Updated: March 4, 2021 3:49:57 pm
Sumit Nagal was clear about where he was headed after his first appearance in the main draw of the Australian Open. “I’m sticking to clay courts,” he’d say, “I’ll be going for a few events to South America.”
He has fond memories of playing on the continent. Back in 2019, when he was making his way up the ranks after losing time through injury, he won his second Challenger title playing in Buenos Aires. Now that the 23-year-old from Jhajjar has made his first trip to the Argentine capital, he’s pulled off the biggest win of his career.
Nagal started the ATP 250 Argentina Open in the qualifying round, but now finds himself in the quarterfinal after beating World No 22 and second seed Cristian Garin 6-4, 6-3. And this also happens to be the first time he’s won a main draw match on the ATP Tour level.
“It means a lot,” Nagal said in a statement. “I am very happy that I am getting to play a lot of matches. Playing against my friend Garin was fun today. I played a good match, followed my game plan and came out on top of my game. I’m enjoying being back on clay.”
Garin, a 24-year-old Chilean has been in decent nick himself. He’s risen to as high as 18th in the world and already has four ATP titles under his belt – all on clay. But in this baseline brawl between two players who prefer the red dirt, it was the World No 150 who managed to get the surprise win.
Nagal peaking on clay 🙃
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) March 4, 2021
Just as Nagal said, there was a plan, and it was executed to the T. Central to it was the big forehand.
“Sumit was hitting the forehand with amazing accuracy and power. He was just cleaning up the lines,” says former India Davis Cup coach Nandan Bal. “He’s definitely a good mover, but the range he was getting on the forehand made a big difference. But it was controlled aggression – he wasn’t going haywire with his shots. He knew exactly when to play what shot and where to place it.”
The last time the two played each other was in the second round of the 2018 Genova Challenger in Italy. Nagal lost that encounter in three sets after winning the opener. This time though, he held on to the crucial points.
“He seemed to have a set strategy even on serve,” Bal adds. “If he was 40-0 up on serve, then he’d try a bigger serve to see if he can finish the point early. But on crucial points he’d serve at maybe 80 per cent speed, just to make sure he can start the rally and not give away free points (through double faults).”
Nagal has well proven his tendency to pull off winners when least expected – especially on his forehand side. It’s what led Roger Federer to commend his forehand (US Open 2019), and Dominic Thiem to utter a “bravo” after a one the run down-the-line winner when they met in the second round of the 2020 US Open.
— Sumit Nagal (@nagalsumit) March 4, 2021
But Nagal doesn’t mind winning ugly either. His match against Garin was not the most dominating performance as both players lost serve multiple times – Nagal was broken four times and Garin seven.
But the Indian had it in him to hang on in the longer rallies. Like when he did in the nine-stroke match point. On the slow Guillermo Vilas Court, the pair moved from side to side until Garin played a backhand into the net to give Nagal the biggest win of his career.
The Indian sat on his bench, bowed his head for a few moments to soak in the achievement. In this event, the first time he ever won a main draw ATP Tour match, he went on to beat a top-ranked clay-courter on a clay court.
And there’s a sense that Nagal might not yet be done with his career’s best run. He next faces World No 46 (former 17) Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the quarterfinals. Nagal will be well versed with the southpaw, having beaten him the only time they met at the Lyon Challenger in 2019. At the time the Spaniard was ranked 101 and was struggling with form. He’s been on the upswing ever since.
So has Nagal.
He was ranked 272 when they met and was still looking to find his feet. Now he’s a much more confident player. And with a Garin-sized scalp in the bag, Nagal is ready for more.