The 22 year old Sumit Nagal is having a dream run lately, the Jhajjar boy has been serving all the right volleys in recent times. Nagal, on Sunday clinched the ATP Challenger Tournament in Buenos Aires after beating Facundo Bognis in the men’s singles final. Seventh-seeded Nagal cruised to a comfortable 6-4, 6-2 straight-sets win over the Argentine 8th seed to win the $54,160 ATP Challenger tournament where he put on a show with his booming serves. He became the first Indian to win on South American clay. As a result of this win, Sumit entered the top 135 of ATP rankings. It is the second Challenger title in Nagal’s career after his triumph in the Bengaluru Challenger event in 2017.
After being out of reckoning in qualification of the US open, Sumit Nagal not only miraculously qualified for the last grand slam of the year and his debut grand slam in the Big Apple, he went on to win the first set against the Swiss-maestro and one of the all time great Roger Federer. Although Nagal went down fighting in the last two sets, he had set ablaze the social media with his spirited and compact play. Winning a set against the 20 time grand slam champion was an achievement in itself and it surely brought him a lot of attention, but Nagal has not rested on his laurels and followed it up with a comprehensive win in a challenger trophy. The 22-year-old Indian had become only the fifth Indian player to feature in a Grand Slam singles main draw in this decade. Somdev Devvarman, Yuki Bhambri, Saketh Myneni and Prajnesh Gunneswaran are the only ones who have played at Tennis Majors. He started the year outside the 350 bracket and had to endure a difficult period marred by injuries. Sumit Nagal has been a young prodigy as he won the 2015 Wimbledon boys’ doubles title and became the sixth Indian player to win a junior Grand Slam title. The Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports, Kiren Rijiju took to Twitter to congratulate the gutsy youngster for his Challenger tournament victory.
— Kiren Rijiju (@KirenRijiju) September 30, 2019
Nagal is one of the rising superstars of the game and it is time that All Indian Tennis Association (AITA) keeps this prospect protected, at all costs. Surely Nagal has the talent and game to reach new heights but it takes more than talent to breach into top-100 ATP rankings and maintain it for a long time. The rise of Nagal has been meteoric but it does not hide the fallacies prevailing in the Indian tennis setup where players like Nagal have routinely risen through the ranks but at last returned to shambles. Somdev Devvarman, one of the brightest prospects of Indian tennis once, had to retire at the age of 31 when he was marred by injuries and lack of exposure in the Indian tennis setup. It would not be a hyperbole to say he was seemingly undone by the system too. Somdev was runner-up in two ATP World Tour events, the 2009 Chennai Open where he lost to former US Open champion Marin Čilić after turning pro the previous year only and the 2011 South African Open where he lost to former world number 10 Kevin Anderson.
Yuki Bhambri was another huge opportunity wasted. He was the World no. 1 junior and junior Australian Open champion. Any country with half a tennis federation would have called him and said “hire whichever coach you want and we will pay for him.” but what did the AITA do? Nothing. It does not have any programme to nurture talent.
The funding and the functioning of the Centre of Excellence (COE) which was conceived with a goal to train 300 budding players at an annual budget of Rs 20 crores has also been under scepticism as the AITA apparently slashed the budget by half which had riled up Somdev, who was spearheading the project after initiating it. The COE is being developed on the model of Gopichand academy in Hyderabad.
Another reason is the lack of Challenger tournaments in India, under the new ATP ranking system only challengers count for your ranking. And since the beginning of 2019 season, only one Challenger tournament has been hosted by India. Sadly, only one other will be hosted in Pune since the Bengaluru Open will not feature this year. This is one of the major reasons why Indian players struggle to move up the ranking ladder. There are not enough opportunities to collect points. They have to travel abroad which means burning a big hole in the pocket and not all have such big pockets.
A player who is within the Top 50 in the global rankings has an annual expense of $2,00,000-$5,00,000 and one of the major reasons why India has failed to produce a noteworthy singles tennis player in long time is the way in which a Top 50 player has his expenses distributed. Of the $2 million, an average Top 50 player would spend $0.75 to $1.5 million on a coach. The rest of the money is spent on physios, travel, food and equipment. For an Indian player to be able to stand tall with these expenses, he/she would need the required financial backing, which unfortunately the national body does not provide.
Also the larger questions,
Do the administration know what it takes?
Do they really care about the players?
My feeling is they don't.
Hence the uphill battle continues.
But we gotta keep fighting the good fight.
— Somdev Devvarman (@SomdevD) August 27, 2019
The reason why Nagal has stood out from his fellow compatriots is because from April to June, he played eight tournaments on Challenger Circuit and made five semi-finals and a quarterfinal. He has played Challenger level tournaments consistently in and around, albeit outside India. If India aspires to be known as a tennis nation and wants to see more players competing at Grand Slams, it needs to back its players otherwise the administrative apathy will not allow the system to produce champions. Funds and infrastructure to host tournaments needs to be in place. It is an uphill task for sure, but for the moment, we have a shining star in Nagal and we sincerely hope, he stands the test of the gruelling sport of tennis in coming days and brings further glory to the tricolour. Sumit Nagal needs to be smart in picking and choosing his tournaments and train accordingly.