Late on Friday, Sumit Nagal called it a day – the most eventful of his life – and slept with a smile on his face. At least, that’s how he describes it. Hours earlier, he had dropped his racquet on the blue surface of Court 4 at Flushing Meadows, roared in celebration before hugging his vanquished opponent Joao Menezes, thus marking his coming-of-age moment as a tennis professional. For the first time in his career, Nagal had qualified for the main draw of a Grand Slam, but there was something even bigger in store.
Long years ago, Vijay Amritraj had played the great Rod Laver at the 1973 US Open. Leander Paes took Andre Agassi to four sets at Flushing Meadows in 1996. But Roger Federer, the 20-time Grand Slam champion sits atop the tennis apex. And Nagal, at US Open 2019, will play his first ever main draw match at a Slam against the Swiss. “Playing Federer at the Arthur Ashe Stadium is one of the dreams, I don’t know how else I can explain it with words,” Nagal tells The Indian Express. “Playing Federer is the best thing that could have happened to me this year. There’s nothing else.”
The 2019 season has been the most significant for the world no 190. A shoulder problem took his rank down to 361 at the start of the year, rendering him an outcast at most tournaments. The scavenging for match time forced him to crisscross the world – from playing in Germany in one week, to returning to India for the next event, followed by a 16,000km trip to Chile – and gave him no luxury of a ‘planned schedule.’
With every mile he covered, his will to stay long into tournaments grew. His shoulder healed and his form improved. In April, he started a run of playing seven consecutive Challengers, reaching the semi-final in five of them. Along the way he even managed to earn some of the biggest wins in his career – beating former world no 17 Albert Ramos-Vinolas in Lyon and former world no 24 Martin Klizan in Slovakia.
The last tournament he played before coming to the United States was in Hamburg, in July, when he battled through the qualifiers to make it to the main draw of an ATP 500 event for the first time in his career.
But there would be something even bigger in the offing in New York. And when looks back at what he has achieved, for Nagal, his first Grand Slam main draw appearance always had to be at the US Open. “I came to the US Open with a good feeling and good confidence,” says the 2015 Junior Wimbledon doubles champion. “I wouldn’t say I’m too surprised, but I am happy that it has happened. The first Junior Slam I played was at the US Open and I qualified when I was 14. So this means something.”
After three matches on the outer courts, he’ll now get to step into the world’s largest tennis arena, the Arthur Ashe Stadium, with Federer across the net. And while most, all over the world, will name the Swiss as their biggest idol in the game, Nagal refuses to. “He’s just too good,” Nagal told ATP World Tour. “You never want to copy him. If you watch Federer and what he’s doing with the ball and then you try to do the same, you’re just going to break your racquets. It’s never going to happen. That’s why he’s not my idol. Just too good. That’s how I see it.”
The youngster has been in the form of his life, and he’ll need every stroke of luck and ounce of skill he can muster to compete against the world no 3. The only surety is that Nagal will not be afraid of the opponent. He made his fearlessness clear a long time ago.
The story dates back to 2005, when an eight-year-old Nagal met Mahesh Bhupathi. There was no hesitation in the way the youngster strode up to the man who had won India its first-ever Grand Slam title, back in the mixed doubles event of 1997, and asked him to watch him play. Impressed by Nagal’s talent, among a 1000 attendees that day, Bhupathi chose him as one of the first students at his academy.
“If I didn’t tell him this, I would not be sitting here right now,” the Indian told the ATP website. “My family didn’t have enough money to support me when I was young. I couldn’t have played tennis. If I didn’t show guts and go up to him, I tell you I wouldn’t be here in New York today. I’m 100 per cent sure. I’m very proud that I did it at that age.”
Those many years ago, in New Delhi, he had the courage to step up to Bhupathi. And there won’t be any fear from the boy from Jhajjar when he plays the man from Basel. So what if that man just happens to be Roger Federer.