It’s been lean times for Indian tennis in the past decades. At least in the men’s singles draw.
There hasn’t been an issue in finding quality doubles players, such as Rohan Bopanna, who, at age 43, is still the number 3 doubles player on the planet, and has recently been teaming up with Australia’s Matthew Ebden.
Mahash Bhupathi, a number one doubles player who won every grand slam doubles event, except the Australian Open, and of course, the great Leander Paes, who won every major doubles and mixed doubles title there is to win, while spending countless weeks at number one.
On the women’s side, Sania Mirza is far and away the most successful, and well-known tennis player, reaching a career high 27 in singles, and number 1 in doubles.
But since the turn of the century, only three players have held a double figure singles ranking:
Gunneswaren Prajnesh 75
Yuki Bambri 83
Somdev Devvarman 62
Sumit Nagal now stands on the precipice of joining them, thanks to a stirring first round win against number 31 seed, Alexander Bublik, of Kazakhstan.
But to understand a bit more of what this result means to Sumit, and Indian tennis as a whole, we need to go back a little. Nagal has been plying his trade on the tour since 2013, when he was just 16.
For the first few years, he was predominantly playing ITF and Challenger events close to home, all the while, slowly building his ranking to get into bigger events further afield.
He made his Davis Cup debut in 2016, but it wasn’t until 2019 when he started making some rapid progress up the ranks. Starting the year at 361 in the world, he rose steadily throughout the year, again playing almost exclusively on the Challenger Tour, until he lifted his ranking high enough to gain direct entry into US Open qualifying for the first time.
Sumit would grab hold of this opportunity, winning three tough matches, to find himself into the main draw of a major. A dream of every tennis playing child.
Nagal hadn’t even won a single set on the main tour, and his first-round opponent just happened to be the greatest of all time, and number 3 seed, Roger Federer.
While it would be understandable for most grand slam debutants to go into their shell, Sumit looked confident, to the point where he genuinely looked like he belonged there. So much so, that the 23 year old stunned the crowd, and his Swiss opponent, by taking the first set 6-4. However, he later alluded to the aura around Federer…
“It was the first time walking out on such a big stadium….You are aware you’re playing Roger Federer once you step on court…you are aware…”
“I started thinking too much, focusing on winning, thinking I’m a set up….You get a little nervous, and the energy goes down. Then boom, everything goes down, and it changes in a second.”
He would go on to lose that match, but not before earning the respect of his celebrated opponent…
“His game is based on being really consistent, moving well, moving the ball around well. Sort of very much a clay-courter. He knows what he can bring. That’s why I think he’s going to have a very solid career…”
Unfortunately, that solid career didn’t materialize over the next few years, with injuries, including hip surgery, and poor form, along with the challenges of the Covid era, all conspiring to drop Nagal’s ranking back down to 638 towards the end of 2022.
However, in 2023, Sumit started to regain a bit of that New York swagger which he displayed back in 2019, and the form started to come back. He reached the semi-finals of the Chennai Challenger in February, and in May, became the first Indian player to win a Challenger title on European clay. His ranking was back into the mid 200’s, allowing for a lot more opportunities.
He backed that up with a second clay court title in Finland, and quickly found himself returning to the top 200.
Yet despite the fact his ranking was heading in the right direction, Sumit revealed he was basically broke, and could not train at his favourite training location, the Nansel Tennis Academy in Germany for the first few months of the year. He also explained that to stay and play on the ATP tour, he has invested all his prizemoney, and salary from IOCL (Indian Oil Company), and the support he receives from the Maha Tennis Foundation.
"If I look at my bank balance, I have what I had at the beginning of the year. It is 900 euros (approx AUD $1500). I am currently getting help from Mr. Prashant Sutar through MAHA Tennis Foundation and I also get monthly (salary) from IOCL but the funding needed to break into the top 100 is around one crore (AUD $180,000) ," Nagal told Indian media.
"I feel like I am lacking support despite being India's number-one player for the past few years. I am the only player to qualify for the Grand Slams, and the only player to win a (tennis) match at the Olympics (Tokyo) in the last few years, and still the government has not added my name to the TOPS.
"I felt when my ranking dropped after injury, no one wanted to help me, no one believed that I could be back. That was disappointing because I feel whatever I do is not enough. It's so hard to find financial support in India. To be honest I do not know what to do, I have given up."
"I don't have anything in savings. I am just breaking even depending on how I do in the tournaments. I did not earn anything in the last two years so I am happy that I am breaking even. At least I am not in minus where I have to leave the academy and travel on my own."
Nagal also rued the fact that it’s not only the finances Indian players lack, but also guidance.
"We lack funding, we lack the system. If there is a system, there will be funding. China has money. We have potential like China. Why do we win just 5-6 medals in the Olympics but China won 38 gold (in Tokyo)? "We are 1.4 billion, we can match them in talent but why we do not make it to a high level? The guidance is missing. In tennis, we are far away from competing at the top.”
But despite the lack of financial support, Sumit was able to get his ranking up to a place which comfortably had him inside the Australian Open qualifying cut-off.
Speaking in India before the Australian Open, Nagal said,
“I have become more mature as a player. I’ve learnt more about my game, what I can do and what I can’t. I was able to play most of the season, which kept me in the rhythm. I think that was the huge part.
“I am a better player now than I was in 2019 and the mindset is very different. My belief and hunger are higher than ever before. Me and my team will push for more now."
Nagal breezed through qualifying, looking every bit a top 100 player, earning him, not just a place on the big stage, but a guaranteed paycheck of $120,000.
However, India’s number one player isn’t content with just making the main draw. His first-round opponent was Kazakhstan’s Alexander Bublik, the unpredictable, but highly talented 31st seed. Bublik was expected to get the better of the contest, but it was Nagal, who looked far more composed, and experienced, racing through the match in 3 straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, 7-6.
After the match, Nagal was ecstatic, describing how he feels, becoming the first Indian player in 11 years to win a singles main draw encounter…
“Emotional. Tired at the same time. It's been strong I would say the past few months where a lot of things has happened in tennis. Starting the year not getting into challenger quallies, to playing second out of a slam on Thursday.
Like I said, it's been emotional. I've worked very hard with my team, and I'm very proud of myself to be able to handle the things that I'm going through and be able to perform the way I want to perform.”
But he also re-iterated his stance on where Indian tennis is at, and what needs to change.
“A lot of things. First to have more tournaments in the country, bring coaches in, better facilities. Just a better system, I would say. Why are all tennis players - singles I'm talking about - going outside India and living outside India to give themselves a chance? We should ask why.
Like I said, of course, we can sit here all day and talk about it, but in a simple word I will just say it's change the system. That's it.”
In regards to the rest of the Australian Open though, Sumit just wants to soak it up, and enjoy the experience.
“Just be there, enjoy, man. That's what I like to do from my first quallies match. That's what I told myself….You never know in tennis what happens next where you can go to a tournament and not even be able to put two balls in, and thank you very much. The tournament gets over.
So it changes very quickly. That's what my coach says: You have to enjoy the moment, live in the present.”
Sumit Nagal will take on China’s Juncheng Shang, ranked 140, in the second round. Nagal now has a guaranteed $180,000, but should he win against Shang, he will pocket at least $255,000. A far cry from the $1500 in his account last year….