Game, set, match

Kamesh Srinivasan | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on July 24, 2015

Power of two: SumitNagal and NamHoang Ly hold theWimbledon juniorboys double trophy   -  Copyright: Dillon Bryden

Even as tennis gets commercialised to its own detriment, Sumit Nagal’s win proves a point

By winning the Wimbledon junior boys doubles title, with Vietnamese partner Nam Hoang Ly, 17-year-old Sumit Nagal has proved that determination and hard work can go a long way. In India, tennis might be facing a boom, but this has also made the game more expensive for young enthusiasts. Over the last few years the cost of tennis coaching has skyrocketed. In metros such as Delhi, monthly training can cost more than ₹1 lakh for a child. Coaches can charge up to ₹2,000 an hour.

When tennis great Martina Navratilova visited the Sania Mirza Academy in Hyderabad, she emphasised the importance of wall practice. After all, the wall never misses a shot and players can practise their strokes against it for hours during the formative years to help develop basic skills in an inexpensive way. But the commercialisation of tennis has succeeded in bringing the wall down, replacing it with a ‘hitting partner’.

The monthly coaching fee for Sania Mirza before she won the Wimbledon junior girls doubles title in 2003 was about ₹850. The popularity of the game has zoomed ever since Mirza — who played fearlessly against Serena Williams on a wild card at the 2005 Australian Open — became its superstar. Along with the cost of coaching, the price of equipment such as racquets, strings, balls have also increased. Synthetic courts, which demand little maintenance compared to clay and grass courts, should have drastically cut down the cost, but that has not happened.

Along the way, talented young players have lost out, for most cannot afford to play the game any longer! And experts wonder why the next Mirza or Paes or Bhupathi cannot be found. In such a scenario, Nagal is a whiff of fresh air.

Son of a government school teacher, Nagal opted for an individual sport despite being cricket-crazy as a child. Having trained for about two years at DDA sports centres in Delhi, he was lucky to be spotted by Mahesh Bhupathi when the latter was scouting for talent for the Apollo Tyres Grand Slam champion scheme. Even though the sponsor backed out within two years, after having promised ₹100 crore over 10 years, Nagal was fortunate as Bhupathi and coach Bobby Mahal decided to back him.

“Sumit was the best athlete among the kids we had. He was wiry, very flexible and very fast. He had great determination, loved to compete, loved to win. He fought for every point on court,” said Mahal, when contacted in Toronto. Mahal worked on developing Nagal’s forehand, backhand and serve, dedicating to him all his resources in Canada.

“We spent four or five months training. Then, Sumit started winning the under-14 and under-16 tournaments, to become ranked among the top-three in India,” recalls the coach. Nagal was part of the India under-14 team that finished fifth at the World Junior tennis in 2011. The coach sees that as the first “breakthrough result”.

With support from people like Karti P Chidambaram, the tennis-loving son of the former finance minister P Chidambaram, Nagal and his coach travelled to many tournaments in Asia, Europe, the US and Canada.

In 2012, when Bhupathi watched Nagal during the Asian junior (under-18) championship in Delhi, he was convinced that the youngster had a top-10 forehand for his age, and that it would only improve with time, making him a world-class player. It costs Bhupathi about $200,000 a year to take care of Nagal. The youngster’s time at the renowned Schuttler Waske Tennis-University in Germany further improved his game.

Nagal’s tennis continues to improve under the guidance of coach Mariano Delfino. He won an ITF grade-one junior tournament in Germany last month, and followed that with a men’s ITF Futures singles title in Hyderabad, the following week. He may have missed precious practice time because of a delayed UK visa but still went on to win the doubles at Wimbledon, despite not having trained for it.

“Sumit should be at his peak when he is 21 or 22. He can be a top-100 or even a top-50 player. He has a few things to improve on and needs to get stronger physically,” said Mahal, the man who has been instrumental in laying a strong foundation for this talented boy from Jhajjar, Haryana .

(Kamesh Srinivasan is a sports correspondent with The Hindu, Delhi)

Published on July 24, 2015

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