Australian Open: From 900 euros in the bank, Sumit Nagal now hopes to keep the journey alive

26-year-old toast of Indian tennis to take on Chinese opponent Shang in second round tomorrow

After defeating 27th seed Alexander Bublik, Sumit Nagal (pictured) became the first Indian in 34 years to beat a seeded player in a Grand Slam. (photo: @JesuisShyam/X)
After defeating 27th seed Alexander Bublik, Sumit Nagal (pictured) became the first Indian in 34 years to beat a seeded player in a Grand Slam. (photo: @JesuisShyam/X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Barely five months earlier, Sumit Nagal rued in an interview that he was left with 900 euros (around Rs 80,000) at his bank and it may not be possible for him to pursue his career on the ATP Tour. “The funding needed to break into the top 100 is around one crore,” said the 26-year-old - who had his prayers answered when he upstaged 27th seed Alexander Bublik 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (5) in the first round of the 2024 Australian Open on Tuesday to make heads turn in Melbourne. 

It was after 34 years since Ramesh Krishnan in 1989 (when he shocked Mats Wilander in the second round of Australian Open) that Sumit, very much a journeyman, became the first Indian to beat a seeded player in the main singles draw of a slam event. Even if he loses the next match, Sumit will be richer by Aus $180,000 (around Rs 98 lakh), something which will help him pursue his dream for some more time. 

‘’I am feeling good. It’s been more emotional than physical. Every match, I’m getting better and better. I struggled to play two sets on Friday. Today, I played three. I haven’t been at this stage every game. The plan for tomorrow is to take it easy, take an ice bath, and get a massage. Pretty typical,’’ Nagal told broadcasters SonyLIV. Currently ranked 139th on the Tour, he will be taking on Chinese Juancheng Shang, ranked 140 in a winnable encounter in the second round on Thursday and should be get over this hurdle, Carlos Alcaraz may be looming ahead of him. 

Incidentally, Nagal had to wade his way through three tough matches in the qualifiers as he was denied a regional wild card by the All India Tennis Association (AITA) for his refusal to play the Davis Cup match in Pakistan. ‘’The last 12-18 months have been (a mix of) good and bad. Bad in a way where I couldn’t play well, and good in a way that I learned from them. After the injury, I became more mature and much better. I understood tennis much better.’’  

The journey of Nagal, born to a primary school teacher in Jhajjar, Haryana, has been a far cry from the kind of privileged financial background required of Indians attempting to succeed in a sport where there is little institutional support from a national federation – while one needed to plough back the earnings of prize money for travel and coaching entourage. Nagal’s modest prize money earnings playing on the Challenger tour – one rung below ATP – and his salary as an Indian Oil employee could only do so much to sustain him, making his recent result a huge shot in the arm for both his stability and confidence. 

Incidentally, the resilient Sumit has never looked out of place in the limited opportunities he got in the slam events. He reached the second round of the 2020 US Open when he bowed out to eventual champion Dominic Thiem while the previous year, he had taken a set off Roger Federer in the opening round in New York. 

However, a string of injuries derailed his last few years and he had to grind his way back to the ranking of world No. 122 after spending considerable time outside of the top 500. He won two titles in four Challenger finals in 2023 – a form which he seemed to have carried forward in Melbourne. The followers of Indian tennis will be hoping that Sumit’s run continues for one more day.   

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