Indian tennis: Sumit Nagal – ‘When the body is right, the heart is there to compete’

At the start of the 2023 tennis season, Sumit Nagal held an ATP singles rank of 503. It was a steep drop from the top 125 range he had once broken into, but it was a fall that came through a series of injuries – one that required hip surgery a year earlier.

But 2023 marked his return to the circuit, a return he hoped would last longer than his injury-ravaged body would allow.

Now, in June 2024, he has risen to a career best 71 (currently he is the world No 72). And with it, he has made the cut for the main draw at the Paris Olympics that start next month.

The steady climb up the rankings ladder has seen him hit a decent run off late. He won the ATP Chennai Challenger in February to become the first Indian since Prajnesh Gunneswaran in 2019 to break into the top 100 singles rankings.

And the 26-year-old from Jhajjar has only improved since then.

“The last few weeks have been good,” Nagal said to Scroll.

“I’ve been playing with a lot of motivation. The body is feeling alright. I think that is the biggest key – when the body is feeling right. The heart is there and you can compete for every point. That makes a huge difference and that’s how I have felt in the last month.”

In the past few weeks, on his favoured clay surface, Nagal has reached two successive Challenger finals – winning the title in Heilbronn, Germany, on June 3.

The win saw him rise from the world No 95 spot to 77 – just enough for him to make the cut for Paris.

The Olympic Games will be the second time this season he gets to compete on the fabled clay courts of Roland Garros, where he made his French Open main draw debut last month.

His time at the French Open was short-lived however, as he crashed out in the first round after a straight-set loss to hard-hitting Russian Karen Khachanov.

In the third set of the 2-6, 0-6, 6-7(5) defeat however, Nagal did grow in confidence and started to push back the 18th seed.

“I calmed down a bit,” he said about the third set. “I had control on my nerves and I went more for my shots than what I had done in the first two sets. Now I know what I have to do when I play these kinds of matches.”

In the coming few weeks, there will be a number of high-pressure matches that the India No 1 will be competing in. Just next week, in fact, he will make his main draw Wimbledon debut.

Though the clay-courter is not particularly fond of playing on the faster and lower-bouncing grass, it was at Wimbledon where he first made his mark on the international stage, when he won the 2015 junior boys doubles event with Vietnam’s Ly Hoang Nam.

“It’s a good experience, it’s fun to play on grass,” Nagal said about going to Wimbledon. “I wouldn’t like it if I had to play there the whole year, but the tournament, it’s just about the vibe of being there. My career started when I won the junior Wimbledon title in doubles. So there are great memories there.”

Also read: Sumit Nagal – ‘One side of brain was saying slide, other side was saying I’m scared’

After Wimbledon, Nagal will head back to Paris for the Olympics.

Former India No 1 Somdev Devvarman, who has been a mentor to Nagal, has been optimistic about his chances at Paris 2024.

“[The Olympics] could not have been in a better place [for Nagal],” said Devvarman, in an earlier interaction, organised by Sony Sports Network. “Because clay is by far his favourite surface. It’s a time of the year where he’s had enough breaks by that point. So, he should be completely fresh.

“And it’s two out of three sets, not three out of five [like at Grand Slams]. He doesn’t have that much experience in five sets yet. So, it’s a dream scenario for Sumit.”

The excitement continues to grow as the Olympics approach. This will be Nagal’s second outing at the Olympics after he reached the second round at the delayed Tokyo edition in 2021.

New events and experiences have started to come thick and fast for Nagal as he has grown in the rankings. He has started to make it to the main draw of bigger tournaments – like the Grand Slams. But he remains a stickler for the routine he has now adopted, courtesy the countless injuries he has suffered over the years.

“I’ve just been taking more care of my body now,” he said. “Working a lot on my warm-ups and cool-downs and the rehab. That’s what’s been added to the list.”

In an earlier interview with this publication, Nagal talked about a time when his mind and body were in a conflict due to the fitness troubles he was experiencing.

Now, everything is in sync. And the results are showing.

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