Challenger #NextGenATP First-Time Winner: Sumit Nagal
It was well worth the wait. As the book began to close on the ATP Challenger Tour season, Sumit Nagal had one final chapter to write.
The 20-year-old Indian captured his maiden Challenger crown on Saturday, prevailing in front of a raucous home crowd in Bengaluru. Nagal, the youngest player from his country in the Top 500 of the Emirates ATP Rankings, defeated fellow budding #NextGenATP Jay Clarke of Great Britain 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 in the final.
With one day remaining in the 2017 Challenger season, Nagal claimed his moment of glory. Hailing from a nation of 1.3 billion people, pressure is an unavoidable part of life in the sporting-rich culture of India. But for Nagal, it was nonexistent as he marched to the title behind signature wins over top seed Blaz Kavcic and countryman Yuki Bhambri. The victory marks consecutive weeks with Indian titlists on the ATP Challenger Tour, following Bhambri's crown in Pune.
For Nagal, the win has added significance, not only as he hopes to inspire the next generation of players from his country, but in his own comeback from a torn labrum in his shoulder. Having been sidelined until May for a period of rest and rehabilitation, Nagal steadily mounted his climb up the Emirates ATP Rankings upon return and is now up to a career-high No. 235 at season's end. With no points to defend for the first four months of 2018, the sky is the limit for the aspiring #NextGenATP.
Nagal spoke to ATPWorldTour.com following his victory in Bengaluru...
Congratulations Sumit on winning your first Challenger title. How did it feel to be standing with the trophy?
It's a great feeling, especially winning in your country. It's the first time I beat players around the Top 100. Kavcic was 102 and Bhambri was 118. Finally I got the W.
It was a long season. To have this success in the final week, talk about your emotions.
You see, it was a long season but mentally more than physically. I had the shoulder injury and didn't touch a racquet from November to February. I was very close to getting surgery done. My team told me to first do a rehab for a few months and then we'll think about surgery. In March I started playing again and I lost four first rounds in a row in Futures.
It was hard. I hadn't played much and things were going in my head. It was more mentally tough than it was a physical thing. Somehow I managed and I won four out of five Futures in a row. That's when I started playing better and better. I made five finals in seven tournaments.
Did you always believe you could play at this level?
Yes, absolutely. Even last year I played some Challengers in Germany and Italy and I lost to Filip Krajinovic from a set and a break up in Rome and the same thing against Daniel Brands, when I lost 7-5 in the third. I beat Laslo Djere in qualifying and Oscar Otte and Maximilian Marterer. They had great seasons. They were good wins. I also had three match points against Adrian Menendez-Maceiras and couldn't close it out.
Then physically, I couldn't go out on the court and know that my shoulder wasn't going to hurt. I talked with my manager, Mahesh Bhupathi, and decided that we wanted to fix it first and then I'd play. My shoulder was giving me so many problems. It was a labrum tear. And it took me time to start winning those matches that I was losing last year.
You don't have many opportunities to play in front of the home fans in India at this level. In fact, these two weeks in Pune and Bengaluru are the only Challengers. How special is that for you?
It was really nice, especially in the final. There were more than 2,000 people. I think it's the biggest crowd I've ever played in front of in India. It was really good. This crowd played a big role in the final, because they carried me and gave me extra energy when I needed it. They boosted me when I was nervous at the end.
Sumit, what went right for you this week? What part of your game was clicking?
In the first round, I played another Indian guy and won easily. In the second round, I got through but it was a tough one against Brydan Klein. I was cramping in the third set and was actually a match point down. I was 4-5 30/40 down and somehow I saved that point and played big from there. After that day, I was thinking how I was going to compete tomorrow. I knew I didn't have much left in my body.
So I decided to just play very aggressive tennis, because I knew I couldn't rally for long against Kavcic in the quarters. He's a great player. It worked really well. And then against Bhambri in the semis, he's really good when you play defensive and give him angles, so I kept the same strategy. What went well was me being aggressive and coming to the net. Even if I lose some points, it doesn't matter because of the pressure I'm putting on the other guy. I used my forehand a lot and I was going big with it.
In the final, I broke Clarke late in the first set but in the second he got me good. He made me think too much before I hit. I fell for his strategy. When he broke me, he got two net cords too and that was frustrating. In the third set, I knew that he had much more control in his hands, so the only chance I had was to go for my shots. When I had a break point in the third, I just ripped it and had a clean winner on his serve. That's when everything changed.
You are the youngest player from India in the Top 500. Do you feel any pressure? And how do you hope this win will help grow the game there?
No, not at all. I actually don't. I just want to do something for my country. Me winning a Challenger shows that they can do it too. It doesn't matter how your junior tournaments went. But if you keep doing the right thing, it can change so fast. You don't have to hit amazing forehands and backhands. All you have to do is fight for every point and wake up every day and say that I'm going to get one per cent better. Today I'm going to get 0.5 per cent better. It's just about having the right motivation and right determination to work hard, but in a smart way.
Who gave you that inspiration when you were growing up? Who did you look up to?
I didn't have one favourite. I picked things from everyone. When I watched Nadal, for example, the guy has won so many Grand Slams, but every match he plays he doesn't want to lose a point. He doesn't want to give a game. Whether you're Top 10 or No. 140 in the world, he has the same attitude. That's very tough to do. He knows that even if he's playing at 80 per cent he can win matches. But he never does that. That's what I love and what I've learned from him.
Same thing for David Ferrer and his work ethic. You can see it from his eyes and from his face. And for Andy Murray, I love his defence and how to play in certain situations. He plays the best defence in my opinion.
With Mahesh Bhupathi as your manager, what's the biggest lesson you've taken from him?
I can't say there's one lesson. He's always guided me and he's always been there. From how and where to play and what I'm feeling. He might tell me to take a week off here and there or to keep playing that I'll get through it. It's stuff like that. And sometimes he'll give me tips on how to play certain players. I've gotten other offers in the past, but it's so nice to have him.
How does a win like this change your goals for next year? You're very close to the Top 200 now.
It's really good, because I was defending a lot of points at the end of the season. And the last three months I failed to do it and I went from 260 to 330 in the [Emirates ATP Rankings]. Now, after winning the Challenger, I'm already up to No. 225. The good thing is, I'm not defending anything for the next five or six months. I only started playing in May, because I was hurt. So it was a big win for the opportunities it will give me to participate in tournaments next year. I'm also set for Australian Open qualies as well.