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Sport Tennis

Sumit Nagal masters Monte Carlo opener as he reaches new heights

Nagal became the first Indian ever to win an ATP Masters 1000 match on clay, and can credit his newfound consistency for his success.

  • Apr 09 2024
  • 0
Sumit Nagal masters Monte Carlo opener as he reaches new heights
Sumit Nagal masters Monte Carlo opener as he reaches new heights

This time last year, Sumit Nagal was trudging his way through qualifiers at the clay court ATP Challengers in Europe, losing in the first qualifying round in the first two weeks of April, 2023.

This April, he started with a first-round win at an ATP 250 and then became the first Indian to not only enter the singles main draw of the Monte Carlo Masters in 42 years - emulating Ramesh Krishnan in 1982 - but also the first Indian ever to win an ATP Masters 1000 match on clay.

Coming through qualifying, Nagal won three straight matches against higher-ranked, clay-bred players in a span of three days. The latest was his stunning first-round win over World no. 38, Matteo Arnaldi, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 in two hours 37 minutes.

Nagal dropped the first set after one bad service game, fought back to force a decider and lit up the red courts with his fiery forehand and the court coverage in longer rallies to get the ball back and get the breaks of serve.

This run is yet another marker Nagal has laid down for Indian tennis in 2024.

In January, at the Australian Open, he famously became the first Indian man to beat a seeded player at a Grand Slam in 35 years. This after coming from qualifying - he was denied a wild card entry due to a tiff with the Indian tennis federation.

These very pages noted at that time that Nagal's age and fitness may have finally aligned in a way that could set the tone for a consistent tennis season. A couple of months later, he has impressively ticked all of the boxes, doing all the right things to build on the Australian Open success and do things Indian tennis has not seen in a very long time in singles.

His run as a qualifier in Melbourne was a huge deal but Nagal has done far more significant, if less glamorous, things since then that have sustained his rise through the ranks.

In February, he won the ATP Challenger in Chennai and soon after broke into the top 100 of the ranking for the first time in his career. It was an important marker because being in the top 100 means easier entries into big events and because he had to come back from being No. 638 in October 2022.

Nagal has now reached a best-ever ranking of 93 and is guaranteed a new career high after his run in Monaco. A direct entry into the next Grand Slam, the French Open, is imminent.

In March, he made the main draw of Indian Wells, the first Masters of the year, as a lucky loser (in place of Nadal, in a poetic manner). The ATP Masters 1000 series is just one level below the Grand Slams and for a player struggling for low tier wins and finances a year ago, the chance to get into the qualifiers is significant. He lost to Milos Raonic and then didn't make the Miami Open draw. But he didn't have to wait long for his first win in a Masters.

That Nagal would have his best results on clay was not unexpected; nicknamed "Nadal with a G" in online communities, like his namesake he plays some of his best tennis on clay. Unlike Nadal, though, the start of the European clay-court swing has not always been his time to shine.

In the past, he has gone all over the world to play clay-court Challengers and won three of them, two in the last year to boost his rankings.

In Monaco, he had a stroke of luck because he was in the down in the alternates list but made it after Carballes Baena reached the final of last week's tournament. And credit to Nagal, who has made the most of his chances.

This capitalising on his chances, building on success has been a key driver of his recent rise. Often in the past, Nagal has found it hard to consolidate his big wins and string together a sustained run of form, even in the lower tier ATP Challenger circuit. Nagal himself admitted that at the Australian Open, noting he had yet to play a whole year on the ATP Tour without interruptions.

This was both due to several injury setbacks and sometimes a mindset which was yet to fully develop for the elite level. He had a tendency to fall into a mental slump as well and there was at a point where he was not enjoying playing as much.

But the Nagal of today is much calmer and more mature and it's showing in the results. He's had help in the form of Dr. Cynthia Hucks-Smith, his sports psychologist and the mentorship of Somdev Devvarman, the last Indian man to make a big mark on the ATP singles tour.

In tennis, staying calm and winning with attrition is a necessary quality and Nagal has slowly learned that. Four of his last five wins on the ATP Tour have come in the deciding third set. He's shown immense grit to back his big groundstrokes, fighting for the wins that won't come easy. Putting together wins of this kind justifies all the years of trust shown in his talent.

As he himself said, it's a feeling of both relief and satisfaction. "I believe the key for me recently has been consistency - playing a lot of matches and gaining momentum," he told Tennis Channel after his win. "The last few years have been a rollercoaster, but the past few months have shown me that I'm on the right track, playing in the tournaments I aspire to be a part of."

Consistency, as Nagal said, has been the cornerstone of his current success. He has sustained the good level with which he started the year, made all the right moves and reached heights he never had before.


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