Sumit Nagal to enter top 100 for first time in career with Chennai Open title | Tennis News - Hindustan Times

Emotional Sumit Nagal wins Chennai Open Challenger, set to enter top 100 for first time in career

ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai
Feb 11, 2024 10:35 PM IST

India's No.1 player will break into the top 100 in the world when the updated ATP rankings are published on Monday

On February 12, 2023, Sumit Nagal played the first qualifying round of the ATP Chennai Open Challenger as a player ranked 506 in the world.

India's Sumit Nagal celebrates after winning the final match at the ATP Challenger Chennai Open 2024 tennis tournament, in Chennai(PTI)
India's Sumit Nagal celebrates after winning the final match at the ATP Challenger Chennai Open 2024 tennis tournament, in Chennai(PTI)

On February 12, 2024, Nagal will become a player ranked 98 in the world as champion of the ATP Chennai Open Challenger.

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And as the Indian wiped away tears after winning the final on Sunday, it showed what the latest landmark in this terrific turnaround tale, less than a month after qualifying for the 2024 Australian Open and beating 27th seed Alexander Bublik in the first round, meant for him.

Nagal will break into the top 100 of ATP’s singles rankings for the first time in his career, a place he earned after beating top seed Luca Nardi of Italy 6-1, 6-4 for the title in Chennai that will see him jump from 121 to 98 in the updated rankings on Monday.

A top-100 spot in singles is a key milestone for any professional tennis player, one where only 10 Indian men have ever gone since the ATP rankings were introduced in 1973. The list includes some of the finest from the country (Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan, Leander Paes, Somdev Devvarman, etc) and hasn’t seen an entrant in five years since Prajnesh Gunneswaran in 2019.

Nagal, 26, had been touted to get there when he achieved his previous career high ranking of 122 in August 2020 and became the first Indian man in seven years to win a Grand Slam main draw singles match at the 2020 US Open. However, a nagging hip injury in 2021 put him under the knife later that year. It pierced through his progress and slashed his rankings, rhythm and confidence.

And as he managed to pick up the pieces over the last 12 months and hammered his name into the top 100, emotions poured. As the ball from Nardi sailed long, Nagal dropped his racquet, spread his arms out wide and looked up. He then let out a roar and rushed across to hug Milos Galecic, his fitness trainer, and Devvarman, his mentor and part-time coach in whose city Nagal ticked off a big goal. Nagal slumped into their arms and broke down.

“Very emotional," Nagal said after the match. “It's every tennis player's dream to be at least top 100 in the world.

"First time breaking into the top 100, I don't think I'll ever forget this. This week, Roger's match (he took a set off Roger Federer in the 2019 US Open), playing the Olympics (he was the first Indian man since Paes to win a singles match, at the 2021 Tokyo Games) -- you don’t forget such moments. It’s a big, big achievement for me.”

Fitting that it would happen in the Chennai Challenger, a tournament that kickstarted his post-surgery second wind last year. Struggling in 2022 returning to competitive tennis after a six-month layoff, Nagal entered the qualifiers of the Chennai event languishing in the 500s and desperate for a fillip. That week last year, in which he made the semi-finals as a qualifier, gave him just that besides a jump of almost 100 places in the ATP charts. A couple of Challenger titles (in Rome and Tampere) later in the season kept adding to his surge, and to his belief.

The mindset coming back to the same tournament a year on, therefore, was totally different.

"Last year, I was happy to have just qualified. By the time I reached the semis, I was emotionally dead, because I hadn’t made a semis in years,” Nagal said. “Now, you come here ranked 120, you know you can win the tournament if you do well. That was the difference.”

So was the level of his game. Nagal didn’t drop a set this week and played a “neat” final. He got early breaks in both sets, constructed points cleverly from the baseline and had the answers to Nardi’s variety. The finer composure too was on show. Nagal didn’t blink even after being broken twice in the second set, each time breaking back (the second time to love).

The under 500 to top 100 transition has been rather smooth, yet the stumbles that preceded it did test Nagal’s resilience.

“2022 summer was probably the worst time. Coming back after six months, I played three tournaments and got injured again. That was a very dark time, asking yourself, ‘why me’. I felt like I made a switch in October, saying, ‘I need to stop playing victim’," Nagal said.

“Very happy that I found a way to push and give myself every chance to be here.”

The challenge now will be to stay in the top 100. It starts immediately with this week's Challenger in Bengaluru, where Nagal has more points to defend and perhaps to be won. While rankings may keep oscillating, Nagal seeks a constant in his body.

“The last 12 months have been nice to me. Touch wood, I've been healthy. That's all I ask. Because I know if I give myself a chance to keep playing, I can be at a higher level.”

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