Got a lot to learn from Dominic Thiem: Sumit Nagal
In the last one year, India’s highest-ranked singles player has faced three of the biggest names in modern tennis and a common lesson for Nagal has been to put aside the urge of playing an “extreme” level of tennis against these extraordinary opponents.Updated: Sep 05, 2020, 08:06 IST
At the start of the fifth game of the third set, Sumit Nagal whipped a spectacular Nadal-like forehand down the line. He hit it on the run; the ball curved sharply and just kissed the sideline. There were no crowds to applaud the shot, so Nagal’s opponent, No. 2 seed Dominic Thiem, dished it out himself.
It was one among a few quality shots that the 23-year-old Indian came up with, especially on his forehand. However, it wasn’t nearly as enough to consistently trouble the world No. 3 Austrian as Nagal went down 3-6, 3-6, 2-6 in his second-round match at the US Open in New York on Thursday.
Like in his opening round, Nagal, ranked 124, was solid from the baseline and often matched Thiem stroke for stroke at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Where he suffered, was with his below-par first serve, on which he managed to win just 56 per cent of the points. Nagal had his opening service game broken in all three sets, although he broke back in the first two to try and catch up with the second seed. “That was my biggest problem,” Nagal said over the phone. “I gave him too many free points on my serve.”
In a way, Thiem provided Nagal with a perfect template right in front of him, with both having similar styles of play - build points so as to put their stronger forehands at work. Thiem, of course, has the effective one-handed backhand and a more menacing serve. “I’ve got quite a lot to learn from him, because this is how and where I want to play. It was a good learning experience to see where I have to be, how much hard work and determination I need to put in my game to get to those few levels ahead of me,” Nagal said.
In the last one year, India’s highest-ranked singles player has faced three of the biggest names in modern tennis: 20-time major champion Roger Federer (2019 US Open), three-time Slam winner Stan Wawrinka (2020 Prague Challenger) and Thiem. A common lesson for Nagal has been to put aside the urge of playing an “extreme” level of tennis against these extraordinary opponents.
“Sometimes when you play players who are top 3-4 in the world, you think you have to do a lot,” Nagal said. “Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you really have to. But when you play them a few times, you understand that, ‘OK, I don’t have to do anything extreme’. In a lot of errors that I made today (against Thiem), I was trying to play extreme. That’s where I need to understand when to push for that little extra and when to stay with the opponent. That comes from experience.”
Experience is one aspect Nagal is undoubtedly getting richer with. After a fruitful 2019 season on the Challenger circuit that also saw him make the main draw of the US Open after winning the qualifying rounds, Nagal has progressed to tasting his first major win this year. The youngster took a moment to reflect upon it post his first-round triumph.
“The day I won my first round was also the day I qualified for a first junior Slam in 2013. It popped up on my FB memories - ‘seven years ago, you were here’. Getting the first win in a major here is a special feeling because you always remember your first Slam victory,” he said.
But by his own admission, he - as well as his Indian compatriots - needs to start getting these results more consistently at the biggest stage. The last time an Indian singles player won a match at a Slam before Nagal’s first round win here was seven years ago, also at the US Open, when Somdev Devvarman won his first-round encounter.
“For sure, that’ll be my goal next year - to play Slams and win rounds. There is a long way to go to get to where I can go deeper into tournaments. But everything goes step by step: last year was to qualify, this year to win and from there you move ahead. You need to put in work to get to that level. You’re not going to wake up one morning and play amazing tennis and win Slam matches. It’s an everyday grind,” he said.
Nagal is twice as eager now to put in the grind to reach that next level and excel there. “Everything comes in: mindset, discipline of sticking to your routine daily. Mental toughness is key - you need to be the last man standing. You have to go with the attitude that says that I’m going to do everything in my hands to trouble this man, and if he has to beat me, he has to play 10 hours for it. That’s the kind of mindset I need to have. And that only comes from having matches under your belt which pumps up your confidence, from climbing the ladder step by step. If you look at Thiem five years ago, I’m sure he didn’t have this mindset. Look at him now,” Nagal said.
Nagal is heading back to Germany to train before flying to Paris for the French Open starting September 21. It will again provide him with a chance to be in the main draw of a Slam and get closer to breaking the top-100 barrier. But he is not fixated on that.
“Who doesn’t want to be in the top 100? Who doesn’t want to be in the main draw of Slams? But that will come if I do the right things: sticking to my game plan, being disciplined on the court and starting and finishing points in the same line of focus and energy. If you start doing those things, the results are going to come. So I am not worried about the exact rankings; for sure I could be thinking top 40 or top 60, but it depends on how I do it. Definitely, I am close, and I will do my best to break into the top 100 as soon as possible,” Nagal said.