Late on Tuesday night, the US Open put out a tweet to announce the list of players who had made the cut for this year’s event. The message was laced with word-play as they announced the men’s singles field, “From Djokovic to Nagal.”
In the comments, users assumed a spelling error. But it wasn’t the case. It was no mistake, world no 127 Sumit Nagal had indeed made the cut – the last player to do so. The 22-year-old takes up the main draw spot made available, most likely, by the withdrawal of 19-time Grand Slam winner and defending champion Rafael Nadal.
Nadal had announced last night that he would not be part of the tournament due to health and safety concerns.
It will be Nagal’s second appearance in the main draw of a Slam since he rose through the qualifiers to make the cut at Flushing Meadows last year. His run then was cut short in the opening round against then world no. 3 Roger Federer. And he’s just happy to be back playing.
“Making the main draw of a Slam is always a good feeling,” he tells The Indian Express. “This is what you play tennis for, to be there in the Slams. So I’m very happy I’ll get to play.” The man from Jhajjar, Haryana has spent the last few weeks preparing for the possibility of playing the US Open.
Training in Germany
It was a decision that allowed him to get back to training towards the end of May, when the German government allowed professionals to resume practice. At the same time, with exhibition events cropping up all over Europe, he’s even managed to get in some match practice.
“I played an event in Pinneberg (Germany) and then in Basel (Switzerland),” he says. “I got to play some matches, which is the main goal. It went according to plan. But otherwise, I’ve just been doing a lot of tennis and fitness work.”
Life is yet to return to what it used to be, but Nagal has made adjustments to his daily routine for what is now becoming the new normal. There is fear still, about travelling and competing across the globe. But the will to play, and start earning again, is a greater motivation than the Coronavirus threat.
“I think the fear of the virus will always be there, but you can’t stop doing what you love for a long period,” he says.
“It’s been five months, and nobody likes it. Of course, if you go outside you have to wear a mask. Everyone is getting used to it. But I’ve only been to a place to play because I knew it is safe. Precautions were taken and everyone had to follow the rules and regulations. If things are done the right way, then why not?”
For Somdev Devvarman, the former world no. 62 and India no. 1, the youngster has made the most out of the circumstance he is in. One of the biggest advantages Nagal has during this period is that he’s in a country where conditions have started to improve, and subsequently, there has been access to courts.
“In many countries like India, nothing is open which is something you can understand and nobody is at fault. But there are countries in Europe which are open and events have been going on. Same with the US,” Devvarman says.
“That means some players are getting to play more matches than others. But Sumit is young, he’s trying to improve and he’s motivated. He’s got a good group of coaches who are helping him through this process. At this point, that’s the best you can ask for.”
Once the tour starts later this month, Nagal will play his first event, since the Davis Cup in March, at a Challenger event in Prague. But he hasn’t set any targets at the moment.
“It’s not easy to set goals when you haven’t played a single tournament in the last five months. I think right now I’m just looking forward to playing,” he adds.
Where it all started
Then he will make his way to the US to play the Slam that has meant so much to him in his career. It was at the US Open in 2014, where he qualified to compete in the Junior Grand Slam stream for the first time. It was there, five years later, at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, where he played his first-ever main draw match at a major, against Federer no less. And won his biggest-ever pay cheque, $58,000.
It was a match where his determination and resilience won him admirers as he took a set off the man with a record 20 Grand Slams. It was a match that even now, a year later, Devvarman feels can give him a boost.
“He knows what it’s like to be there, at that stage, he knows what it’s like to play against a top player,” he says. “Winning a set will give him the belief that he can do it again against big players.”
But Flushing Meadows this year will be a far cry from what Nagal experienced last year. From playing in a packed 23,000-plus arena last year to playing behind closed doors this time.
But Nagal doesn’t mind it. Nor does he mind the numerous health precautions organisers have put in place.
“It might be tough (to follow restrictions) because you’re not used to it,” he says. “But if you have to follow it to play a Slam, I don’t mind it. I’m just very excited to be back there. I can’t wait.”
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