Just a few months after taking a set off Roger Federer in the first round of the US Open, which was followed by a string of great results on the Challenger circuit, Sumit Nagal is back to the drawing board, reassessing his goals.
The Indian No 2 men's singles star crashed out of Australian Open qualifying in a straight-sets defeat to Egypt's Mohammad Safwat, losing 7-6(2), 6-2 in just under 90 mins. On a day that was relatively clear and smoke-free, Nagal failed to emulate his US Open success as he fell to a lower-ranked player.
The 22-year-old started off well and raced to a 4-1 lead, aided by some sharp serving and immaculate forehands. However, Safwat fought back to win four games on the trot, establishing a lead that he would never relinquish.
"I let my energy go down a bit. The way I started, I would say that my level was not the same midway or towards the end. But that's tennis. Things happen very quickly. The momentum changed and he started playing better than me," said Nagal after the match.
With the momentum in Safwat's favour, the 29-year-old Egyptian did not allow Nagal to get back into the match. He broke the Indian's serve thrice in the second set to move into the 2nd round of qualifying.
Nagal was full of praise for his opponent and lauded his mental strength in the crunch moments, which helped him make a comeback in the first set.
Sumit Nagal during the US Open 2019 first-round match. AP
"I think he kept his energy up and served well and played better on the big points. He also did get a little lucky here and there with a few shots. However, that's normal and happens to everyone. This time it happened to me," he said.
Nagal had shown a lot of positive signs towards the end of last year after his US Open exploits and was widely considered one of the favourites to qualify for the main draw. But that was not to be, and now he has been left pondering what went wrong.
This has been a trend with Indian tennis players in the recent past " they have played well in spurts, but haven't been able to sustain their level of play from one month to the next.
But there's a reason behind that too. While most players on the tennis circuit have full-fledged teams backing them and taking care of their physical and mental needs, Indian players often have to fend for themselves and take care of all expenses on their own.
Nagal has voiced his concerns over the lack of support from the All India Tennis Association in the past. He still feels things need to change drastically in order for the sport to go in the right direction in India.
"I think everybody knows what is happening. Everyone who is involved with tennis knows what the reality is. Talking about it over and over again is not going to make a difference. We are at a point where everyone has to come together and make a decision."
"If you want to travel with your coach, trainer and physio, the expenses keep adding up. However, even if you want to travel every week with just your coach, you would have to spend easily $150,000 a year," he said.
Nagal, however, considers himself "lucky" to have a few sponsors and some sort of backing in the form of the Virat Kohli Foundation and Indian Oil.
"I'm lucky to get this backing but I hope that this happens to every tennis player in India and not just me. I hope that someone comes up and makes a difference and changes things because the way things are right now, it is not right at all," said the youngster.
Nagal will now travel back to India and take part in the upcoming Pune Challenger, which takes place in a few weeks.
"This time, I choose to stay in India as I'm getting a lot of tournaments to play in India. Travelling to South America to play on clay is not just far but really expensive as well. So, our team decided to play tournaments in India."
My goal is to make up 150 points over the next four months and qualify into the main draw of the French Open." he concluded.
Improved conditions at Melbourne Park
Day four of qualifying was much better for the players, with the smoke haze clearing after a heavy bout of rain in the city on Wednesday.
The smoke had earlier caused a few problems for a couple of players, with Slovenian women's tennis star Dalila Jakupovic retiring from her match on the first day of qualifying despite being a set up. However, the Indians were unperturbed and were not affected by the conditions.
In fact, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, who won his 2nd round qualifying encounter against Yannich Haffnman in 3 sets, felt that Indians are used to such pollution.
"It's that polluted in India anyway. I think the day they said the matches were being stopped, I checked the pollution in Chennai and it was 700 because of Pongal, so I was fine."
Gunneswaran lost out on a spot in the main draw as well after losing his final round encounter to former World No 10 Ernests Gulbis in straight sets.
Just yesterday, he made a superb comeback in the 2nd round after a poor first set, winning his encounter 1-6, 6-2, 6-1 in under 2 hours against Hanffman. He had been facing a few injury problems coming into the tournament but showed a lot of spirit to come up with powerful serves and forehands just when he needed them.
Gunneswaran could still enter the main draw as the lucky loser. With Alex de Minaur and Kamil Majchrzak pulling out with injury and doping suspension for Nicolas Jarry, five players will enter the lucky loser draw and three will go into the main draw as replacements. That pool could widen over the course of the weekend if more players pull out.
Until then, India's hopes at the year's first Grand Slam lie entirely with the doubles players " Rohan Bopanna, Divij Sharan, Sania Mirza and Leander Paes.