• It had thus been a wait of 25 years for a player from the country to emulate Paes by winning a singles match at the Games. Nagal changed that in Tokyo by beating Uzbekistan’s reigning Asian Games gold medallist 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-4.

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By Rutvick Mehta

PUBLISHED ON JUL 24, 2021 07:24 PM IST

Save a couple of routine wins against unheralded Pakistan pros in a Davis Cup tie in 2019, Sumit Nagal hasn’t known the feeling of winning a singles match with “India” printed on the back of his t-shirt.

No wonder that extra emotion gushed out of the 23-year-old the moment he beat Denis Istomin on Saturday. A little hop, face skyward, hands inching towards his heart before they changed direction to cover his face.

The last time an Indian won a singles tennis match at the Olympics, the hands were wrapped around a medal—in Atlanta at the 1996 Olympics where Leander Paes won bronze. It had thus been a wait of 25 years for a player from the country to emulate Paes by winning a singles match at the Games; forget winning five of them. Indian tennis has since relied solely on doubles to provide the winning moments at the Olympics.

Nagal changed that in Tokyo. The man from Jhajjar beat Uzbekistan’s reigning Asian Games gold medallist 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-4 in his maiden gig at the Olympic stage in a first-round match that stretched beyond two-and-a-half hours in the harsh noon temperatures of Tokyo.

“Having the shirt which says ‘India’ gave me the push, kept me alive in the match,” Nagal said. “If I was playing a Challenger or some other event, I’m not sure how I would’ve finished, to be honest. I was happy when I walked off the court, and therefore the emotions. Representing my country. Playing my first Olympics. Getting my first win.”

Until the end of last week, the most likely scenario was indeed the world No. 160 competing at a low-key Challenger event instead of the biggest sporting spectacle of the world. A flurry of withdrawals in the singles draw opened a last-minute door for the youngster, and Nagal joined the Tokyo bandwagon as the final Indian in its contingent.

Sneaking in barely hours before the entry deadline, Nagal had to be quick to put on his adapting shoes: from the pleasant weather of Peine, Germany (where he trains) to the heat and humidity of Tokyo; from his favoured clay courts to the more challenging hard courts. All within four days.

“I got here (Tokyo) Wednesday afternoon with a pretty intense jetlag from the seven-hour time difference. I had a hit twice on Thursday, once on Friday and that was it,” Nagal said.

“It was unfortunate that I got in at the last moment and couldn’t prepare better. Adapting from clay to hard is tough too; you have to get comfortable on it. I could have not changed that, so I had to deal with it. I’m happy I could play a good match today despite these challenges.”

Pocketing the first set, Nagal was a break up in the second and also served for the match at 5-3. But the experienced Istomin, who was ranked as high as world No. 33 in 2012, dug in, forcing Nagal to work twice as hard to finish the job. “The weather was horrible, especially when you’re playing tennis at around 12. To lose a set from there and come back to win the third, especially in that weather, it is super tough,” he said.

Super tough would be apt to describe Nagal’s opponent in the second round, world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev of Russia (Russian Olympic Committee at these Games). Medvedev likes hard courts, and especially the “super fast” ones of Tokyo, as Nagal put it. The young Indian too likes to put on a show against the big guys at the bigger stages. Think Roger Federer at the 2019 US Open or Dominic Thiem in the same tournament last year.

“I’m very excited for this match, playing the world No. 2 on a big court. I can’t ask for more. This is why we play tennis, to live for these moments.”