Roger Federer. But what followed was something that not many would have dreamt of.
Up against the best in the business, Nagal not only looked at ease but went ahead to match the Swiss great shot for shot and take the opening set. Though he couldn’t sustain the momentum going deep into the match, Nagal had done enough to make a lasting impression.
“(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. I think he did that very well,” Federer would say about his young opponent in his post-match interview.
A season of firsts for Sumit Nagal
2019 has been a season of firsts for the youngster who was raised in the capital city of New Delhi.
While making his Grand Slam debut was undoubtedly the highlight for Nagal, he also became the first Indian to win an ATP Challenger in South America, the Challenger de Buenos Aires, this year.
The Delhi boy also ended the season being the player to feature in the most number of semifinals on the Challenger Tour this year.
Nagal has entered the final four of competitions no less than eight times this season.
“The season has been great. I can’t complain. I did a lot for things, broke a few records,” said Nagal in a chat with the Olympic Channel.
“The US Open was great, then I became the first Indian to win an (ATP) Challenger in South America, reached a final in Europe. I don’t think I would have thought of this at the beginning of the year. If you look at it, I was in and around 400 on the ATP Rankings in January, not getting into a competition. And here I am now, having played the highest number of semi-finals on the Tour this year. I have had a lot of good matches and that’s what matters.”
Sumit Nagal and his early days
Growing up in New Delhi, tennis was not Nagal’s first love. In fact, the Indian didn’t even know about the sport until he was walked onto a court near his house in Pitampura, North-West Delhi, by his dad.
“It was my dad who first took me to a tennis court. Though I am a big cricket fan, he always wanted me to play an individual sport. And I think that’s how it started,” said Nagal recollecting his early days.
“I started playing before I was eight. To be honest, I didn’t even know the sport when I entered the courts. It was very much new to me. After a few months in a local court nearby, I moved to an academy close to my house. For 2-3 years, I would have longs days. It would start with a training session in the morning, then school, come home, then head out for a fitness session, come home, do my homework and then hit the bed by around 9:30-10:00 in the night. This went on for some time.”
The hard yards that Nagal put in during his initial days soon bore fruits as he was recruited by one of India’s greatest players Mahesh Bhupathi for his ambitious ‘Apollo Mission 2018’ project in 2008 - a programme that aimed at producing India’s first-ever Grand Slam singles champion by 2018.
Though the programme was shelved after two years, Bhupathi never left Nagal’s side and the youngster is forever grateful to his senior pro. “I don’t have enough words for him. He’s been there for me in both my good and bad times. Since the age of 10, he’s helped me as much as anyone could ever. He’s like a mentor to me. Whenever I knock on his door, I know he’s there for me,” he said.
The Rafael Nadal fan
For someone who idolizes Spanish great Rafael Nadal, it’s no surprise that Nagal considers clay to be his preferred surface - despite him winning junior Wimbledon doubles title and a Challenger each on hard and clay surface.
“I am most comfortable on clay. I think my game style is more suited to clay than any other surface,” says the world number 130.
So is he trying to add a few ‘Nadal’ shots to his repertoire? “Not possible for now,” he says bursting into laughter. “You can’t compare me to him. He’s one of the best tennis players out there. I would love to play like him one day, but I am not even close.”
With the 2020 season just around the corner, breaking into the top 100 is on Nagal’s priority.
And while the Olympics is definitely on his radar, he knows Tokyo 2020 could be a bit over ambitious for now. “Definitely, I will make it to the Olympics. Tokyo 2020 could a bit far fetched, but I have my eyes set on Paris 2024,” he says.
And if his 2019 season is anything to go by, it won’t be a surprise if Nagal ends up leading the Indian challenge in the French capital four years from now.