Two Indians in the main draw of a singles slam event is a rarity. So much so that one has to wind the clock back to Wimbledon 1998 to find the last instance of two Indians in the men’s singles draw of a grand slam (Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi). And one has to go back even further back, to 1985, to find the last time two Indian men’s singles players made the main draw of US Open (Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan). That spell, the long excruciating spell of 21 years and 34 years respectively, was ended on Monday. Prajnesh Gunneswaran, having made his grand slam debut in Melbourne, played Daniil Medvedev on Louis Armstrong Stadium. And later, Sumit Nagal stepped up to take on Roger Federer, under the lights, in his first-ever majors appearance, at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Not a bad setting for either and an equally stiff task as well.
Prajnesh wasn’t new to the scene of the US Open. He had been here before – in 2017 to play Yannick Hanfmann in the first round of qualifying. He was 225th in the world then and was still working his way back from career-threatening injuries. Move to 2019 and he was inside the top-100 and earning direct entries by virtue of his ranking. If he started by facing Frances Tiafoe in Melbourne in the first round, the two most recent slam opponents have been significantly tougher. Milos Raonic at Wimbledon and Medvedev now. The odds were stacked against him and he was aware.
Moving to the scene at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Like the match against Raonic, Prajnesh started well. He was aggressive in his play and consistent in the groundstrokes. He served big and he served well. To help his case, once broken, he fought back to ensure an even footing. Having held serve to love, he added a return game to love for eight straight points. Medvedev who won in Cincinnati tune-up event likes to extend the rallies and mix things up with variety of shots. The duo traded long rallies in the first game itself to set the tone for what was to come. Later, Prajnesh mixed things up with heavy forehands from the baseline and moving up when the opportunity presented itself.
But the problem against Medvedev, and against Raonic, was in maintaining that level. To keep that intensity going for set two, three, four and five. For that, Prajnesh had to keep the flow of unforced errors down, hold on to his usual big serve and keep the pressure, as much as he could, on the Russian. None of which happened. In the first game itself, the Chennai player added double faults to his tally coupled with forehand misses. From then on, it was one-way traffic.
Even a medical timeout and not a great match, in Medvedev’s admission later, helped Prajnesh get back into the thick of things. The errors stacked, the serve remained all over the place at times (Medvedev won 74 percent of the second serve return points, 84 percent on his own first serve and finished with 88 percent success rate on break points) and the desperate attempts at pushing Medvedev didn’t work out. The final point captured the second and third sets perfectly: With a climbing lob under the New York sun by Medvedev, Prajnesh was at the net and well under it to extend the match for a few points but he didn’t get the contact right and sent the smash straight into the net.
With the 4-6, 1-6, 2-6 loss in an hour and 24 minutes, Prajnesh had lost in the first round once again. But to his credit, he had once again played a perfect first set and shared later that had twisted his ankle during the match. “No, it is not that bad but it was bad enough that I could not move. I was struggling to move on the returns for example. If I knew where the ball was coming, it was okay. However, if I had to split and change the direction, then it was tough. I didn’t know in which direction the ball was going to come and at this level, it is too much of a handicap,” he told Indian Tennis Daily of the injury at 2-2 in the first set.
“I don’t think I played bad otherwise. The first set was relatively close. I had some chances. If I hadn’t lost my service twice, then it would have been closer. After that, I had to go for the broke as I could not really defend with my movement. It didn’t really work. Daniil also started serving well in the second and third sets. He played smart. He was playing drop shots, playing behind me when he knew it was tough for me to change direction.”
Talking about the positives and strategy coming into it, he said, “I knew that I had to play aggressive. I had the tools to hurt him and that was pretty obvious in the beginning. If I played high to his backhand with enough spin, he didn’t really like it as he couldn’t really attack. When I played fast to his forehand, he didn’t really like that. It’s not as if he was hitting it out but I had the opportunity to attack more when I did those things.
“I was able to read his serve as well which was a big plus for me as that’s one of his biggest strengths. If I could neutralise that then I am definitely in the match. If I had stayed competitive and stayed with him on the returns then it could have been a close match.”
From Medvedev’s perspective, currently ranked fifth in the world, it is important for Prajnesh to raise his game in the second and third. “I don’t know what he has to do to play consistently on this level because I’m not a tennis coach, but I can say first set was really great from him,” he said in the post-match press conference.
“Then he dropped his level, but that’s kind of normal at the level we are that. I tried to stay consistent throughout the whole match. That’s what he needs to learn to do. And how to do it, this I have no idea. The thing is that after his level dropped then it was kind of two easy sets for me with a lot of unforced errors for him. That’s where he should be better,” he opined.
If Prajnesh’s match against a fifth seed instilled interest, it was unmatched to what was in the store with Nagal. It was possibly a mix of an Indian qualifier coming through to the main draw, having worked his way back from injuries, someone who was toughing it out on the ATP Challenger level and a large part, perhaps, had to do with the man on the other side of the net. A 20-time grand slam winner which made Nagal’s job all the more tough, the occasion even bigger and nerves an all-too-important factor.
But when he stepped up first on court, leading the Swiss in the evening session, there was no sense of awe of the atmosphere or a packed stadium. No nervousness of the stage, the opponent or the fact that he was just the fifth Indian man to qualify for a Grand Slam main draw this decade joining Somdev Devvarman, Yuki Bhambri, Saketh Myneni, and Prajnesh.
A break in his very first service game and it looked like it was going to be a long night of chasing the ball for Nagal. But the first real sign of convincing play was observed a game later with Nagal breaking Federer right back. The groundstrokes were on point, he was reading Federer’s approaches to the net well enough and adjusting his game as things progressed. If at the start, Nagal’s relatively weak second serve to Federer’s forehand opened up the court for the Swiss to move in on Sumit’s backhand, the Indian shifted tactics and started serving on the backhand. It allowed Sumit to stay in the point after the kicking serve. It also did help his cause that Federer was struggling on serve and collecting far too many unforced errors (19 in the first set).
A break in the ninth game and all of a sudden, Nagal had the opportunity to serve for the opening set. It took one set point for Nagal to take the first set 6-4 and alarm bells were ringing. Federer was unable to find his range and rhythm and one couldn’t help but be reminded of his loss last year to John Millman. In the Indian camp, however, with Divij Sharan, Rohan Bopanna and Prajnesh watching on from the stands and Ankita Raina watching from the comforts of her living room, this was an exciting time. Federer had played an Indian player thrice in his career and won in straight sets each time. Nagal became the first to take a set off him.
“When I won the first set, instead of focusing on what I did well in the first set, I started thinking too much about other things. But it’s an experience and all of us learn from our mistakes,” said Nagal of the thought process after the first set. “You start thinking “Oh! I am a set up”. Then you get nervous and the energy levels are not the same. Boom! And things change in a second,” he added.
Was there an upset in the brewing?
Not so. In the subsequent three sets, Federer broke Nagal’s serve in the first game each time — taking that early advantage and putting the 22-year-old Jhajjar born player under pressure throughout. In the second, it needed some doing from Federer. In a marathon 10 minute game, after six deuces, Federer broke on the fourth break point. It was a suggestion that Federer was getting back into things once again. It wasn’t comfortable and plain sailing but it was just enough to build the momentum.
— doublefault28 (@doublefault28) August 27, 2019
Bit by bit, Federer got back into it with a second break and then served for the match leveller in the seventh game. But if one expected Nagal to give up easily, it wasn’t to be. The Indian earned two break points and fought off six set points before Federer converted the seventh to make it a set all.
The third set went Federer’s way with ease but the fourth once again highlighted Nagal’s determination to keep the match going. There were yells to himself to move his body after a simple backhand into the net and upping the ante with gorgeous forehand cross court winners. A break in the fourth game gave hope to Sumit but it was snatched away immediately in the very next game. As Federer served for the match at 5-4, the Swiss made some uncharacteristic errors and Nagal was looking at lengthening the match further. But the five-time champion got back in it with precise winners and line-kissing aces. The Swiss got the job done with an unreturnable serve to move into the second round.
As for Nagal, it was a momentous occasion and he had risen to the challenge. Federer summed it up well, “I guess maybe how he handled the moment. Never easy to come out and play your best. Even though it’s kind of what you live for, you dream about, playing on the big stage. So I think he did that very well.”
“I think his game is based on being really consistent, moving well, moving the ball around well. Sort of very much a clay-courter. That’s also the surface he’s played basically the entire year almost. I think he knows what he can bring. That’s why I think he’s going to have a very solid career. But, of course, it’s not the game that comes out with the biggest surprises. It’s really consistent. I think he did it very well tonight.”
Very proud of @nagalsumit for his overall performance. Lots of positives to build from this. He has made massive strides!
Safe to say his best is ahead of him!
— Somdev Devvarman (@SomdevD) August 27, 2019
For Indian tennis, it is ideal if the focus is on Prajnesh and Sumit’s first set performance. Both played very well and were undeterred by their respective top-5 opponents. But it is equally important to look at how to keep it going for the rest of the match. While it is tricky to say it is reason for optimism for future of Indian tennis especially with Prajnesh 29-years-old and Sumit still working his way up the ladder in the Challengers where the level is far different. But these are steps and the ones definitely in the right direction.