Waiting in the tunnel to walk on to the Arthur Ashe court Sumit Nagal told Brad Gilbert, “I’ll play my game and see what I can do with it.” When he walked off, two hours and 29 minutes later, raising his hand to acknowledge the crowd’s appreciation, signing autographs, Nagal could have been little light-headed. Tired after having gone face to face and shot to shot against the man considered to be the best player his sport had produced, but light-headed over what he had experienced. After having created his chances, hit some winners, fluffed a few sitters and run a mile.
Roger Federer’s 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory over an unknown qualifier ranked No. 190 in the US Open first round won’t cause a stir. But what Sumit Nagal went through his 6-4, 1-6, 2-6, 4-6 defeat will have showed him and Indian tennis as to what he could do with his game. Federer’s quality served as a mirror: both for Nagal’s strengths and his shortcomings as a tennis player, who was not yet seven when Federer won the first of his 20 Grand Slam titles. When the game ended, Nagal was fatigued, defeated but would not be downcast. For two-and-a-half hours, he had belonged to the stage and his game at the level the contest had demanded. Not good enough to overcome his rival, but not so meagre as to offer no optimism.
As Nagal walked off the Arthur Ashe, he appeared larger — in the eyes of the tennis world and himself, quite different from when he had first stepped into the lights. His first Grand Slam match was announced as “Prime Time Under Lights At the US Open”, Nagal and Federer introduced by turn, their names flashing in giant letters on the LED screens.
He looked smallest of the line-up gathered around the net along with Hollywood star Alec Baldwin for the toss, Nagal’s voice barely audible despite the mike. It was a long way from Jhajjar to Challenger circuits in Samarkand and Poznan and the US Open main round which will give him more than one-third of his total career prize money from a single evening. That and the experience of having put his game on the line against an opponent against whom every other tennis champion of the future will be measured.
So what did Roger Federer show us about Sumit Nagal, the current India No. 3? That when given the opportunity, he does not back off, is not be daunted and goes for the lines. Nagal has a game made for the slow courts, produces winners of his roundhouse forehand, moves well and loves the most creative angles. He can defend the baseline when needed, shovelling backhand crosscourts to create more room and space, and would like to possess a backhand down the line of the accuracy and precision of his Monday night opponent. His serve doesn’t have the snap and bite which can be a mandatory requirement in the modern game, but like he did in the first set, as long as he can put a first serve in, he can give himself a better chance.
Nagal could not hold his opening game serve in any of the sets and knows that there will be days when he won’t get players of Federer’s pedigree off their game quite so much. His response in the first set, however, was appropriate: to play the ball over the man, put it back into court and see if he would be needed to play the extra shot. In the middle two sets, Federer shook the rust off his game, began landing his first serves and finding his forehand, pushing Nagal to stay in the rallies. Only to have them summarily ended with a whiplash forehand or a drop shot or become wrong-footed by Federer’s switched rhythm.
Not all tennis matches can be broken down into statistics but there is one that Nagal will look at with longing: he had 13 break points on Federer’s serve but converted only three. Federer’s beastly serving took care of at least a handful of those, but Nagal will remember every unforced error particularly in the final set.
Federer’s own words will comfort him, complimenting Nagal on how he had handled himself. “[It’s] never easy to come out and play your best. Even though it’s kind of what you live for, you dream about, playing on the big stage. So I think he did that very well… ” Federer then talked about his first-set struggles and the consequences of serving poorly, “That puts the pressure on because he had the upper hand from the baseline. It was up to me to be able to change that.” In the future, when in a match-bog, Nagal will be able to draw from the memory of Sunday night and what he had to do to have ‘the upper hand from the baseline’ on Federer.
After his USO qualification, Nagal spoke to a reporter for the ATP website, who has described him slapping a table and saying, “I want to play him. It doesn’t matter. It’s not about winning or losing all the time… It’s just the experience…. I don’t care what the commentators will be saying about me on TV. I’m going to be enjoying the crowd, playing the best tennis player ever. I’m just some dude from India. I’m fine with that until I make my name.”
Sumit Nagal took a set off Roger Federer and did that. For now. It can’t be the only thing he wants to be known for.