Green clay isn’t the most common surface on the men’s professional tour. Yet it’s where Sumit Nagal chose to mark his return to competitive tennis after six months. He has good reason for it though.
“It’s where I began winning a lot of matches in 2019 and my career really started,” Nagal said. In the back-to-back US green clay-court Challenger events in Sarasota, Tallahassee and Savannah, Nagal made the Round of 32, quarter-finals and semi-finals (his first in a Challenger event outside India) respectively that season. A few months later, he played Roger Federer at the US Open and went on to capture the Buenos Aires Challenger.
It’s these little things that assume greater significance for athletes returning from lengthy injury layoffs. As Nagal put it, “When you get a surgery and come back, it’s a different story.”
It’s reflecting in his comeback after a hip surgery last November. Nagal, ranked world No 280 now, lost to Australian Jason Kubler 6-4, 2-6, 3-6 in his first match back earlier in April at Sarasota, and then in straight sets to USA’s Michael Mmoh in his opening round in Tallahassee last week. He’s competing in the Savannah Challenger this week, vying to tune up the disrupted rhythm and court movement without getting fussed about results.
“The tennis is there. I feel like stroke wise – in terms of my forehand and backhand – I’m playing better now than probably before. But I’m not very sharp on the court just as yet,” said Nagal, 24. “That will only come by playing matches. There’s no other way than playing a lot of practice sets, a lot of points, a lot of matches.”
Nagal began his 2021 season as India’s highest-ranked singles player at 137. An MRI scan in Australia soon revealed a tear in his hip. Playing through different levels of pain for most of a below-par season, Nagal stopped after the Sibiu Challenger semi-final in early October. A month later, he went under the knife in Germany.
After going a couple of months at home without hitting a tennis ball, at the turn of the year Nagal went back to the Nensel Tennis Academy in Peine, Germany to continue his recovery. His target was the US Challenger clay tournaments beginning mid-April to get back on the tour.
“The last two weeks of practice, we pushed very hard to see if I’ll be able to play matches. It wasn’t too bad. Of course, not every day is smooth. And I think I’m still under the process of coming back to where I was and how I was moving before,” Nagal said.
Helping Nagal in that process is retired Indian pro Somdev Devvarman, now the high-performance expert at Nensel Academy. The former world No 62 has accompanied Nagal to the US, overseeing his pre-return training sessions as well as the matches. Nagal couldn’t be happier having around him Devvarman, who’s himself had his fair share of comebacks from injury breaks.
“I’d wanted to do the travel with him for the past two years, but Covid didn’t allow it. I’m really happy that he is a part of it right now. It’s been a lot of learning from him, especially as someone who has made several injury comebacks. I’ve been constantly talking to him about how my body feels and how it is progressing,” Nagal said.
He understands it will be a slow grind. Indeed, for every Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer defying human possibilities and winning Grand Slams in no time after considerable time away, there’s a Dominic Thiem or Stan Wawrinka – both Slam champions lost first-round Challenger matches on return from injuries last month – highlighting just how challenging the restart can get.
“You can see how tough it is,” Nagal said. “But it is how it is – there’s no running away from it. The only way to get back is to keep pushing, keep playing, staying patient and working your a** off.
“The biggest goal for the next few weeks is to feel good on court again – just trying to feel the ball, feel the points, sync with the tennis court and matches.”
Nagal is optimistic he can climb back to his peak that had him reach a career-high world No 122 in 2020 and reach the second round of the US Open. He isn’t too concerned that his world rankings may continue the downward curve (he dropped to 280 from 259last week) as he tries to find his feet after a prolonged hiatus. For, Nagal reckons he has it in him to kick on even further once he finds that level again.
“It all depends on whether you’re capable of being top 100. If you are, it won’t take too long. And I do believe I’m capable of being there. Rankings are the least I’m worried about for now; if you do well in a tournament or two, you’re back in the 150s,” Nagal said. “The main thing right now for me is to just feel good on the court again and get my confidence back.”