Updated: July 25, 2021 8:27:07 am
Eventually, it took Sumit Nagal a second attempt to serve out the match. And when he did eventually beat Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-4, he became the first Indian since 1996 to win a singles match at the Olympics.
It took him two hours and 34 minutes to pull off the win. But that’s just a blink of the eye when compared to the 25-year wait the country has had to endure to get moving at the Olympics in singles. To put that wait into perspective, Nagal, 23, wasn’t even born when Leander Paes went on to win bronze at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
Sumit Nagal is the first 🇮🇳 man to win a match at the Games since 1996 Atlanta. pic.twitter.com/n5lBCjXPWM
— Tennis GIFs 🎾🎥 (@tennis_gifs) July 24, 2021
Getting to the Tokyo Olympics needed a stroke of luck though, as Nagal, ranked 144 on the cut-off date (June 14), secured a berth only after a series of withdrawals. But when the current World No 160 stepped onto court 10 at the Ariake Tennis Park to play an opponent who was once 33rd in the world, the youngster wasn’t quite out of place. After all, he has become the man for the big stages.
Going back to the US Open in 2019, Nagal came through the qualification round to set up his first ever Grand Slam main draw match against the great Roger Federer. The clash was expected to have been a rout for the Swiss, but the youngster rallied well and took the first set. He eventually lost in four, but left the 20-time Grand Slam champion impressed.
“He actually does a really good job, especially on the inside-out, how he gets around. That was impressive,” Federer said of the Jhajjar-lad at the time.
A year later at the US Open, he beat Denis Kudla to become the first player since Somdev Devvarman at the US Open in 2013, to win a Grand Slam main draw match. In the second round he gave a decent showing against Dominic Thiem, who went on to win the tournament.
Now, he’s become only the third Indian after Zeeshan Ali (Seoul 1988) and Paes to win an Olympic singles match.
Funnily enough, for a player who swears by clay courts, it is on hard surfaces where his best performances have come. But it was a struggle to adjust to the fast courts in Tokyo since he’s been playing on the clay circuit regularly.
“I’m still trying to adapt to it,” he says after his match. “It’s not easy to do from clay to these super-fast hard courts. And the weather too has been really hot and humid. It’s been terrible.”
The Extreme Weather Policy was in effect on Saturday – which allows a 10-minute break before the deciding set. Both players availed the benefit of the break, but Nagal should not have let the match get into the third set.
In a match riddled with errors, the Indian was guilty of conceding 56 unforced errors to Istomin’s 51 – they scored 11 and 12 winners respectively. He still won the points that counted and it took him to the point where he was serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set. That’s when the nerves kicked in from Nagal, and his 34-year-old opponent’s experience came to the fore.
“Definitely there were nerves, it’s normal and I was expecting it,” he says. “I didn’t play the points the right way and I ended up paying for it.”
The Uzbek won the tiebreaker 8-6. But he’s been struggling for form and fitness and is far from being the player that upset Novak Djokovic at the 2017 Australian Open.
Nagal managed to reset at the start of the third set, continuing his fight against the weather, the fast courts, and an experienced opponent. Once again, the man for the big stages drew inspiration from the occasion.
“Representing my country at the Olympics for the first time, playing in a shirt that had ‘India’ on it, that gave me the push,” he adds.
“I’m not sure what I would have done if this was a Challenger or something other tournament.”
He’ll look to draw as much encouragement from the jersey and the Centre Court when he gets to round two, where a steep challenge in World No 2 Daniil Medvedev awaits.
“I’m very excited for this match, playing against the World No 2 on a big court,” he says. “I can’t ask for more to be honest. That’s why we play tennis, for these moments.”