Sumit Nagal has a certain familiarity with the clay courts of Germany. For years, the youngster had trained on them, as he worked towards building a career for himself in tennis. The big ATP events there wouldn t welcome him though, as his world ranking was never good enough to allow him a spot in the qualifiers let alone the main draw.
That barrier was broken last week. The 21-year-old had weaved for himself a string of performances that resulted in five semi-final finishes in seven consecutive Challenger events. Eventually, the Hamburg Open offered him a qualifiers entry. Four sets of tennis later, he made it to the main draw of an ATP 500 for the first time in his career.
A straight-set loss to former world no 7 Richard Gasquet put an end to his German sojourn, but the 20 ranking points Nagal won from the tournament helped him break into the top 200 for the first time in his career.
It s a great step for me to get into the top 200, says the world no 196. Now I have to make new targets for myself.
This has been the most fruitful year for Nagal on the world tour, despite the new ATP rules making it difficult for him to enter any tournament at any level earlier in the year. The ATP, along with the International Tennis Federation (ITF) decided to streamline the conveyor belt of tennis players at the start of the 2019 season by removing ranking points from Futures tournaments events that till then Nagal had used judiciously to give him momentum as he struggled with shoulder injuries.
ATP Challengers provided slots to only players with higher ranking points. Because of that, Nagal had no certainty about where he might be playing next. The rules were pretty bad, especially for people ranked 300 and beyond, says Nagal, who started the year ranked 361. You couldn t get in anywhere and I didn t get to play much for the first three months. It was bad.
With no certainty of tournament entries, drawing up a schedule, or a convenient travel plan became a problem.
His first tournament came in Vietnam, followed by a Challenger in Germany and then one in Chennai. Then he took an over 16000 km trip to Chile in South America, then up to Canada in North America, followed by a trip to Italy, and then back to the United States. Till date, Nagal has travelled over 82000 km this year in 16 tournaments.
The travel plans had no flow, but he was determined to keep at it.
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, he explains. 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 to play. That’s why it didn’t stop me from going all those distances.
The struggles in transit forced him to work harder when he finally got on court even if it meant playing against bigger and better opponents. In June, he beat former world no 17 Alber Ramos-Vinolas in Lyon, and then got the better of former world no 24 Martin Klizan on his home turf in Slovakia the biggest wins of his career.
I really enjoyed playing these top players and beating them just gave me a lot of confidence and belief that I can get there, he says. It helps to get wins like this, especially when you re very young because you can start believing in yourself soon.
Training routines, even pre-match rituals have changed over the years for Nagal. In 2017, he opted not to undergo shoulder surgery and instead embark on the longer five-month recovery process. He had to skip two months last year as well. Naturally, the shoulder has become the most focused part off-court.
I ve started doing a lot of rehabilitation work with Milos Galecic, who has worked with Somdev (Devvarman) before. There s just been a lot more focus on the shoulder and doing those exercises daily, he says.
The travel times have been going down, just as his rank has been going up. The grind of emails, flights, travel, matches, and then doing it all over again has taken its toll. But Nagal refuses to complain. It s just made him appreciate each match much more, and made every win even sweeter.
I’m happy that in the process I got a lot out of it. Not just through ranking points and money, but I got mature, smart and learnt a lot of things about my game, he says. Yes it has been tough. But when I look back, this has been the best year of my career. So I really can t complain.