Roger Federer, a 38-year-old father of four, sometimes has the stubble to match. “I played a little bit like my beard today,” he said after his first-round U.S. Open match. “Rusty.” The beneficiary of that rust was Sumit Nagal, an Indian qualifier ranked No. 190 in the world, who stole the first set and looked, briefly, like he might give the No. 3-ranked Federer a fight.
Nagal brought a style of play that could frustrate Federer, when he’s still dusting off his game after a 12-day break: smooth movement, heavy topspin balls, and a resistance to errors. Nagal had been playing exclusively on clay from April up until the qualifying rounds of the Open, and he brought that classic dirt-baller’s consistency. His serve is weak, but once he’s patrolling the baseline, he’s a fluid, entertaining watch. This was the 22-year-old’s first-ever main draw match at a major.
The Swiss, for whom the early rounds can often look like televised practice, did not look to be enjoying himself out there. He burped up 19 unforced errors in the first set, including three double-faults, with just one ace.
The match looked like it could extend into a glitchy, electric battle, reminiscent of Federer’s first round here against Frances Tiafoe two years ago: a fast-as-hell youngster could chase anything down and make a misfiring GOAT work to close out points. It ended up looking more like Federer’s first-round match this past Wimbledon, when Lloyd Harris dinged him in the first set, only to get routed in the next three. Nagal lost, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. He was drowned out in the middle two sets by a fully functional Fed, and only briefly returned to consciousness in the fourth set, breaking serve with two consecutive forehand winners.
Here’s one wicked angle inside the service box:
Then this slick inside-out passing shot:
Despite leveling out the set, Nagal was broken again games later, leaving Federer to serve out the match in peace. Nevertheless, this is progress! As sports statistician Mohandas Menon pointed out, this is the first time in four tries that an Indian player has taken a set off Federer in a main draw match. (Leander Paes did beat a teenage Federer in a qualifying match, back at the turn of the millennium.) Millions of uncles of India and its diaspora surely watched on as their sports deity was challenged by one of their very own. Maybe they even heard him observe that Nagal’s “going to have a very solid career.” Sure, he might never play a U.S. Open first-round match again, but at least he’ll always have that press conference.
While Nagal made the night somewhat trickier than expected, he would not be mistaken for a career-long archrival. After the match, Brad Gilbert tested Federer with the gag du jour, and you could see Federer basically process its inanity in real time.