Funny. That is how Sumit Nagal describes his 2021 season. It started with a spring in his step, a wild card to the Australian Open main draw coming weeks after he had won his maiden Grand Slam match at the US Open. It ended with his lying on the hospital bed for hip surgery.
It’s been a couple of months since the procedure and Nagal is taking baby steps at rehabilitation in Bengaluru with physio Yash Pandey—getting on his feet using crutches, walking without support and doing light exercises. His last competitive tennis match was in early October and it will be at least another three months before he can hope to play the next one. Nagal wants to take it slow but hopes to return to his training base in Germany in the next 3-4 weeks and get back on court.
“It’s got boring,” Nagal, 24, said from Bengaluru. “It’s been a while since I stepped on the court. I can’t wait to hit a tennis ball again.”
It was a whirlwind ride last year. The Australian Open wild card added to the buzz. He was getting closer to breaking into the top-100 in the rankings and had become the first Indian singles player to win a Grand Slam match in seven years. Nagal lost in the first round in Melbourne but made a quarter-final run at the Buenos Aires ATP 250 tournament in March, in the process beating a top-25 player for the first time. He couldn’t build on it with a consistent run of results—
Nagal had 10 opening-round exits through the rest of the season.
“It was a funny year—good matches, bad matches,” he said. Nagal’s on-court battles were accompanied by different levels of pain. An MRI scan in Australia revealed a tear in his hip. He consulted doctors and tried various forms of rehab as he continued to play.
“Nothing worked, the pain wasn’t going. There was a moment when I just had enough of playing with pain.” Nagal said the injury was at its worst mid-season. There were matches where he couldn’t move to his forehand side, or even serve without his hip protesting. There were “really bad days” there, a period which saw him lose more than win, even on his preferred clay surface. It included losing to a lower-ranked player in the French Open qualifiers.
“Oh man, it wasn’t easy,” Nagal said. “I had a lot of bad days mentally, where I was not happy on the court, was just saying, “why me?” trying to find reasons to get out of it. It needed a lot of sessions with my mental trainer, plenty of chat sessions with my team—them trying to make me understand that “it is okay, you can get out of this, you can still achieve things”.”
Nagal’s last-minute entry at the Tokyo Olympics after many withdrawals, and a win before losing to Daniil Medvedev in the second round was a rare shot of positivity. “Waking up to that email (on the Tokyo spot), I’ll never forget,” he said.
Once he lost to a player ranked almost 100 spots below him in the first round of the US Open qualifiers, he shifted to competing on the softer clay surfaces. His hip simply wasn’t allowing him to play on hard courts. He withdrew from the Davis Cup tie against Finland in September, which was scheduled on indoor hard courts. Nagal playing on the Challenger tour while staying away from Davis Cup didn’t please many in the Indian tennis system. Nagal chose to ignore them.
“People are always going to say things, they don’t know what is happening. It is always easy to point fingers from outside the tennis court. Only me, my team and my family knew what I was dealing with. I know what is happening, I see it. But I’m at a stage where it (such criticism) doesn’t affect me. I was already dealing with things that I needed to find answers to,” Nagal said.
After experimenting with different things to improve his hip condition on the run, Nagal finally decided to have surgery. After a Challenger in Sibiu, Romania, where incidentally he had the year’s best result, a semi-final, Nagal called a premature end to the season. With the surgery scheduled in Germany, he couldn’t return home right away. He decided to relax by biking through Paltinis, a mountainous region near Sibiu, etc.
“I was in a different mental zone,” Nagal said. “I had been home just once in 19 months. I had missed my family and friends for too long. So, I stayed a few extra days in Romania with my one of my best friends and we did some stuff together—bike rides, little walks. Nice change.”
He targets a return to the Tour in April, and wants to be in top shape for the Asian Games. India’s top singles player at 137 at the start of last year to 222 currently, Nagal’s ranking has dipped. But using his protected ranking on return, Nagal is confident of an upswing again.
“I just want to come back to a tennis court and play some matches again. I know if I am healthy, I can play at a very high level as I have proved a few times. I believe that once I am back, I can climb even higher.
“Hopefully after I return, I am pain free. It’s been too long since I played a match without any pain.”