PUNE: Sumit Nagal couldn’t have asked for a more high-profile opponent in his maiden Grand Slam appearance.
The 22-year-old from Jhajjar, Haryana, has been drawn to play arguably the greatest of all time, Roger Federer, after securing his berth in the US Open in New York on Friday.
Nagal, on a roll this season, staged a brilliant comeback to beat Brazil’s Joao Menezes 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 in the final qualifying round in two hours and 27 minutes at Flushing Meadows to set up a dream date with the legendary Swiss.
“It’s what I wanted when the draw was out. It’s an amazing experience playing a player like him who has done so much in tennis,” Nagal told TOI. “I am looking forward to this, it’s going to be fun.”
With Prajnesh Gunneswaran, who will open against Cincinnati Masters champion and World No. 5 Daniil Medvedev, also in the main draw, this is the first time since 1998 – when Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi featured at Wimbledon – that India has two men’s singles players competing in a major.
Nagal is also only the sixth Indian – after Prakash Amritraj, Somdev Devvarman, Yuki Bhambri, Saketh Myneni and Gunneswaran – to appear in a slam since then. And Nagal, who trains with Sascha Nensel and Milos Galecic in Germany, has done it with some panache, avenging some old scars in the qualifying.
He had lost to Japan’s Tatsumo Ito in the Liuzhou Challenger last year and Menezes twice – in Samarkhand Challenger and a Futures in Spain – before facing them in New York.
He beat Ito 7-6 (6), 6-2 in the opening round before overcoming Menezes, world ranked 210. Against Menezes, after being 1-4 in the second set, Nagal won the next nine games and 11 of the last 14 games.
“I played well in qualifiers. Every match meant something, I had some history with all of them,” Nagal, the 2015 Wimbledon boys’ doubles champion, said.
“Ito destroyed me and I felt really bad as I couldn’t perform at all. So when I saw I am playing him again, I was happy that I have a chance for revenge.”
Both Gunneswaran and Nagal are in the top quarter of the draw. On Monday, Gunneswaran is set to play Medvedev in the morning session at the Louis Armstrong stadium and Nagal to take on Federer in the evening at the Arthur Ashe stadium. Nagal’s mentor and Davis Cup captain Mahesh Bhupathi said playing Federer would be baptism by fire for the youngster.
“Sumit has been unlucky with injuries and has worked very hard to get back to this level. Playing Roger at the US Open at night is every qualifier’s dream and nightmare and I think this experience will both be a confidence booster and a career-defining moment for him,” Bhupathi said.
Irrespective of the result, this year will be a watershed for Nagal, especially after a forgettable season in 2018, in which he had 18 first round losses (either in qualifying or main draw). The restructuring introduced by the ATP for Challengers at the start of 2019 meant Nagal struggled even to gain entry into tournaments.
But he has bounced back in some style, reaching five semifinals in high-level Challengers and his big scalps included then Word No. 56 Martin Klizan, No. 101 Albert Ramos-Vinolas, and No. 126 Corentin Moutet.
Now that the momentum is with him, Nagal will expect himself to play with abandon when he takes on the 20-time Grand Slam champion.