The thing your correspondent finds impressive about Sumit Nagal is that he looks more sculpted each time one meets him.
Now, these encounters are sporadic and spread over months. That’s adequate time to gauge an athlete’s off-court training programme as, especially at the age of 19, the body responds quickly to precise, progressive loading.
But if you need to call a trainer after spending an hour-and-a-half on court, it’s obvious that that aspect still has a long way to go.
The score was tied at a set apiece in the reverse singles and Nagal had put together a splendid recovery after losing the first 3-6 to take the second set 6-1. Leading 1-0 in the third, Nagal hit a splendid drive volley from the baseline only to walk off the court asking for the trainer. He complained of an inability to breathe as his “left side got a bit tight, just wasn’t getting the same oxygen.”
The final result: 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 in two hours and three minutes in favour of Spanish doubles specialist Marc Lopez. That win put the visitors 4-0 ahead and then David Ferrer came out to play his clinical game and seal things at 5-0 by beating Ramkumar Ramanathan 6-2, 6-2.
On Sunday, Nagal took on the far more experienced Lopez in the reverse singles and put on a most impressive performance in the beginning. It was impressive for he came in guns blazing and then kept blazing away to the best of his ability before his body seemed to give up to a combination of humidity and nervous tension. This was Nagal’s first ever Davis Cup match and that surely can’t be easy on the nerves.
“I was pretty nervous. I have never played in front of such a big crowd before. And playing for the country is different than just playing for yourself,” Nagal said. Surely it was not just a fitness issue but the nervous energy that it takes to perform when debuting for your country which crippled him.
Nagal’s forehand is shaping up to be a weapon. That he converts and smacks inside-out forehands reflects the kind of game that’s dominating the men’s circuit. The backhand is a work in progress with nothing like the aplomb the forehand has. The volleys have some way to go and the serve nowhere near the domineering whack it needs to be for the men’s tour.
But Nagal does have Mahesh Bhupathi as a mentor. He will get good enough advice and is as of now young enough to iron out the deficiencies in his game before he hits his prime. “He is everything to me. What I am today is because of him,” Nagal was candid about the role played by the doubles maestro in his grooming.
Height an issue
On his debut, Nagal did display character. Things like courage and heart in the face of adversity are intangibles which can never be taught. Those don’t seem to be things he is short of. That’s real encouraging and that has been the cornerstone of India’s victorious Davis Cup campaigns in the past.
The one worrisome bit is that Nagal is all of 5’10”. That’s not ideal for a sport dominated by the big servers. But then, just two days ago Nagal was keenly watching David Ferrer brushing aside Saketh Myneni in straight sets. At 5’9”, Ferrer is no bean pole. That he has managed to stay in the top 10 for six straight seasons and the way he dominated Myneni (6’4”) must have driven home to Nagal that as long as he is able to build the kind of speed and endurance that Ferrer has, he should be fine. He could well go on to be spectacular.
As of now, he stays too far behind the baseline and for someone with his reach that’s going to be an issue when he plays the bigger boys. To be able to play in closer, he needs more strength in those legs and that is going to prove to be the decisive factor in this young man’s development. But first day and first show on the Davis Cup stage did showcase the kind of spirit that makes champions.