We have got the Pakistan tie under our belt: Sumit Nagal - Watch
The 22-year-old Haryana-born Nagal will be leading India’s charge in the Davis Cup tie against Pakistan in Nur-Sultan on November 29-30.
Winning the first set against Roger Federer at the 2019 US Open first round gave Sumit Nagal much needed confidence and world No 131 is now aiming to enter the top-100 next year and make the cut for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But before that, the 22-year-old Haryana-born Nagal will be leading India’s charge in the Davis Cup tie against Pakistan in Nur-Sultan on November 29-30.
Excerpts from an interaction at the HT House on Wednesday:
Your reaction when you found out that you’d be facing Federer?
I had just finished my final qualifying round and was in the locker room, getting a massage. I was face down on my mobile when my fitness trainer messaged me saying, ‘Oh! You’re up against Federer.’ I was like ‘amazing’, because that’s what I wanted. Before playing my final (qualifying) round, the draw was already out and this is what I had been saying... if I win this match I would like to play Roger and that’s what happened.
Your feelings when you won the first set? What did he say after the match?
The matches are long, best of five sets in a (Grand) Slam. Winning the first set, you have the upper hand being in the lead but that doesn’t mean that you’ve won the match. My focus and thoughts were still there, (was) doing the right things. (But the) game changed very quickly, tennis is all about momentum. It went to him... few mistakes here and there. When I lost the second set it was still 1-1, I still had another three sets. I tried my best (but) things didn’t go according to plan but overall it was a good experience. When we shook hands, he said, ‘Great season so far and good luck for the rest.’
Two finals, one victory... how would you sum up your season?
Starting from the first month, not getting to play a tournament which hasn’t happened to me in quite a few years. I was in Pune for a tournament at the start of the season but the cut was too high, so didn’t get (to play). The first 2-3 months went like this without making a schedule, it was all about reacting at the last minute, finding a tournament to give myself a chance. Then the rule changed saying ATP players gets a priority in qualifiers of Challengers. That made things a little easier for me, to plan according to my schedule. At least, even if I didn’t get to the main draws, I had a chance to play in the qualifiers, at least I had a chance. That’s how I went on to play on the American trip, gave myself a chance to play three tournaments in a row because earlier I was playing a tournament, followed by 2-3 weeks off, then playing another and then again 2-3 weeks off. In three months I played 4-5 tournaments in the beginning. I was not getting chances of playing on the surfaces I wanted. Plus, getting there on the last day, mostly flying out on Saturday mornings, reaching on Sunday and playing on Monday. It wasn’t working out. With the rule change I could plan. From there I started winning matches, my confidence came back, I could play the tournaments I wanted to, which suit my game. That is where the season went in a good way. Plus, I am very happy with the team I’m working with. The environment, vibe, training is very good. The most important part is about enjoying. We are having fun on and off the court and I really like it.
How do you handle the travel?
Wherever we are planning to go, we look at the country, is it expensive or cheap. How the flights are, how far it is. First priority is to travel with the coach, if that doesn’t happen then fitness trainer and if that too doesn’t happen I travel alone. That’s how the priorities are set.
India’s chances against Pakistan in the Davis Cup?
It’s going to be a good tie. I believe we’re going to bring the tie home. We are playing in Nur-Sultan, indoor courts, everyone (in Indian team) has played indoors. I have played indoor for a lot of years, Saketh Myneni too, Ramkumar Ramanathan loves playing on fast courts. The court favours us. It is going to be a positive tie for us.
What are your plans for 2020?
I am pretty much going to do what I did this year. I started with the Slam. I am going to start in Canberra, play in Australian Open. Then most of the season is going to be on clay.
Your thoughts on the recent tiff between AITA and the players?
What we were asking was the right thing. We just didn’t know if it was safe to play in Islamabad at that time. Looking at the situation between our country and Pakistan at that time, around July-August, wasn’t great. We understand it is a tennis tie but my family was not feeling comfortable with me going so it was our decision. This happened to everyone. Lot of people said no. Of course some said yes and I respect their decision. But at the end, there is nothing much you can do about it. When the people around you, who take care of you, you can’t go against their decision. That’s one of the reasons why I had to say no. Also, unfortunately when I got my first email I had just twisted my ankle on the same day in Hamburg in July. That was another reason. Once you’re injured, you never know long you are going to take to get back on the court. So I said you better look for someone and not wait for me. If I pull out at the end, it looks bad.
How big is Rohan Bopanna’s loss for the tie?
It is a loss having a player who has played so many ties because he has been playing doubles for many years and has amazing experience. But we are playing Pakistan and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi is not playing. I don’t even know who his teammates are right but looking at the tie it doesn’t make a big impact. We have got this under our belt.
Next aim to reach the top-100?
Of course, everyone wants to. When you play tennis what is your goal, everyone says they want to be top-100 first. You want to be No 1, 2 and 3 but it starts from 100. Once you break 100, then you break 80 then 60. Once you’re in top-100 you start improving. That’s when you get to play big tournaments, the Slams, where the money is good. I am really going to push for it. Right now that is the first goal.
Any changes you will be making in your food or training regime to make the 100 cut?
What I have been doing is fine. I am going to continue to improve, that is the main focus. When you are playing well, the points come, they’re not going to run away from you. So the first is to keep improving, eat what I am eating now that I know what to eat and what not to. You travel a lot, play a lot of matches, sometimes you eat lunch and play so you get used to what your body reacts and doesn’t react to. But no major changes just small ones.
How much of physical fitness and skill do you require to reach top-100?
It is a combination of both. Diet does matter because if you’re not fit you’re not going to be on the tennis court. That puts an impact. Fitness... I have been working out a lot recently, trying to make sure I’m doing two sessions when I am at practice and at a tournament (I try to get) at least get a session to keep myself fit. Keep doing the rehabs, muscles that I need to. Skills... I also need to improve my game. There are still some strokes that need a lot of development. So this preseason I am doing a month-long this year which I have never done before. We have got a lot of things noted what we want to work on.
Anything special you do to remain fit?
For me, it is more so of staying fit because it is the first time I almost played the season without getting injured. I played an 11-month season. If you see my history, it has always been 7, 8, 9 months. I have played three months, then three months off. The biggest chance I gave myself was to play the whole year without taking a break. Unfortunately, something like ankle you cannot control but other than that whatever I could control I did.
Are you looking to make the cut for Olympics?
The cut is going to be around 75-80. The cut comes sometime around June or July. This is when the clay court season is going to end. If I stay healthy, keep doing the right things, I can make the cut because it’s the clay court season. I have 200-300 points after July, so it could work in my favour.
Your thoughts on the new Davis Cup format?
I like the old one. That was better. Now you’re playing in a mutual place. It’s not the same feel, playing on a mutual surface where it favour or does not favour someone. Earlier, you either played home or away. If you play away, you at least had a chance to play at home depending on the last time you faced that team. Now everybody plays on the same surface. To me, it’s not fair. Because then it’s not different from playing the US Open or any other ATP tournament.
There are three Indians between 100 and 200. Can you guys break into the top-100?
It is possible. Prajnesh (Gunneswaran) already did it, reaching a high of 75, playing almost half-a-year in 100. Ramkumar has already been 113. But unfortunately he didn’t have a great season this year. Every player has a year where you drop down bit. Few matches here and there, sometimes you lose a match by two points. But to break into the top-100 is possible because we have Prajnesh, me, Ramkumar. Unfortunately, Yuki (Bhambri) is injured now but we know he’s capable as we all have seen. We have also had Saketh in the 150s and 130s, then Sasikumar Mukund in the 200s. We have had a lot of players from 70 to 100. So we can see that changes are happening but it’s not a sport where changes happen in a second. We never had anyone winning Slams. We used to have one player in the top 100, now we have three who are nearing 100. So may be in a few years we may have more guys at the top.
What has changed after the Federer match?
After the US Open match I played a few Challengers. Every time guys would walk up to me and say ‘great match’. A lot of people supported me at Buenos Aires where I won. It’s all because of that match. It feels nice when in a country like Argentina where there are hardly any Indians, people are holding your country’s flag. It’s very warm. The same thing happened in Banja Luka in Bosnia during a Challenger. It’s been nice. People are recognising and helping me.
Does India need more tournaments?
Right now there are not enough. Things can change if people start investing a bit more in tennis. Everybody wants you to win a medal but you can’t by not doing the right things. If you look at the countries which have been doing well... China doesn’t even have a men’s player in the top-100, they have one in 150. But they have more than 70-80 tournaments combining men’s and women’s. There are times when they have two ATP tournaments in the same week. In India we have one ATP and this year two Challengers. That’s the number of tournaments for a country of 1.4 billion. Tennis is big in India now, so if there are more tournaments, players will have a chance to do the job at a lesser cost. Also the environment will be familiar. It’s not easy to perform when you are going to so many countries, so many different surfaces. Sometimes the food or court does not suit you. Playing at home is a lot cheaper and makes a huge impact.
What do you do in your off time?
I watch Netflix and Japanese anime too. I play video games like PubG, League of Legends, any new game that come up.
Have you bought anything after selling off your Ducati?
I just bought an apartment in Delhi. Right now I stay off bikes as much as possible. It is too risky.
How do you see the pay structure for guys who are outside the top-100?
To reach the top 50 you need to go through this struggle. When you don’t have money, things are tough. You have to go to a lot of places that you don’t want to. But you have to because it is cheaper. The process takes time. When you have the people that you want to work with, the process is sped up. It makes an impact. It had an impact on my career too. I missed a lot of tournaments because I didn’t have the money. Playing 10-12 tournaments at a big stage when the odds are high, you enjoy. I know people will come to watch me. I know that even if I lose I will get $50,000-$80 000. The rewards are good. Comparing it to Challengers, sometimes it happens in the middle of nowhere, 40 minutes from the city. There are three people watching—your coach and the rival’s coach. It’s not fun compared to Masters and Slams.
You play doubles on and off...
Sometimes you go to a tournament and want to have some game-time before your singles match. That is why people request to play doubles before singles. You get used to conditions, the ball because no two courts are the same. Because playing a match is different from practice. When I want to work on my net game or improve my serve I play doubles.
Growing up in a middle class family, what are the challenges your parents faced?
I was lucky my parents didn’t have to invest too much. I was very young when Mahesh (Bhupathi) picked and sponsored me. But even with all the help, it was not even half of the budget that we were looking. My dad gave me whatever he could, made sure it was enough for my training. He never complained that ‘I don’t even have anything for myself’. It’s just amazing. He made sure I was okay. He didn’t have to do it but did for me to succeed. The good part is that he likes seeing me play. He enjoys tennis. The funny part is that he’ll send me a voice note before every match and will give tips on how to handle a particular player. I say ‘dad, don’t worry. I will figure it out’.
Did he say anything on how to handle Federer?
(Laughs) That’s the only match he didn’t.
Do you think tennis players need more government backing?
Yes, definitely. Lot of people quit tennis because of lack of funding. When you have the right funding you can speed up the process. You can have people helping you for a long period, making sure that people don’t do wrong things or you’re not on your own. I didn’t go in a bad way. Mahesh was behind me. He was still playing and was guiding me. Luckily I also got picked for the Virat Kohli Foundation in 2017 and also got help from Indian Oil where I am an employee. They have had a good impact in my life. I don’t know what I would do without them. You need finances to even book tickets. You can’t book a ticket if you have $30 in your bank. Coming back to government funding, it would have been nice if we had a national centre, picking up kids for a tennis programme, giving everyone a fair chance. At least give them a chance even if they don’t go on to become world No 1. Not everyone reaches the top but one should have the opportunity to try and realise their dream. They should at least be able to say, ‘This country gave me the chance.’ Like America, which is pumping in millions but still have no top-20 players right now but they are helping people live their dream. There are players here who quit at 15-16 because of the cost involved.
Should the federation take more initiative at the grassroots?
This comes from funding. A single academy can’t do everything. It’s not easy to bring coaches from outside or even teach Indian coaches. Not too many people like the idea because the coaches will have to come far and teach the kids. Many reject the idea because a foreign coach will charge 4-5 times more. That is also bad thinking. This is one of the reasons why we are not growing. Everybody is so much into being money-minded where people want to do anything just to make profit. The love of sport is missing in our country. If you look at the way it is in cricket and then see tennis, it’s not the same. Not too many people are doing things for the love of the sport.
Does the federation help?
Right now no.
Which is your favourite surface?
I like clay more. I grew up in Delhi playing on it. Then I like hard courts. Most of the time, it is the surface you play on. Grass will be the least. You need to practice to play on grass. In all my life I may have played only 10 hours on it. Clay and hard suit me more than grass.