Sumit Nagal was world No. 127 in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour rankings when the COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown happened in mid-March 2020 and along with it a suspension of sporting activities.
Nagal reckons he was then 50-odd points from getting into the top 100 rankings. What followed was a series of unfortunate events, injuries, a surgery, multiple bouts of covid and a tough recovery. His ranking slipped and he started 2023 at No. 503.
So when Nagal won an ATP Challenger Tour event at the Roma Garden Open on 30 April, his third Challenger title and first since the Buenos Aires Challenger in 2019, it was a reward for persistence and a victory over his own “internal demons”.
“When covid comes, then surgery comes, you start doubting yourself,” Nagal says. “You start asking: Why me? Why this unlucky timing? Pretty much three years were gone. I went from (a ranking of) the 120s to 600s (638 in October 2022). Of course, you will have dark thoughts…”
“But my friends, family, coaches, they pushed me through this. I practised hard, especially last summer when I was really struggling with myself and I was lucky to get back on the right track,” he adds.
A niggling right hip injury bothered Nagal for most of 2021. He didn’t play India’s Davis Cup group tie against Finland in September before he underwent a surgery for the hip in November in Germany. He didn’t play for over six months, from September to April 2022, while trying to regain his fitness.
“The problem was not just the hip—the surgery went well. But when you come back, your hip is sore every day for months,” he says. “The other parts of your body are in rest and have not gone through stress, because match stress is different from practice. I have noticed that a lot of people who come from surgery get injured again and again. So that was probably the most annoying part.”
At Rome, he was pretty relaxed, he says, because “I wanted to do well. I mean, everyone wants to do well. But since I was playing at the highest level and then Covid, the unfortunate thing where I had to get the surgery done, stop playing and start again and stop… It was annoying because I had no rhythm. I really wanted to do well because of being 500-something in the world and not getting into qualifiers of challengers… This (Rome title) definitely helps me get back on the path I wanted and gives me a chance.”
The only positive to come out of the injury break was that he had a productive time doing rehabilitation with a physiotherapist friend in Benglauru, Yash Pandey, and got to spend time in India before returning to Germany when he got ready to start hitting again.
“I wanted to see the end line as soon as possible, to be back on court,” the 25-year-old says of how he kept himself going during the time of recovery. “So that was one of the reasons I was hungry and motivated because you don’t really want to be ranked 500, to be honest. But other than that, you have to go through these things. I had accepted that this is the only path to get back.”
At the Rome Challenger, Nagal went through two rounds of qualification, four rounds of the main draw before playing the final against Jesper De Jong of Netherlands, ranked a higher 234. The Indian dropped just two sets along the way, twice winning sets 6-0 in a convincing show of consistency.
“Winning easy gives you confidence,” he says. “Reason why you win a set 6-0, 6-1, 6-2 is because you played good tennis, did the right things. I might not have been playing my best tennis at times, but I was competing very well. That is, I was understanding the points and the game pretty maturely.”
The clay court season leading up to the French Open starting 22 May is significant for Nagal, who has a preference for the surface. Nine of his 12 titles (Futures and Challengers), including Rome, have come on clay. He has a win percentage of 64 on clay versus 56 on hardcourts, according to ATP statistics.
“I enjoy playing on clay, to be honest. Once it starts getting warmer, the better it gets, the ball starts jumping a bit. What makes my game (work) on clay is probably hitting lots of forehands, making the ball jump and playing long points,” Nagal adds.
The Rome title also puts Nagal on the path to finding his pre-pandemic form, which included taking a set off Roger Federer in the 2019 US Open and defeating former top-50 player Denis Istomin in the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021—the first Indian male to win a match at the Olympics since Leander Paes’ bronze medal-winning run in 1996.
“That (beating Istomin) was probably one of the important matches in my career. Playing the Olympics for the first time, winning a round, beating someone who was an Asian Games gold medallist (2018) and one of the few to beat Novak Djokovic in Australian Open (2017) was really nice. I would never forget that day,” Nagal adds.
He has moved up to 256 in rankings beginning this week, due to the Rome title and making it to the semi-final in February in the Chennai leg of the ATP Challenger Tour. While he says he doesn’t like putting a target to his ranking, Nagal’s aim is to be fit enough to play 30-35 weeks in a season.
“Because if I do that, then I know I am capable of finishing pretty high.”
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He tweets @iArunJ.