Sumit Nagal s year began in Pune, loitering around the tennis courts of the Balewadi Sports Complex. He kept his tennis gear close at hand, hoping against all odds, that his rank of 361 would get him a wild card, or a spot in the qualifying round of India s only ATP event. Anything would do. But nothing came. I didn t get in, he had offered, feebly.
The ensuing nine months have been the source of great frustration and mental fatigue for the 22-year-old. But importantly, the most rewarding. And on Friday he quashed any sign of tiredness in the way he punched the air and emptied out his lungs in a roar of celebration after winning 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 against Joao Menezes of Brazil in the final qualifying round of the US Open.
From hanging around the outer courts in Pune, Nagal has secured himself a spot in the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time in his career, and will play his first round match in the largest tennis arena in the world, Arthur Ashe Stadium, against the greatest player, 20-time major champion Roger Federer.
The situation he was in, moving up was the only way. We knew that once he gets healthy, he will be on the right path, says Somdev Devvarman, a former India no 1 who has watched Nagal grow closely. Now he qualified and he s going to play Roger. That s huge for the sport in India because obviously it s going to be televised. It s good for Sumit Nagal. These are the kinds of experiences that he can positively relate to.
The hard work he s put in, he s getting the rewards for it now. Regardless of what happens (against Federer) he should understand that the big results are ahead of him at this point in time.
Making the cut for the US Open qualifiers came through no act of benevolence from the organisers-part Nagal had worked hard and earned his trip to Flushing Meadows. From starting the year ranked 361, he s risen to a career high 190 after a run of form that saw him make the semi-finals five times in seven consecutive Challenger events.
Along the way, he picked up impressive wins over former world no 17 Albert Ramos-Vinolas and former world no 24 Martin Klizan before going through the qualifiers and making it to the main draw of an ATP 500 event, in Hamburg, for the first time in his career. The change in fortune though, Devvarman asserts, comes as a result of the work he s put in off-court.
In the past year, Nagal has sought the tutelage of Sascha Nensel who has coached former world no 4 Nicolas Kiefer and former WTA world no 9 Julia Goerges and trainer Milos Galecic, who has previously worked with Devvarman.
Milos is very professional and is a leading global expert in strength and conditioning, Devvarman says. He looked at what s happened to Sumit as a good challenge for himself as well. Milos is an utter professional and he sets very high standards for the athletes. And Sumit is automatically held to a very high level of professionalism, which is something that he has lacked in the past. Now that he s made that improvement, he s got the results.
Indeed, Nagal has come a long way from his days of wandering on the sidelines of tournaments, hoping to get in. And he had to suffer a lot. 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 month.
It was tough and was getting very annoying, mentally, and financially. You were never really prepared to play for a particular tournament because you spent most of the time just hoping you can get in. I just wanted to play because I was hungry and motivated. That s why it didn t stop me from going all those distances.
Now though, he s been earning the right to play in tournaments. He was worthy of a shot at the US Open qualifiers, and he s made the most of it. And with compatriot Prajnesh Gunneswaran securing direct entry at the US Open, this will be the first time since Wimbledon 1998 that two Indian singles players will compete in the main draw of a Slam.
On Friday, against Menezes, Nagal lost the first set and was down a break in the second. That s when he won seven of the next eight games. Pulling off a comeback win to make it to the biggest stage of his career was rather fitting. After all, this entire season has been all about Nagal clawing his way back.