By now, the hustle and bustle of New York City is something Sumit Nagal would have been accustomed to. It is something he enjoys. NYC is where he made his breakthroughs on the court. Back in 2014 at the US Open, he qualified for the main draw of a Junior Grand Slam for the first time in his career.
At the same venue last year, in front of a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium, he made his senior main draw debut at the Slams against the great Roger Federer. But now, as he travels to the Big Apple for the first time since his meeting with the former World No.1, he finds the exhilarating vibe of the sprawling metropolis missing inside the bio-secure bubble. He, like most of the other players, is staying at a hotel in Long Island, an hour away from the courts.
“It’s kind of boring now actually,” he says. “It’s a different feeling. We’re not staying in the city anymore, which is a bit awkward. You cannot leave the bubble so there’s not much to do. Go to the courts, practice and come back to the hotel. That’s it. But at the end of the day, when you get home it’s already evening and you’re tired. So it’s not the worst thing in the world.”
On Tuesday, the 23-year-old will face Bradley Klahn, an opponent ranked five spots behind his World No.124 position, on court 12 at Flushing Meadows. Last year, he was never expected to do much against the 20-time Grand Slam champion. But now he has a good chance of becoming the first Indian singles player to win a main draw match since 2013.
“It’ll be a good match, and I like playing lefties,” he says of his opponent. “I do feel that I have a good chance to do well. I’m going to fight for every point because this is the biggest chance I’m getting to win at a Slam.”
And Nagal has done all he could to be prepared for the first Grand Slam since the Covid-19 outbreak. When the tour was suspended in March because of the pandemic, he decided to stay back in Peine, Germany, where he trains at the Sascha Nensel Academy. Professional players were allowed to resume training towards the end of May in the country, and Nagal managed to compete in exhibition events in Germany and Switzerland before heading to Prague for a Challenger, shortly before flying to the United States. “The plan was to play the Challenger before the US Open. It felt good,” he says. “I feel I played some good tennis, so I don’t think I’ll be worried about it. The courts are a bit faster here than last year. So it’ll be interesting to see how everyone is going to adapt. But I’m ready.”
The US Open will add another chapter in the life of the Jhajjar-native who had, back in 2008, caught the attention of India’s first Grand Slam champion Mahesh Bhupathi. At that point, Nagal had taken up the sport after his father, a teacher at a government school, enrolled him into the DD Tennis Academy in Paschim Vihar, New Delhi. By 2011, under Bhupathi’s guidance, the then 13-year-old shifted to Canada for three years before moving to Germany to continue his growth in the sport.
Now he finds himself returning to the same venue where he had created a stir, if only for a New York minute, last year.
Facing the great Roger Federer in the world’s largest tennis stadium after rising through the qualifying round, Nagal defied expectations by winning the opening set against the five-time US Open champion. Federer would eventually win the match, but was impressed by Nagal’s focus, and his powerful forehand.
Despite an injury-plagued start to his career, India’s highest ranked singles player has started to gather momentum and grow in confidence. But playing on the big stage is always different.
“I think there will always be some nervousness when playing big events like the Slam or Masters,” he offers, “but that’s normal.”
He’s now getting used to the ‘new normal’ in this pandemic, but just as tennis has managed to resume, Nagal’s looking to add another feather to his cap.