For the first time, Sumit Nagal is feeling happy going into the “Happy Slam”.
The Australian Open, the year’s first major, is described thus owing to its state-of-the-art infrastructure and player and fan amenities. It’s also the most well- attended Grand Slam event: It attracted more than 800,000 spectators in 2020. But Nagal doesn’t have too many fond memories of the tournament.
There have been times when he has missed the cut for the qualifying event. Last year too, even though he made it to the qualifiers, he lost in straight sets to Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat in the very first round. But the Indian, ranked 137 in the world, is set to finally make his Australian Open debut this year courtesy a wild-card entry into the main draw.
“It’s Melbourne and it’s Australia and the facilities are great, so everyone loves it,” says the 23-year-old on the phone from Peine, Germany (where he trains at the Nensel Academy). “I am sure they will put on a great Slam. But the Australian Open is a place I have done more trips alone, be it in juniors or pros. You always want to play the first Slam of the year so there’s a bit of a pressure. I have never been completely prepared for it. So I don’t have ‘good’ memories. That’s why I was very happy to hear that I had got the wildcard this time and want to thank the people who made it possible.”
Owing to the pandemic, the Melbourne major has been pushed to an 8 February start (in 2020, it began on 20 January). This has given players more time to reset and prepare.
Nagal, for example, ended 2020 on a disappointing note, retiring from the first round of the ATP Challenger event in Hamburg due to a shoulder injury. “Last year was really difficult,” he says. “There was so much uncertainty during the six-month break due to the virus. I started well once the tour resumed but I should have done better after that. There were a few matches I lost, which I should have won. Then for the first time we played in such heavy conditions on clay: Playing on clay outdoors in October, the temperature was about 12-13 degrees Celsius, it puts a lot of load on your body.”
Clay is in any case the most demanding surface, and it takes much more effort to send the ball across the net through cold, heavy air. Not surprisingly, Nagal’s shoulder gave up by the end of the season.
“During the pre-season training, we focused mainly on my rehab,” he says of the month-long camp at the academy in December. “Shoulders, hips, hamstrings, making sure the previous injuries don’t flare up. You have to fix the chain. Since I will be quarantining in Australia, we will do the tennis training once I go there.
“The pros were allowed to train but everything else outside was shut,” he says. For Germany was in partial lockdown. “All the restaurants and cafés were closed, so I had to cook for myself.” Pastas and avocado on toast were the staples. He would rather practise poaching volleys than poaching eggs.
On every front, it proved to be a season of growth for the Indian.
In 2019, Nagal had created a flutter when he played Roger Federer on his US Open debut in the biggest tennis arena in the world—the Arthur Ashe Stadium—and took a set off the big man. Though Nagal lost the match in four sets, his forehand and grit didn’t go unnoticed. A year later, as the shots echoed around the empty arenas of the US Open, Nagal became the first Indian to win a round at a Grand Slam event since Somdev Devvarman’s victory over Lukáš Lacko in the opening round of the 2013 US Open.
In the very next round, however, he had to face World No.3 Dominic Thiem, who would go on to win the title. “He is one of the players I would like to copy,” says Nagal, who lost 3-6, 3-6, 2-6 to Thiem in the second round.
“Though he has a one-handed backhand and I don’t, we play a similar (physical) type of game. We move well around the court. I would love to play with the kind of intensity he does, how he remains on top of the point and play at that high level for so long. The match against Thiem was a great learning experience.”
Thiem’s career is also a perfect example of just how steep the learning curve is in men’s tennis nowadays. One of the fittest and most explosive players around, the Austrian had to wait till the age of 27 to win a Grand Slam. There was also a degree of luck involved: None of the Big 3 showed up in the final (Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal didn’t play the US Open and Novak Djokovic was disqualified in the fourth round).
The four majors are the most coveted titles in tennis, but 2021 will also see players vie for Olympic gold. Nagal is already wrestling with the effort required to make it to the Tokyo Games, now scheduled for a 23 July start. Sixty-four players make up the draw for the quadrennial event, and Nagal would have to be part of the world’s top 90, at least, to make the cut. “It is going to be very tough,” says the Indian. “But it is definitely one of my goals for the year.”
Nagal knows the climb up the rankings will be even more arduous this season—the ATP has readjusted its ranking cycle from 12 to 24 months to make up for disruptions caused by the pandemic. “In a normal year, I would have needed 520 points to break into the top 100, now I need 700,” he says. If a player’s ranking isn’t good enough to enter the bigger tour events, as is the case with Nagal, it becomes even more difficult to earn meaty points and move up the ladder.
A guaranteed start at the first major of the year, however, has taken some weight off Nagal’s shoulders. “It’s a good feeling,” he says. “Knowing you will be definitely be playing there. I also feel like I am in a better position, physically and mentally, to do well. I will be travelling with my coach (Sascha Nensel) and will have a few weeks to get used to the conditions.”
Sure of a spot this time, Nagal travelled to Dubai on 8 January so he can board one of the flights designated for Australian Open participants. He will enter the bio-bubble in Melbourne and play one of the two ATP 250 events scheduled there to get in the mood for the “Happy Slam”.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.