Sumit Nagal returned to the ATP Challenger Tour winners’ circle after four difficult years that saw the 25-year-old undergo hip surgery, fight Covid multiple times, and battle against his ‘own internal demons’.
But the hard work began to pay off two weeks ago, when the Indian advanced through qualifying en route to claiming the title at the Roma Garden Open.
“When I won, I had a very relieving, calm feeling,” Nagal told ATPTour.com. “Calm in a way because the last few years have been pretty tough for me, on and off the court. To play seven matches in that week and have the body feel all right, it was a relief.”
Following the clay-court title, Nagal shared on Instagram some of the difficulties he’s dealt with the past four years.
“It was hard to believe that this day would come,” Nagal wrote. “I struggled with numerous injuries, came back from surgery, fought covid multiple times, endured tough matches, tougher training regimes, and my own internal demons.”
A three-time Challenger Tour champion, World No. 256 Nagal grew weary of his career being ‘start and stop’. In 2022, he once again found his back against the wall, physically and mentally.
“The worst I felt was last summer, when I was playing a match at the Heilbronn Challenger, where I suffered a tear in my left oblique,” Nagal said. “The effect it had on my mentality was very tough for the next two, three months. For the first time in my life, I think I lost 0-6, 0-6 in a qualifying match [in Luedenscheid]. After that, it just went sideways.
“I was in a very dark place where I was not enjoying tennis, couldn’t find motivation. I was always asking myself, ‘Why me? I didn’t play for seven or eight months, then I play again for four weeks and I’m out again for six weeks. What else do I need to do?’ You start asking, ‘What do I need to do to get rid of this?’ I couldn’t find answers.”
Nagal, who is based at the Nensel Tennis Academy in Germany, relied on his team for motivation. If there were any rare thoughts of quitting, Nagal quickly put those to bed as he thought of his family back home in India.
“For me, it was not an option to quit and go home,” Nagal said. “But for sure there were times where instead of coming to the court or fitness 30 minutes early, I was coming five minutes early. Sometimes you just say, ‘What’s the point? Any way, I’m getting injured.’ These thoughts are very scary and bad because they can take you down. It was a constant fight between my head.
“I promised myself, promised my family, that one day I want to be at this place playing the Slams and if I quit now, there’s no chance I can see that. For me, the very important picture I see is my parents sitting in my match box when I’m playing the biggest tournaments. I want to see that on their faces because they’ve never been to a tournament outside India. I think that would be very big for all of us.”
In 2019, tennis fans were introduced to Nagal at the US Open, where he made his Grand Slam debut and took a set off Roger Federer in the first round. Not long after Nagal’s Flushing Meadows appearance, Nagal reached back-to-back Challenger finals, including his triumph at the Buenos Aires Challenger. The following season, Covid-19 put the Tour on pause when the Indian was playing his best tennis.
Nagal’s journey back to the winners’ circle is a testament of his personality.
“I’m just a grinder, I figure things out,” Nagal said. “That’s probably my biggest strength, I will just figure out a way. If it’s to fix a computer, a light, or whatever random thing done, I will find a way.”
Sumit Nagal competes on home soil at the Chennai Challenger in February. Credit: Suman Chattopadhyay
If it weren’t for Indian legend Mahesh Bhupathi, Nagal may not even have a career in pro tennis.
At age 10, Nagal met Bhupathi when the former doubles World No. 1 was holding a selection for admittance into his academy. One of the cities where the selection was held was in New Delhi, just 40 kilometres from Nagal’s hometown.
“I was hitting with the other kids and there was a moment where I went to Mahesh and said, ‘Mr. Bhupathi, could you please look at my game?’ Nagal recalled to ATPTour.com in 2019. “I knew who he was, so I grabbed his hand and asked him to look at my game. After that, it’s apparently when he told my family that they’re going to take me.
“That’s the one line that changed my life. If I didn’t tell him this, I would not be sitting here right now. My family didn’t have enough money to support me when I was young. I couldn’t have played tennis.”