In a Google video of most-asked questions, Sumit Nagal ranks winning an under-16 national title as a 13 year-old as the proudest moment of his career. Taking a set off Roger Federer at the US Open two years ago comes a distant third. His maiden Australian Open main draw appearance on Tuesday might not come close to cracking that list.
In a largely one-sided first round encounter against world number 73 Ricardas Berankis, the 23 year-old Indian wild card entrant went down 6-2, 7-5, 6-3, bringing the country's singles campaign at the year's first Grand Slam to a close.. This is Nagal's second consecutive loss to the Lithuanian in Melbourne in as many weeks. The earlier one came at the Murray River Open warm-up event, where he managed to win just four games.
Berankis, whose ATP bio lists 'spearfishing in the lakes of Lithuania' as a hobby, is more solid than spectacular, and thrives on hard courts. Camped on top of the baseline, a clean hitter of the ball with pounding ground strokes, he left Nagal little room to unleash his biggest weapon - the forehand, for the greater part of the match. The Indian was profligate early in the first set, squandering four break points in the third game. The minor setback chipped away at his mind, morphed into a full-blown crisis and he lost the first set in under half an hour. "After that it became really tough for me," says Nagal. "I started missing a lot of balls. I did definitely struggle a bit. I think I was just a little more nervous. I panicked and was thinking to myself 'why didn't I convert the breakpoints'? After that I was always chasing and was too far behind. I was trying to change things, trying to win games and slowly started feeling better the more time I spent on the court. But definitely, I should not have lost eight games in a row."
In his two previous Grand Slam appearances, Nagal had run into the big boys early - Federer in the first round of the 2019 US Open and Dominic Thiem in the second round in last year's edition. It's perhaps what led his gut feeling to prophesize an encounter with a top-10 player in the first round this time as well.
Berankis may not have exactly fit that bill, but he still came into the match as the stronger player, with more warm-up matches and greater odds on paper. The Indian was laid low by a sore right shoulder since October last year and only managed to play one competitive match - against Berankis last week - ahead of his Australian Open debut.
Berankis dictated the rallies, his backhands finding the corners beautifully, though his over-cooked returns missed the line on more than a couple of occasions. Trailing 0-4 in the second, for a while it seemed Nagal ran the risk of being bageled and desperately needed to find his inner mongrel to keep the set alive. The Indian began by attacking Berankis' forehand and dispatching body serves. It worked well enough to restore a 4-4 respectability of score-line but the plan didn't have the legs for a longer run. "He's (Berankis) is a very good returner and he was figuring out that I'm going a lot on his body and started defending. I just took a step back from the baseline, and I made him go for winners. As for me, I should have won more close games. I was very unlucky to lose the game to trail 5-6. He managed to get three lines out of nowhere. Such things can happen anytime but chose to happen today. This is a learning experience and I've written down few things that I'll be working on."
The 144-ranked Indian made inroads into the Lithuanian's serve - playing his forehand with greater authority, returning deep, drawing errors and breaking him twice to sporadically delight Indian fans. Berankis held serve with a backhand winner in the ninth game to go up 5-4, and took the set 7-5, leaving Nagal smacking his chair in disgust.
The Indian showed moments of promise in the third - like when he chased a Berankis dropshot to set up a cheeky passing shot in the fifth game. But he didn't have these moments often enough to make a dent. Nagal managed to convert only two of the 11 breakpoints (18 per cent) that came his way in the match, as opposed to the 30 year-old Lithuanian's 43 percent conversion (6/14). Nagal is headed for a South American expedition on clay next and has ATP 250 events in Cordoba, Rio de Janeiro and Santiago (where he also plans to play a challenger) lined up later this month.
Son of a taxi driver, Berankis will continue his journey in Melbourne and take on the Russian Karen Khachanov next. Berankis is the only man from his country to break into the ATP top 50 (in May 2016). He belongs to the town of Vilnius, Lithuania's capital city and his gritty stay inside the top 100, 14 years after he turned pro, is a lot like his country's resilience in the face of endless pillages before it became the first Soviet republic to declare independence in 1990.
Nagal too is chasing a slice of history. He has a neckpiece inscribed 'Project 61' to keep him focused on his goal- to become India's highest-ranked men's singles player in over two decades. It's a brainchild of Somdev Devvarman, also Nagal's mentor, who was the last Indian player to be ranked as high as No. 62 in the ATP singles rankings. It's only his third Grand Slam appearance and Nagal has a path to find and lessons to take. He's writing them down.