Sumit Nagal Steals Limelight at Australian Open!
Nagal was essentially a qualifier as per the current tournament standings
It is not easy to dwarf a 6-foot-5-inch player from Kazakhstan, particularly one as expressive and volatile as Alexander “Sascha” Bublik. But India’s seemingly reticent Sumit Nagal did just that.
Nagal showed -class, composure and calibre much higher than the ranking accorded to him. He let his tennis do the talking in a historic first round match for an Indian men’s singles player at the Australian Open.
It is for the first time since Ramesh Krishnan in 1989, that an Indian men’s singles player beat a seeded player at the Australian Open. At that time, it was Mats Wilander who was at the receiving end of the ignominy as India created history. It was no small feat given that Wilander was world No.1 and a seven time champion and this was a second round match for the Indian which is historic by any standards. The unseeded Indian beat Wilander by a margin of 6-3, 6-2, 7-6, creating the historic fact of an Indian player beating a world No.1 at a grand slam.
This time the affable but mercurial world No. 31 was forced to eat humble pie on court 6, as the 139 ranked Nagal came through looking far sharper, composed and technically clinical in what seems like home territory for him.
The last time an Indian men’s singles player made the main draw of the Australian Open was in 2021, and that record too belongs to the Haryana-based 26-year-old. Denied a wildcard nomination, the injury afflicted and financially crippled Nagal was forced to go through to the rigours of the Australian Open qualifiers to earn himself a place in the first round. And he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
There were moments in the match when Bublik showed why he is highly rated as a talented player. But that the likeable player off the court possesses a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, at one point, laughing when he realised Nagal was just too good on the day.
A mysterious enigma, it would not have been easy to plan for a player like Bublik, given that Bublik has the uncanny ability to bring out underserves, to pull the rabbit out of the hat, to go into five set matches at Grand Slam events even if he fails to get past which means stretching his opponents.
What could have been a funnier statistic which needs to be of concern to Bublik and his team is that while Bublik seems to pull off some top class wins over the top 10 players, he has had a hard time to getting past when his opponents haven’t been anywhere near his range, ranking wise. Was facing very low ranking players not motivation enough at this level? Or had he, as it seems to be the case here, taken it too easy against Nagal, knowing Nagal was not even a wild card entry but essentially a qualifier as per the current tournament standings?
There have been others who have been forced to stare into the kaleidoscope of the future too. That has not even spared Novak Djokovic who was stretched in his first round encounter against a player half his age, Prizmic, and the world no.1 and the holder of the most Grand Slam titles for singles men with 24 was forced to acknowledge how close he was to be on the other side of the net at the end of the match.
The men were more fortunate than the women in this very stage to have survived some tenuous matches as Andrey Rublev and Stephanos Tsitsipas will testify.
Sumit Nagal, who trained at the Mahesh Bhupathi academy and moved abroad to improve his tennis prospects, made the news last year over an interview he gave revealing the financial hardships that he has had to deal with en route with keeping his tennis dreams alive. Not mentioned were his health concerns including a hip surgery that saw him work his way back from virtual rock bottom.
Nagal, although only a qualifier at this tournament, has had a crack at the cherry once before, having beaten Bradley Klahn at the US Open 2020 in the first round of the main draw. He will now have a chance to do better, having beaten a high ranked player and now facing opponents that will give him a boost.
It was considered that Nagal might have only benefited from it given time under the unforgiving Australian summer at the moment and more importantly, time on court, and also, the fact that Nagal had some confidence under his belt going into the match, having beaten Alex Molcan in his last qualifier match.
Beating Bublik by a margin of 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 is not a feat for the ordinary. That said, Bublik seemed at his mercurial worst, complaining constantly about the wind and his struggle to maintain a decent first serve, at one point, even smashing his racquet to the floor and talking incessantly to his coaching box even between first and second serves, which is something tennis might need to address while encouraging coaching on the sidelines.
Fortunately for Nagal, it did not distract him from keeping his focus steady on the task at hand. The fact that for the first two sets, Bublik started out unable to retain his own service game is credit as much to Nagal’s clinical precision in his return of serve as much as it was Bublik coming into the match plausibly complacent and clearly underestimating the calibre of his opponent on the other side of the net, which is surprising given that both these players have played together in the junior circuit.
The only time Bublik seemed determined to bring himself back into the picture was after losing the first two sets and when he retained three service games in a row in the third set. Bublik even managed to stretch out the third set, although unable to deny the inevitable, and denied Nagal an easier win in the end.
Serving at 5-4 in the third set, Nagal found an obstacle in Bublik who seemed to have a spring in his step as he forced a tie breaker. It was perhaps the only real moment of worry for Indian fans when Nagal lost the opportunity to close out the match on his own serve and Bublik seemed to have woken up to the challenge.
However, Nagal was back in the game in the tie breaker, at one point, leading 4-1, handed a gift when Bublik made a double fault on his own serve to create three match points. Those came in handy because it was the third match point that Nagal converted, to give India a historic win.
Given that the next two potential round opponents, it might even be expected that Nagal will have more than the favourable odds of winning the match. Consistency is the name of the game and if Nagal can keep his head about him as he did around a top ranked player who threw everything but the kitchen sink in terms of having a meltdown on court, India can continue to keep those hopes floating longer for a change in the singles side of the draw.