Spirited Nagal brings up a win for the ages | Tennis News - Hindustan Times
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Spirited Nagal brings up a win for the ages

Jan 16, 2024 04:11 PM IST

The Indian beat Bublik, world No. 27, with some very smart and steady tennis to advance to the second round of the Australian Open

Up 5-4 in the third set of his first-round match at the Australian Open on Tuesday, Sumit Nagal stepped up to serve for a remarkable victory, all too rare in singles for India. Not since Ramesh Krishnan upset world No.1 and defending champion Mats Wilander at the 1989 Australian Open had an Indian defeated a seeded player at a Grand Slam.

Sumit Nagal of India celebrates after defeating Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan in their first round match at the Australian Open(AP)
Sumit Nagal of India celebrates after defeating Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan in their first round match at the Australian Open(AP)

But Kazakhstan’s Alexander Bublik -- world No. 27 and the 31st seed -- arguably the most mercurial character on tour, broke back to draw level. Then began the most impressive period of play from Nagal.

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The 26-year-old had eked out the opening set before breezing through the second, but Bublik seemed to have finally found his range. In form after reaching the semis at Adelaide the previous week, the Kazakh suddenly was firing winners from both flanks and pumping himself up animatedly. Would Nagal crumble? Would he be able to regain composure and close out a straight-sets win?

To the delight of the number of Indian fans who had turned up at Court 6, that’s exactly what Nagal went on to do. He held his next service game to love to force a tie-breaker before completing a 6-4, 6-2, 7-6(5) victory in two hours and 37 minutes. He had squandered two match points on serve as Bublik threatened to make a comeback right towards the end but managed to cross the line when his opponent committed a second successive double fault.

Relief was etched in Nagal's face as he walked up to shake hands with his rival. A significant first round win for the qualifier no doubt, but it has been no less than an odyssey for the man from Jhajjar, Haryana. He was on the verge of breaking into the top 100 in late 2020 and received a wildcard into the 2021 Australian Open before a long-standing hip issue forced him to undergo surgery that year. It took six months to return to the tour and a lot more to find his rhythm. He began 2023 ranked outside 500 and not eligible to enter the qualifiers of even a Challenger. Two Challenger wins and finals each pushed up his rankings, but the Indian federation (AITA) didn't forward his name for a regional wild card for his refusal to play Davis Cup.

Under the harsh Australian sun though, Nagal had been all focus and smart tennis against Bublik. The Kazakh 26-year-old had beaten Daniel Evans and Lorenzo Musetti at Adelaide.

Nagal kept his nose in front throughout. His serve speeds were lower than Bublik’s but his first-serve percentage (75%) was much higher. He covered the court well, as he usually does, and dictated points with blistering forehands. Bublik’s serve is a big weapon, but Nagal stayed patient, letting his opponent make mistakes and grabbing his moments.

Undying spirit

Nagal knows all too well how to fight back when pushed into a corner. For years, he’s been the torchbearer for Indian singles tennis and kept the fire burning through a testing phase over the last few years. His ranking plunged to 502 in the post-surgery phase. The results weren’t coming, and he admitted he was left with just 900 euros (approx 81,000) in his bank account last September. Reaching the second round in Melbourne though will boost that balance by 180,000 Australian dollars (approx 98 lakh).

“If you look at it, there was a time where we (India) had a lot of singles players in the Slams,” said Nagal after his win. “I feel we’re missing quite a bit in the last few years and my goal is to change that in the coming years. When I stop tennis, whenever I stop tennis, I hope I can put an impact on the country where we can change the system and have people playing in the singles draw as well.”

As he spread his arms and looked at the heavens, you could see how much the win meant to him. It was validation and a just reward for the courage he had shown through all the hardships. He had come a long way and become the first Indian to appear in the singles main draw of a Major in three years. It is Nagal's fourth main draw appearance in a major.

In 2021, he lost in the first round at Melbourne Park. He took a set off Roger Federer in his first- round loss at the 2019 US Open, and lost to eventual champion Dominic Thiem in the second round there in 2020, after becoming the first Indian since Somdev Devvarman in 2013 to win a Slam first round match.

Ranked 137, he had won all three of his qualifying matches in straight sets.

“It’s a very emotional moment for me,” said Nagal. “I'm not crying right now but at the same time it hasn't completely sunk in yet. These moments you'll go through as an athlete. Sometimes you have a good year, sometimes a bad one.

"Last year was probably one of the best years... from having only 900 euros, not getting into events for the first few months and relying on wild cards, to finishing inside the top 130. From where I started, I was pretty proud of myself to be able to give myself another chance to be here, to qualify and play in the second round of a Grand Slam. It's a good feeling.”

In the second round on Thursday, he will face China’s 18-year-old wild card Shang Juncheng, who beat USA's Mackenzie McDonald in five sets.

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