Two days before the start of the $100,000 Bengaluru Open Challenger last Monday, 20-year-old Sumit Nagal arrived in the city, having received a last-minute wild card into the tournament's main draw. Coming into the event, a pre-quarterfinal finish had been Nagal's best result at Challenger level, the second tier of the senior men's tour.
On Saturday, though, Nagal won his fifth consecutive match, defeating Great Britain's Jay Clarke 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 in one hour, 56 minutes to win his first Challenger tournament, the biggest title of his career so far.
Nagal, the 2015 Wimbledon junior doubles champion, has had a breakthrough week, a perfect five days of tennis marked by multiple giant-killing wins and calm, yet aggressive tennis that appeared to be driven by clarity of thought.
That composure, which might seem somewhat uncommon for a 20-year-old, is what has stood out most about Nagal through this week. After a straightforward 6-2, 6-0 first-round win, Nagal, ranked 321, won a tight match 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 to enter the quarterfinals, where his first big test awaited - he was to face top seed Blaz Kavcic of Slovenia, ranked 102. Although Kavcic, 30, hadn't played much this year, he'd been as far as the third round of a Grand Slam and has a career-high ranking of 68.
It was Nagal who made the better start, returning with interest every shot that Kavcic threw at him to go up 5-2 in the first set. Serving for the set, Nagal saved two break points by coming to the net, before he held to take the set. In the second set, not only did Nagal break again for a 3-1 lead, he also didn't let himself get distracted by an increasingly-irate Kavcic, who let a few close calls get to him and began remonstrating with the umpire and muttering to himself, and went on to win 6-3, 6-4.
In the semifinal, playing for the first time against the more experienced and accomplished Yuki Bhambri, who was coming off a Challenger title in Pune last week, Nagal had all the answers and sealed his domination with a second-set bagel, winning 6-4, 6-0. In the final, Nagal recovered from going down an early service break to win the first set. After losing the second set, he went down a break early in the third before once again fighting back to win.
In each of these matches, Nagal did not appear to get flustered or deviate from his original game plan when things weren't going his way. When asked what was going through his mind facing these opponents, Nagal repeatedly emphasised on a "point-by-point" approach, on focusing on the "process, not the outcome," and on "playing my best and trying to enjoy myself." Cliched as it may sound, it seems to have worked.
Nagal has had his share of injury troubles, having missed about five months at the start of 2017 due to shoulder issues. Due to his drop in the rankings during his injury layoff, Nagal was forced to have to qualify for several Challengers. At the same time, he also took part in the Futures Tour, a rung down from Challengers, playing as many as 14 Futures tournaments this year, making five finals and winning four of them. "When you get injured, coming back is about winning matches, so that's why I went to the Futures tour. I played several, got my points back and then I could play the main draw in Challengers," Nagal said.
Nagal also said his time injured was spent mostly on improving his fitness, which also led to advances in his game. When asked what aspects of his game he thought had improved, he said, "Firstly, my serve has improved because I can serve now pain-free. Secondly, my backhand side has gotten much better and now I'm focusing on my net game."
All of those improvements were evident this week. Nagal's serve was consistent and he came to the net increasingly often in matches, not just to get out of sticky situations by earning relatively easy points, but also to apply pressure on his opponents' serves. He used his backhand slice to unsettle Kavcic, and against Bhambri and Clarke, he employed a low, crosscourt slice that, more often than not, led to netted volleys.
But the star of Nagal's shotmaking repertoire was perhaps the inside-out forehand, which he employed to devastating effect in the final, especially on second serves. When asked what he thought was the turning point of the final, he said, "I think it's the inside-out forehand I hit in the third set when I was 1-0 down and had a point to break back. After I won that, I thought I played more aggressive the rest of the set."
As confident as he's appeared, Nagal hasn't been immune to nerves either. He confessed to feeling the jitters when he realised he might make his first ever quarterfinal and to "sweaty hands and feet" ahead of the final. When asked how he managed to remain confident despite the nerves and the pressure, he said, "The confidence comes from yourself, some from your team and some from the crowd. I dealt with the pressure very well because of the crowd."
Nagal won't have much time to celebrate his title win, though. This coming week, he will participate in the Australian Open 2018 Asia-Pacific Wildcard Playoff in Zhuhai, China, where 16 players will compete for a wildcard into the main draw in Melbourne. Even if he doesn't win that wildcard, he will try again at the qualifying tournament in Melbourne, after likely beginning 2018 at the Maharashtra Open in Pune.
Nagal's shortest answer of his post-final press conference came when he was asked what he would work on during the off season and what he thought he could improve.