Indian tennis in 2019: Rise of Sumit Nagal, the Davis Cup that cost Mahesh Bhupathi captaincy

Sumit Nagal taking a set off Roger Federer at the US Open was Indian tennis's blockbuster moment of 2019, while the player-versus-administrator tussle was a negative.

Sumit Nagal celebrates after winning the first set against Roger Federer at the US Open.   -  Getty Images

Sumit Nagal gave Indian tennis a blockbuster moment by taking a set off Roger Federer but it was the all-too-familiar player versus administrator tussle that dominated Indian tennis in a largely underwhelming year.

Nagal lived a dream when he took on one of the greatest players of all time at a packed Arthur Ashe stadium in a US Open first-rounder.

He lost, as expected, but not before getting on an erratic Federer’s nerves by claiming a set.

The 22-year-old Haryana-lad succeeded in doing something which only the Amritrajs, the Krishnans, the Leanders, the Bhupathis and the Sanias have done -- giving the sport a much-needed fillip.

What was remarkable was the way Nagal handled the moment. He did not show he was nervous and refused to be intimidated by the presence of a player who is synonymous with the sport.

The demeanour earned him some compliments from his great opponent at the end of the match. Federer also appreciated Nagal’s consistency.

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With one title (Buenos Aires), one runners-up finish (Banja Luka) and six semifinal appearances on the Challenger circuit, Nagal made the year his own.

If he can build on his 2019 show, Nagal could prove to be that elusive singles’ hope that Indian tennis has been searching for and Federer has predicted a “very solid career” for the flamboyant player.

He finished the year at No. 130 after starting from 340. He is definitely proving to be a better version of Somdev Devvarman, the untiring counter-puncher who was Indian tennis’ last singles hope before being undone by innumerable injuries.

But Indian tennis is never too far away from drama on the periphery and this year, it came from a scheduled Davis Cup tie against Pakistan that was eventually held at a neutral venue in Kazakhstan.

Top players, led by Mahesh Bhupathi, refused to make the trip to Islamabad citing security concerns. The administrators agreed with their fear, as was clear from their pleas to the International Tennis Federation (ITF), seeking a change in venue.

But once the ITF agreed to India’s request, the national tennis federation (AITA) sacked Bhupathi as captain for his position while including all other players who had refused to travel.

Among those who made themselves available irrespective of the venue was old warhorse Leander Paes. The 46-year-old extended his Davis Cup record with a 44th doubles win during the tie when it eventually took place in Nur-Sultan in November.

The milestone aside, Paes has reached the fag end of his career and he dropped out of top-100 for the first time in almost two decades.

Elsewhere, the country’s best singles player, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, remained consistent, broke into the top-100 and even touched a career-high rank of 75 in April.

The left-hander definitely has the game and most importantly the temperament to be in top-50. However, the falling health of his father meant that he could not compete with focus towards the end of season.

A runners-up finish at the Kunming Open remained his best result.

He lost his father and a string of poor results meant he dropped out of top-100 to settle for a year-end rank of 124.

It remains a mystery why Ramkumar Ramanathan, widely considered India’s next best singles player, has not realised his true potential.

This year, when he was expected to be break into the top-100 after starting at 132, the Chennai-lad has slid to 174.

He has a big game to go with good fitness levels but hasn’t been able to make that count in results. This, despite the fact that he is among the fortunate ones, who got support early in career to train in Spain.

In the doubles circuit, Rohan Bopanna, Divij Sharan and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan continued to be India’s best players.

Bopanna and Sharan, keeping in mind the Tokyo Games, began the season as a team but their low rankings did not let them enter bigger events together, forcing them to part ways.

In the women’s circuit, Ankita Raina was her usual fighting self while Karman Kaur Thandi spent considerable time on the sidelines due to an injury.

With Sania Mirza announcing her return to competitive tennis in 2020, women’s tennis might just get the fillip it desperately needs.

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