“Sure,” says Sumit Nagal, when told he will break into the top 150 in the ATP rankings. “But you’re still not in the main draw of the Grand Slams at 150. Nobody plays tennis to be 150, but in a positive way, I am getting close to where I want to be.”
Hours earlier, the 22-year-old had let out a roar in celebration, shaken hands with his opponent, walked over to his bench and started packing his kit. That was his celebration for his straightforward 6-4, 6-2 win over Facundo Bagnis in the final of the Buenos Aires Challenger – his first Challenger title in two years. The win and the 80 ranking points that came with it have propelled Nagal to a career-high rank of 135. Festivities though were the last thing on his mind.
This title is just a stepping stone to the bigger goals he has for the future – “Chasing the Australian Open main draw,” he says .
But in a season that saw the Jhajjar native overcome a prolonged shoulder injury and start the year ranked 361, embark on a struggle to get into tournaments, start a run of form that saw him reach five semifinals and one final on the Challenger Tour, and of course, put on an impressive display in his first ever Grand Slam main draw appearance and take a set off a certain Roger Federer, Nagal has won his first title since claiming the Bangalore Challenger in 2017.
“I’m very happy and proud of myself,” Nagal says. “Coming so far (to South America) alone, and winning has proven to me what I am capable of. I think this has been one of the best tournaments in my career.”
He did, however, have to work hard to get the result. Each of his first three matches in Argentina went to three sets and lasted two hours or more. The first one against Brazilian Pedro Sakamoto, in particular, which went on for two hours and 41 minutes, drained him to the point that he needed intravenous (IV) therapy after the match to avoid severe dehydration.
Nagal’s game, though, is based on hard work. He has the tenacity to track down shots and keep the ball in play, and a forehand to carve out openings to exploit. It’s a talent that even impressed Federer. Looking back at how his career has shaped up over the last 10 months, from being denied entry at India’s only ATP-level event at the start of the year because of his low ranking, to breaking into the top 150 for the first time in his career, Nagal asserts he’s no complaints.
“It’s a grind every day and I can’t be sad about my past if I want to move forward in life,” he says. “The faster you learn from it, the better. I’m lucky to have a team behind me (coach Sascha Nensel and trainer Milos Galecic) who is teaching me so much on a regular basis.” The journey, though, has been rather lonely for Nagal, mainly because a lack of funds doesn’t allow him to travel for tournaments with Nensel and Galecic.
“I have been playing good tennis and become confident, a Challenger finalist (at Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina two weeks ago), and then winning the title here,” Nagal adds. “The path has been lonely after doing well at the US Open. It’s really sad how nobody is coming up to invest in tennis. I still have the exact same budget I had in 2018 when I was ranked 350. When I needed (help) the most which is right now, I see people turning around and walking away.”
He travelled to Argentina alone. It’s been a grind for the Indians, who have to lap up every achievement – big or small – that they can muster, and savour whatever prize money and ranking points they win. In that one roar after match point, Nagal took in his latest achievement. Now he’s off for more.