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The price and passion of getting better

Sumit Nagal is hardly a hero in the conventional sense, but doing something vaguely heroic. By taking his dream as far it can go. By not letting hard days define him

Sumit Nagal during the semi-final match of Bengaluru Open 2024 ATP Challenger Tour in Bengaluru, on 17 February.(PTI)

By Rohit Brijnath

LAST PUBLISHED 25.02.2024  |  06:30 AM IST

Jack Dempsey was too damn good for his own good. So good he needed to fight two men for one payday. This is over a century ago and Dempsey, not yet heavyweight boxing champion, knocks out his rival, Kid Hancock, in 12 seconds and asks for his winnings.

All $5 of it.

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Forget it, says the promoter, and hands him $2.50. “You put your rival away too fast." So a deal is struck. To get the full money, he must fight Kid Hancock’s brother. He does. This takes seconds, too.

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It’s 2024 now and life in sport remains testing. In January, tennis player Sumit Nagal is telling me about aeroplane seats. When times are tough, he won’t pay to buy one, but just arrive at the airport and hope he’ll get a good one. Because for him, too, these saved dollars matter.

There’s a struggle out there we rarely see. Not just the sweating but the accounting. The harsh arithmetic of sport. The borrowing from dad, the cutting back, the cheap-food diets, the red-eye flights. We don’t see it because it isn’t sexy and anyway we are blinded by the bling of record football transfer fees and $300 million LIV golf seductions.

On the Forbes Rich List you’ll never find a shooter, an Olympic sailor, a judoka, a swimmer. They are mostly unfamiliar with prize money but shrug at this lopsided world. You don’t choose a sport by what you can earn, but by how intensely it calls you. Like tennis did for the boy from Jhajjar in Haryana.

Just for fun I asked Nagal, ever been on a private jet?

“Nope."

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Sport is better off than it was when Jesse Owens raced greyhounds to feed himself and boxer James J. Braddock, the “Cinderella Man"—as his biographer Jeremy Schaap wrote—unloaded ships and offered “to clean basements, sweep floors, shovel snow". Still part of the story of sport never changes. There’s only place for so many and there’s only prize money of so much.

Great players joust to rule the world, lesser players fight for the chance to keep playing. Despite the deluge of data, you will rarely find a number on how many athletes give up. Not because of talent, but funds. After Jannik Sinner won the Australian Open, his coach, Darren Cahill, told the podcast, The Run Home With Andy & Gazey, that “we see a lot of players drop out of the game when you get to 22-23 years of age because you just can’t afford it".

We witness privilege constantly, often advertised in the entourages which trail a player. Coaches, trainer, physio, parent. The first in the list is essential and expensive. Cahill in your corner is going to raise your ranking but he’s going to come at a cost. Nagal can’t afford someone like him, but any coach takes a chunk out of winnings.

Last year Nagal made $116,402. This year, because of raised prize money for early-round victories at the Australian Open, he’s made $146,510. It might appear a fair sum, till he starts explaining his world. “For me, the coach is the biggest expense for any player," he says. How much? “Perhaps €70,000 -100,000 (around $75,000-108,000) a year. And the higher you go, the more they charge. Perhaps even a 5-10% cut from your prize money. It depends on how much you are making. Then you need a fitness trainer or a physio."

The costs only mount. Roughly 60-70 flights a year, he estimates. For him and them, too. At events he gets a room but for his coach, he has to pay. And so two pursuits in sport are occurring at once: to make a living and to search for personal greatness. One feeds the other.

“If you are not in the top 50-60," Nagal says, “this is in everyone’s mind. The expenses are so high you have to keep performing. The thought is always in the back of your mind. But how much do you let it affect you? Some days it overtakes you, some days you enjoy and play. It’s a constant fight of telling yourself ‘I need to win’ and yet telling yourself ‘I need to play tennis and not think win, win, win’."

I have never met Nagal, only chatted on the phone and exchanged texts, but I like his breed of athlete. The believers who fill the smaller courts. The guys in airports who don’t always turn heads. The names in the draw whose stories are relatively unknown. The players who compete for $18,230 winners’ cheques (as he did at a Challenger recently in Chennai) while Sinner takes home AU$3.15 million for winning in Australia.

Nagal is hardly a hero in the conventional sense, but doing something vaguely heroic. By taking his dream as far it can go. By wearing all the little indignities sport will bring. By not letting hard days define him. By believing that around the corner, in that next city, on a new court, there will be greater days. By still finding joy in all this.

In the podcast, Cahill, almost poetically, said: “If you’re not in the top 100, it’s a brutal sport and it’s tough to make a living out of it. So there has to be real purpose to what you’re doing. You have to love the sport, have to be playing it for the right reasons. You have to be able to love to travel, love the competition and get up every morning and go ah, what are we going to do today? How are we going to get better?"

Nagal is getting better. He beat a seed at the Australian Open. He won that Challenger in Chennai. He broke into the Top 100 (No.98) for the first time ever this year (he’s now No.101). In a world consumed by victorious millionaires you might shrug but it’s a feat, it’s membership of a rare group, it’s him inching ahead in an overcrowded, competitive planet.

Cool, really.

Priceless, actually.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold. He posts @rohitdbrijnath.

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