"Rafael Nadal is my idol," says Sumit Nagal: India's new young singles talent on his Davis Cup success
Currently active on the ITF tour, Indian youngster Sumit Nagal has slowly, but steadily, been building up on his performances. Indian fans were most recently witness to the 19-year-old’s on-court prowess at India’s Davis Cup tie against Spain in the capital, New Delhi.
Nagal, currently at 350th on the ATP World Rankings, took on Olympic gold winner Marc Lopez in a singles tie – and while he lost, scalped a very convincing set off the Grand Slam-winning Spaniard – in his first occasion representing the country at the international tournament.
The youngster with a big forehand saved three break points against a significantly more experienced rival that night, and despite having lost in the end, put his skill on display.
We asked him about that performance, his iconic mentor, Mahesh Bhupathi and more.
Given it was his first appearance on court for India, was he nervous?
“Yes, of course I was nervous! Even as a kid, playing the Davis Cup and representing India there was my dream. I still remember writing it in my book of goals as a young kid as one of my life’s long term goals – so you can imagine just how nervous I was.”
That nervousness did not stop Nagal from putting on a strong showing against a far more experienced rival, however, an experience the teenager describes as “great, and intense!”
“What an experience,” Nagal says. “I got to see the best Davis Cup team train – and compete against them. That doesn't happen too often! And the opportunity to compete in front of our own countrymen, our people, that was brilliant.”
Despite a spirited fight, the Delhi-raised teen would end up crumbling in the decider – which team captain Anand Amritraj later revealed had been down to serious breathing issues and cramping. Nagal went on to serve out the match regardless.
“In the end, even the loss felt alright,” he shrugs. “I felt a bit disjointed in the end, and it was disappointing that I could not finish the match the way I wanted to. It felt bad, doubtless, but you have to tell yourself that it does happen sometimes, and move on.”
“I didn’t have much time for devoted training,” he tells me. “I flew in fresh off tournaments in Europe, and immediately came into the Davis Cup. But experience and advice from senior players helped a lot.”
One of those 'senior players' has been instrumental in Nagal's career – a man who, with partner Leander Paes, truly put Indian tennis on the map. The teen, one of the first batch of juniors to be selected for Bhupathi’s “Mission 2018” tennis programme, has found valuable advice from the man with twelve Grand Slam titles across the doubles and mixed doubles.
“Mahesh sir plays an extremely important role in my career,” he says. “He has been taking care of me, and my career, since 2008 – and it's still going strong, and I don’t lack for support as a result.”
That influence has also found its way into Nagal’s gameplay. “His experience has helped me grow faster in this game,” he goes on. “There are so many things in tennis and in my game that I would have otherwise taken forever to!”
Bhupathi’s helping hand has been a constant presence in Nagal’s life for the better part of a decade, and that long-term support has buoyed the young player immensely. “Mahesh sir has been guiding me for so long both on-court and off it, and that guidance has helped me in so many ways.” Nagal has also seen help from sponsors, sportswear brand Zeven, who have backed him for a significant part of his caree - thus making it easier for the young player to focus on his game.
For Nagal, himself the son of a schoolteacher, the presence of a guiding influence cannot be discounted. It was his father, Suresh Nagal, who was responsible for his initiation into the sport.
“It all started when I was around eight,” Nagal declares. “My dad did not really like the amount of time I was spending on cricket, and he wanted me to play an individual sport instead. We went to some clubs near where we lived and saw the tennis courts there – and so dad and I just said ‘let’s give this a try’ - and that’s how it began!”
Nagal’s father may have been the impetus in his son's professional tennis career, but the young player has his own idols – and has met them. “I absolutely idolize Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer,” he says. “I look up to them immensely – among other things for the sheer fact that you can see their hunger for the game.
“You can see the way they have used their talent and potential,” he says. “The way they work at their game, their hunger, how badly they want it even at their level, it amazes you. It's such an inspiration."
Like many who watch - and a number who are active on the circuit, Nagal looks up to the man whose name is only one letter away from his own – Rafael Nadal.
But it is another Spaniard whom the teen models his own game on - David Ferrer. "I hope for my game to end up like his,” he says.
Nagal, partnering Vietnam's Ly Hoang Nam, won the boys' doubles title at Wimbledon only last year. “Winning any tournament feels really good, but this felt even better," Nagal says.
Both Sania Mirza and Leander Paes had won titles that year in their respective disciplines, each with Martina Hingis. “It was a really special moment, three Indians all holding the Wimbledon trophy at the same time.”
Active on the ATP Challenger Tour and ITF circuits, Nagal is looking to keep his momentum and practice going. "My focus right now is on learning and growing as much as humanly possible. Preparation is going really, really well!”
He spoke of his love for cricket, and Nagal’s all-time idol is none other than perhaps one of the greatest cricketers of all time, Sachin Tendulkar. “The way he played, the way he carries himself, it’s just absolutely phenomenal,” says Nagal, a self-confessed fanboy of the Little Master.
Although talented on court, Nagal also likes his off-court gaming pursuits. “That’s something not many know about me,” he says, “that I am quite an avid gamer.”
Perhaps it could work as a warm-up technique – or at least it worked for Australian ace Nick Kyrgios earlier this year – or so he claims!
What is in store for Nagal's future? “I’m not sure, but all I know is that I’ll keep working hard towards my goals. The rest is upto the future to decide for itself.”