Sumit Nagal was checking on the main draw of the 2019 US Open when he saw that Roger Federer would be playing someone from the qualifiers in the first round. The Indian tennis player had just finished his match against Brazil’s Joao Menezes, who he had defeated in the third qualifying round to make it to his first ever Grand Slam.
“It would be really nice to play Roger. Just imagine how great it would be to play one of the greatest,” he said to his coach.
Later that day, Nagal was getting a massage when his phone buzzed with a message from his coach. It just said ‘Roger’. Nagal couldn’t stop smiling. The then 22 year-old’s fledgling tennis journey was about to take flight. Of course in many ways, the match against Federer felt like the culmination of a journey he had set out on when he was just seven.
While Nagal spent most of his early childhood playing cricket, as most Indian kids do, his father wanted him to play an individual sport. The bat was replaced by a racket, and after a couple of months playing at a local court near his house, he enrolled at a nearby academy in North-West Delhi. The inflection point of Nagal’s career came in 2007, when he willed 12-time Grand Slam Doubles winner Mahesh Bhupathi into selecting him for his academy. A few thousand had turned up for the trial and Nagal was just one of the three selected. Bhupathi created opportunities for Nagal to play in Europe and also supported him financially. In 2015, he won the Wimbledon Boys’ Doubles title and in 2017 won the ATP Challenger Trophy in Bangalore. All those years of that sweat, sacrifice and long periods spent away from family had led to this – Monday night at Flushing Meadows against Roger Federer.
“You cannot ask for a better opening match,” Nagal said, looking back on that moment three years on.
But, this wasn’t a case of an idol becoming a rival. Nagal held Federer in such regard that he never even attempted to replicate his game.
“Who doesn’t like Federer? But the more I watched, the more I was like ‘man, can I even do this?’. You’d rather watch someone else who you can copy. I don’t think you can copy Roger Federer. Ever,” he said.
A couple of hours before the floodlights at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, Nagal was getting his toes taped when he was approached by the man he definitely does not idolise. ‘Hey I’m Roger,’ he said, as a way of introduction and asked how he was doing. Nagal was floored. He mumbled out a ‘hey I’m good and did what, given the situation, seemed like the most sensible thing – he burst out laughing. The physio working on his blisters joined in too.
“The aura he brings is crazy, man. You get goosebumps when he walks around. His aura is so strong, you feel it. When Roger is in a room, you feel Roger is in the room. Without even seeing it, you can feel it. It’s just classiness, being him[self]. Federer,” Nagal said.
Naturally, the Swiss’ warmth didn’t extend onto the court; he broke Nagal in his opening service and raced to a 2-0 lead in the first set. But, the tyro didn’t wilt under pressure and clawed his way back to make it 4-4. The crowd’s reactions were a good measure of Nagal’s performance; his early points were met with polite applause that bordered on patronising. But as the set progressed and the Indian stood his ground against Federer’s fire, the noise in the stadium rose. The gasps of awe after Nagal’s winners became increasingly audible. All hopes of Federer finding a foothold in the set evaporated when he was broken by Nagal in the fifth game. The Indian, who had stoically gone about things until then, expressed his emotion for the first time in the match. By the time the spectators realised what was happening, Nagal had already won the set. Disbelief rang around the arena.
Now, it should be pointed out that Federer made 16 unforced errors in the set but Nagal did well to capitalise on them. He was solid without being spectacular. Federer went on to win the game in four sets but for Indian tennis fans, the result was irrelevant. One of their countrymen, who at the time was ranked 190th in the world and playing in his first five setter, had taken a set off the GOAT
Nagal was bombarded with attention and wisely decided to stay off social media in the days following the match. One of the reasons for the furore around this feat was the fact that it came at one of the lowest ebbs in Indian tennis. While the country has always been a force in Doubles, India’s performances in singles has been nothing to write home about. In qualifying for the 2019 US Open, Nagal became only the fifth male player in six years to qualify for a Grand Slam and his win in the first round of the Australian Open in 2021 was the first for an Indian in eight years. Currently, there are no Indian players in the top 150 of the ATP ranking. No singles player from the country has bettered Sania Mirza’s ranking of world no.27. Against this backdrop, Nagal’s set was a rare moment of joy to come out of Indian tennis.
While the nation was focused on the first set of the game, it was the last game of the fourth set that occupied Nagal’s thoughts.
“It was 0-40 and I’ve thought about this game a lot, man, a lot. He hit three out of four lines that game and that is a line – you miss it by an inch, it’s 5-5. It’s a different story. That’s the only thing I feel sad about – the last game. I wish I had broken him there.Then, you’re back in the set and anything can happen,” he said.
What struck Nagal most about Federer was the way in which he changed style and strategy.
“This guy can play four different points in a game where you have no idea what is going on. That’s why I think Roger was very tough to play against because you literally don’t know what’s coming. One ball he takes early. Second serve he comes to the net. Third point he can give you a backhand drop-shot where he brings you to the net. Other one he rips it. That was the toughest part of me. I felt like I didn’t know what was happening,” he said.
The tryst with Federer furthered Nagal’s confidence and raised his motivation levels. He spoke of being at his “best” after that match. He won the Buenos Aires ATP Challenger title the following month, regularly began making it to semi-finals of tournaments and hit a career best rank of 122 in August 2020. At the Tokyo Olympics, he became only the third Indian and the first in 25 years to win a singles game. A hip surgery in November last year kept him out of action for six months and he is currently working towards finding his groove again. His immediate aim is to make it to the Australian Open qualifiers in January next year.
Like millions across the world, Nagal too was emotional during Federer’s retirement and admits to shedding a few tears.
“I know everyone knows that one day you retire but I don’t think anyone was ready to accept, ready to see..I wasn’t. I wanted to see him play more. I wanted to play him one more time,” he said.
The match against Sumit Nagal is but a footnote in Federer’s odyssey. But for Indian tennis, it was a giant step forward.