New Delhi: Not even his biggest supporters could’ve predicted that India’s Sumit Nagal would take a set off Roger Federer, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, at the US Open Monday in his maiden Grand Slam appearance. Nor that he would become the toast of Indian sports on the day P.V. Sindhu returned to India with her badminton World Championship gold medal.
The 22-year-old Nagal actually took the opening set off Federer in their first round match, before the Swiss master showed his class in winning 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. But that made Nagal the first Indian to take a set off Federer since Leander Paes beat the would-be legend in 2000.
Nagal, who was born in Jhajjar, Haryana, has jumped from 361 in the world rankings at the start of 2019 to 190. His career-best ranking before this was 213 in April 2018.
He reached the semifinals of five Challenger events this year, before eventually qualifying for his first tour-level tournament in Hamburg, an ATP 500 event, in July. There, he lost in the first round to France’s Richard Gasquet in straight sets.
In the hierarchy of men’s tennis tournaments, Challenger events rank below the ATP 250, 500 and 1000 events, the World Tour Finals and the coveted Grand Slams — Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open. The difference, apart from prestige and prize money, is the ranking points on offer at each level.
9 words that changed Nagal’s life
In an interview to the ATP Tour website before his match against Federer, Nagal described how just nine words changed his life forever. He had started playing tennis in 2005, and just two years later came across news that Mahesh Bhupathi was holding selections for his academy in New Delhi.
“I was hitting with the other kids and there was a moment where I went to Mahesh and said, ‘Mr Bhupathi, could you please look at my game?’. I knew who he was, so I grabbed his hand and asked him to look at my game,” he said.
“That’s the one line that changed my life. If I didn’t tell him this, I would not be sitting here right now. My family didn’t have enough money to support me when I was young. I couldn’t have played tennis.”
Nagal’s father Suresh, a school teacher, also discussed Bhupathi’s contribution in his son’s career in a 2015 interview with Rediff.
“Once he got into the academy, Bhupathi ensured that Sumit played in Europe to gain exposure. He supported us financially big time too,” he had said.
“They (Mahesh and Sumit) are pretty close and speak on a regular basis, discussing finer points of the game.”
Currently, Nagal trains at the Nensel Academy in Germany.
Highs and lows
Before this year, two of the biggest moments of Nagal’s career had come in 2015 and 2017.
In 2015, partnering with Vietnamese Nam Hoang Ly, Nagal won the boys’ doubles title at Wimbledon, becoming only the sixth Indian to win a junior Grand Slam title. His biggest singles success as a professional came two years later when he won a Challenger title in Bengaluru.
However, a shoulder injury and loss of form slowed him down.
In January 2017, he was dropped from India’s Davis Cup squad due to allegedly skipping a training session. Other allegations levelled against him in the past include bringing his girlfriend to training camp without permission, and a drinking habit.
But 2019 has turned his fortunes around. When maestro Federer himself thinks “he’s going to have a very solid career”, who is anyone else to argue?