Till then, Sumit Nagal had only resorted to the few words he’d grumble towards his box. But when the score read 4-0 in favour of his opponent Ricardas Berankis, after losing the first set, the 23-year-old yelled in anguish. It would seem that the frustration of being pushed from one side of the court to the other with no reward was getting the better of him. But the scream was actually a war cry. Mentally, he figured out what he needed to do to stay in this first round Australian Open tie.
“I just took a step back from the baseline (during rallies) and I started to make more balls in, made him play more, made him go for more winners,” he says.
Just as quickly as he went down 4-0, he recovered to make it 4-4. Nagal’s big forehand had started to kick in, his tireless legs started to pump in more effort to chase down shots, and his body serves at Berankis started to pay dividends. Nagal was ready for another slugfest.
It was all evenly balanced by the time he was serving at 5-6 in the second, looking to take the set into the tiebreaker. That’s when Berankis, the World No 73 with more experience in tough-match situations, played a series of unreturnable passing shots.
A backhand down-the-line winner took the score to 15-40. And on his first set point chance, though Nagal had been in command of the rally and pushed the Lithuanian deep on the left, Berankis let-fly another two-hander passing winner to seal the set.
“I don’t know if it was unlucky for me or lucky for him because he hit those shots on the line,” Nagal says. “It could have happened at any time, but it just happened at that moment.”
Down by two sets, and with Berankis starting to build momentum, Nagal would eventually bow out 6-2, 7-5, 6-3, in a match that lasted two hours and 10 minutes.
It was the first time Nagal was playing in the main draw of the Australian Open, courtesy of a wild card. Naturally, the nerves were expected from the World No 144 from Jhajjar. So was the eye for a fight and the big forehand that had impressed even Roger Federer when the pair competed at the US Open in 2019.
Unfortunately, the only Indian singles player at the Major took quite a while to get into some rhythm.
“You can’t show up at a Grand Slam match and be somewhere else for the first 45 minutes,” Somdev Devvarman, who was commentating, said in a post-match analysis show. “It’s not just about the opportunities that were missed, but the fashion in which he missed it. He was nervous, and that is understandable. But Berankis showed up and Sumit was only there in patches.”
The favoured forehand shot wasn’t as penetrative as it’s known to be in the past. But he did provide a few elegant flashes of it. The most delightful was when Nagal sprinted diagonally from the left corner of the baseline to reach a drop-shot, and then played a curving forehand winner.
But he soon ran out of things to throw at the Lithuanian.
“Serving a high percentage on his body was a good option, but he’s a good returner. He figured out that I was going for his body and adjusted to it,” Nagal adds. “I should have won more of the close games, but then again I haven’t played much for a while.”
Nagal did not travel with much match practice when he came to Australia. A shoulder injury in October meant he had to spend most of his time pre-season recovering from it. He had to rely on the five-hour training exemption players got during the quarantine spell when they first arrived in Melbourne.
But against a top 100 player, it wasn’t enough. Nagal asserts he’s taken a few notes in his diary about things he needs to work on. He’s ticked ‘Australian Open appearance’ off his bucket list, but making an impact at Melbourne Park will be high on the agenda next year.