Beyond ‘that’ set against Federer: Sumit Nagal reflects on tough road to Tokyo

In his US Open debut last year, Nagal took a set off Federer before bowing out. Now in the Olympic year, he is hungry for more.
By Olympic Channel Writer

In August 2019, Sumit Nagal entered the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City as a ‘budding’ star of Indian tennis, but around three hours later, he left it as ‘the man who took a set off Roger Federer. In an exclusive chat with The Olympic Channel, the 22-year-old told us about ‘that’ set and going beyond.

"It is very important that 2019 isn't a one-off year for me," Sumit Nagal told us, on the sidelines of the Maharashtra Open 2020 in Pune, “'s all about patience and doing the right thing.” The Indian is currently ranked 126th, but that isn’t a deterrent for him to plan his season ahead with a single mission - qualification for the Olympic 2020 games in Tokyo.

Taking down Roger Federer

Nagal first made headlines with his 2015 Wimbledon boys’ doubles win, but it was his grand slam debut in 2019 that really propelled him to a newer level of attention. Not many would have predicted him making ‘the’ Roger Federer toil, let alone claim the first set itself. The match eventually slipped out of his hand 6-4, 1-6, 2-6, 4-6 as the Swiss legend moved gears, but Nagal walked out proud.

“He knows what he can bring,” Roger Federer had said about Nagal, curiously named similar to Federer’s famed Spanish rival, after the match. "That's why I think he's going to have a very solid career," he had added.

The lad from Jhajjar district in Haryana had trended on social media on the day and later earned reams of press praise. From then on, he made the final of the Banja Luka Challenger, only his second ATP challenger. And in under a month of his Federer feat, Nagal bagged a trophy at the Challenger de Buenos Aires.

Taking the Grand Slam route

Cut to 2020, Nagal has already begun thinking like a top player. “I don't want to rush and put too much pressure on myself saying that ‘I reached semis’ or won a lot of tournaments. Comparing last year to this one, my goals are different. I am also playing at a higher level, so I think being patient and doing the right things is the way to go,” he shares.

Nagal’s 2020 hasn't been newsworthy so far. “The Australian Open was the first tournament of the year and it's always difficult when you take a break and train for a bit... you are not in match rhythm…” he reasoned, adding, “I was a little sick at the end of December, which is why I had to pull out of a tournament before the Australian Open," he pointed out.

At the Australian Open qualifier against Egypt's Mohamed Safwat, he laboured for nearly an hour and a half before going down 6-7, 2-6, though he says the result wasn't really a setback.

"I went there without much preparation, but I gave myself a chance and I was pretty happy that I did make an effort to be there instead of staying at home and wishing I was there," he said.

World No. 127 Sumit Nagal entered the ATP Prague Challenger as the sixth seed. Image courtesy: TOM media

The road to Olympics 2020

Sumit Nagal is now harbouring the dream of making it to the 2020 Olympics, and tough as the task may be, he has a plan for it. "There is a bit of pressure I'd say because it's an Olympic year and you want to make the Olympics and represent your country," he said. "...but I think you can manage your schedule depending on what type of player you are.

"I also want to play the next three months on hard courts instead of choosing to play in South America and then on clay before pushing on to the Olympics," he added.

Nagal is inspired by Leander Paes who too was 22 years old when he bagged India an iconic bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Now, Paes has announced he is bidding adieu to the sport.

“There are a lot of things that he's done for the country, which I don't think is easy," Nagal speaks of Paes. "All the wins he's had, the amazing ties that he's had in the Davis Cup and he's also the only Indian tennis player to get an Olympics medal in singles."

True, things were not easy for Paes then, but for Nagal, the road to just making it to the Olympics is a tall challenge. After all, he would want to break away from the reputation of ‘the one who took a set against Federer’ to ‘the one who got India an Olympic medal’. And for that, he’d have to take many more sets and matches.