In an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, one could hear Dominic Thiem utter “Bravo!”, not quite under his breath, as he raised his racquet to applaud the quality of his opponent’s winner. Serving at 3-1 in the third set, on the opening point of the fifth game, the Austrian did everything right from the start. He stretched Sumit Nagal with the serve down the T, and a few shots later, played a powerful cross court backhand that the Indian had to stretch to reach, only to play a short looping slice.
Thiem floated to the spot where the ball was to land, just beyond the service line on his forehand side, but his volley was a menacing forehand cross-court drive. Nagal guessed the right way, but still had a lot to do. Way behind the baseline, in line with the doubles alley, he reached for the ball and played a delightful forehand passing winner that landed flush on the line.
Qualifies into the main draw last year. Makes it to Round 2 this year.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 3, 2020
It was a moment of brilliance that became a viral GIF on social media. But points like that were few and far between. And for all that Nagal achieved at this US Open, becoming the first Indian in seven years to win a Grand Slam main draw match, his run was to end in the second round against the second seed, losing 6-3, 6-3, 6-2.
It was in this very stadium last year that Nagal made his main-draw debut at the Slams, against third seed Roger Federer. He won the opening set before losing in four, but had deeply impressed the Swiss. The current world no. 3, Thiem claimed to have watched videos of that match to prepare against Nagal.
“He’s very dangerous when he can dictate with his forehand. I was exactly trying to avoid that,” Thiem said after the match. “He has also very, very fast legs. He’s moving around very quick on the court. I was trying to play my fastest tennis to keep him on the backhand, to not let him dictate with the forehand. I did that very well today.”
No doubt Nagal has developed into a talented grinder – a tireless defensive baseliner who puts balls back in court and then finishes points with his powerful forehand. But against Thiem, he was coming up against a player who has a reputation of his own of being arguably the hardest worker off court, and the hardest hitter on it.
“It was a tough match-up to begin with and the difference in quality between the two players was evident,” says Somdev Devvarman, the last Indian before Nagal to have won a Grand Slam match. “At no point did Thiem feel threatened. I’m sure that’s something (Nagal) is not going to be happy with. But I also think that’s probably a good takeaway for him.”
It’s not often that the world no. 124 gets to play against opponents of this calibre. But now that he has, he’s got an idea of where he stands in the tennis hierarchy, and how he can push further.
“There’s a long way to go. For sure, he’s at a level way ahead of me,” Nagal says. “I started the match a little nervous. It’s normal because you don’t always get to play on a court like this where there are millions of people watching. But it will come with experience and time.”
Another moment of brilliance came when Thiem was serving for the second set, at 5-2. The three-time Grand Slam finalist pushed Nagal across the baseline. He then stepped up to pull the trigger with an inside-in forehand. The shot had the calibre of being a winner, or at least draw an error. But the fleet-footed Nagal sprinted to his right and bludgeoned a cross-court forehand winner. He’d go on to break Thiem’s serve in that game.
Eventually though, it was Nagal’s serve that did not get him much purchase. Till 5-3 in the second set, he had made an impressive 18 out of 19 first serves in, but had still been broken twice in that set.
It prompted commentator and former player Taylor Dent to mention: “First serves are to close points. Second serves are to start points.”
“That’s going to be a tough place to improve because he’s not the biggest guy,” Devvarman offers. “There are a lot of guys on the tour who are small but find a way to win by doing different things. So Sumit will have to find a way to hold serve better against better players.”
To set up his third match point, Thiem hammered a backhand winner that clocked 158 kmph on a Nagal serve that measured 129. It was the type of firepower Nagal has not faced that often. But it’s an experience he cherishes nonetheless.
“Overall, I loved playing someone like him, who is definitely a few levels ahead of me,” he adds. “But I do believe I can be there.”