“Repetition is the mother of learning,” goes a Latin proverb. Doing the same thing over and over again till it becomes perfect. On a tennis court, it becomes a weapon. Sumit Nagal had made it very clear that his forehand is his killer shot. He goes inside out, inside in, cross court – playing it all with pace, topspin, and more often than not, impressive accuracy.
He had learnt that skill on courts in Canada, where he’d belt entire buckets at the end of each practice session. Against Roger Federer at the US Open last year, he hassled the 20-time Grand Slam champion with his biggest weapon.
But in that match, when all the odds were stacked against him, the idea was to go on court to have fun, ‘enjoy the game,’ as they say. On Monday, in the first round at the Tata Open Maharashtra, the intent before the match was different; he wants to learn the art of playing on hard courts. And repetition will help him understand it better – repetition of playing the shot he understands the most, and repetition of playing on that surface.
At centre court of the Balewadi Tennis Stadium in Pune, he came up against former world no 12 Viktor Troicki. Nagal, a clay court frequenter, launched forehand after forehand, winners at most, against the veteran Serbian, making the match difficult for a Davis Cup and ATP Cup winner who is looking for a ride back up the ranking ladder (he’s currently 191 in the world due to a string of injuries). If this match was to go in Troicki’s favour, the 22-year-old was not going to go down too easily.
And after a three-setter that took two hours and 20 minutes to complete, Nagal eventually folded 2-6, 7-6, 1-6.
In the 2019 season, Nagal decided to play clay tournaments to help consolidate his return to the tour after a long bout with shoulder problems. It helped him rise in the rankings — from 361 at the start of 2019 to a career high 125 on Monday. But as he gets closer to the top 100 mark, he acknowledges the need to get out of his comfort zone.
“I have to develop my game on the hard court as well. It’s the right thing to do right now,” he says.
“I’m still young, still learning. So, for me picking hard court (in Pune) over clay (the Cordoba Open) is something big.”
Of the 25 tournaments he played last year, including two Davis Cup ties, 18 events were on clay. This time though, he aims to play more on hard courts.
“Normally if someone asked me what I’m comfortable playing, I would say going to South America (for clay events). This year I’m going to be on hard courts till the end of March,” he says. “I have to keep in mind that a lot of Slams and a lot of big events are also on hard courts. So I have to at least be able to play on two surfaces. Grass, there’s one slam and two ATP events. But if you look at it, it’s either hard or clay. That’s why I pushed myself to play the first three months on hard.”
Accordingly, he took a longer pre-season to prepare himself for the long, multi-court haul, he’s hoping to play this year.
“Last year what I did in Thailand (for pre-season) was literally 10 days. That’s all the time I had,” he says. “This year was more around like three, three and a half weeks. So that was a good thing. It was about keeping my body in shape, just staying healthy. Just working on every aspect of the game, doing it in reps.”
Reps. That’s the trick. He’s practiced the same stroke countless times in practice, making it strong enough for even Federer to compliment it. Now the repetition will be outside the comfort zone. But for Nagal, that’s the way forward.
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