Sumit Nagal's first-round win at US Open 2020 was a rare high amid COVID pandemic

Sumit Nagal became the first Indian singles player in seven years to win a match in the main draw of a Grand Slam.
Indian tennis star Sumit Nagal (Photo | EPS)
Indian tennis star Sumit Nagal (Photo | EPS)

NEW DELHI: Year 2020 started with the Australian Open amid raging bushfires in the country and ended with the last ATP Finals, played in front of an empty O2 Arena in London. It's women's counterpart, the WTA Finals was cancelled, thus joining the long list of tournaments that couldn't take place due to the coronavirus pandemic, and these include the 2020 Wimbledon.

Amid the wreckage of the pandemic emerged a new men's singles Grand Slam champion in Dominic Thiem, who won the US Open while Sofia Kenin and Iga Swiatek continued the trend of first-time winners in the women's singles segment at the majors by winning the Australian Open and French Open respectively.

From an Indian perspective, the US Open featured a bit of history. Sumit Nagal managed to upstage what he did there at Flushing Meadows in 2019, when he won a set against Federer in the first round, as he became the first Indian singles player in seven years to win a match in the main draw of a Grand Slam.

Nagal, 23, beat American Bradley Klahn in four sets in his first round game but in the second, he ended up facing eventual champion Thiem. It was a mismatch on paper -- Thiem was ranked third in the world while Nagal was 124th -- and it showed on the court. Nagal managed to keep up with Thiem early on but he eventually had no answer to the Austrian as he lost the match in straight sets.

The other Indian singles player to have managed to reach the main draw of a Grand Slam this year was Prajnesh Gunneswaran, who reached the first round of the Australian Open as a 'lucky loser' after a few players pulled out. He ended up losing to Japanese Tatsuma Ito in straight sets, despite Gunneswaran being ranked 22 places above him, and thus lost a chance to face Djokovic in the second round.

Ramkumar Ramanathan, meanwhile, had the best finish this season at the Eckental Challenger in Germany where he was runner-up, thus missing out on a chance to win his maiden title.

Sania Mirza returned to the tour at the 2020 Hobart Open, after her maternity leave, teaming up with Nadiia Kichenok in the doubles section. The pair ended up winning the title but had to bow out in the first round of the Australian Open subsequently, after Sania sustained a calf injury halfway through the match.

Sania then led the Indian team to a first ever playoff spot in the Fed Cup, which has since been renamed as the Billie Jean King Cup. She teamed up with Ankita Raina in the decisive women's doubles match to win 7(7)-6(4), 6-0 and completed a comeback from one match down against Indonesia to take India through.

India won nine rubbers across five ties and finished behind China in their group. The playoffs were originally scheduled to be played in April but were pushed to February 2021 due to the pandemic. India will face Latvia as they look to book a spot in the qualifiers for 2022.

Legendary Leander Paes announced towards the end of the last year that he would be ending his nearly three-decade long professional career in 2020. The long break induced by the pandemic, however, seems to have changed his mind and he now says that he is aiming to make it to a record eighth consecutive Olympics next year in Tokyo. He is also looking to reach 100 appearances at Grand Slams. He is currently sitting on 96.

On the other hand, world No.1 Novak Djokovic and No.2 Rafael Nadal continued chipping away at records held by Roger Federer, who played only at the Australian Open at which he reached the semi-finals. Federer missed out the rest of the year as well due to a groin injury, which required surgery. He later suffered a setback in his rehabilitation that required him to go under the knife a second time. This is only the second time in his illustrious professional career that Federer finished a year without winning a title.

Nadal continued his mind-numbing dominance at the French Open by winning the clay court Grand Slam a record-extending 13th time this year. It was also his 20th Grand Slam victory that equalled Federer's record.

Djokovic became the second player after Federer to complete 300 weeks at the top of the rankings. Federer's record stands at 310 weeks and Djokovic can surpass the Swiss great if he maintains his No.1 position, which he attained for a fifth time in his career after winning the Australian Open, until March 8, 2021.

Djokovic, however, had been in the news for a number of wrong reasons this year, starting with his ill-fated Adria Tour. A series of exhibition tournaments that were planned to be held across five cities in countries situated in the Balkans, the event came under heavy criticism due to the lack of social distancing and allowing full crowds in stadiums despite the tournaments taking place in the middle of a pandemic. It was eventually cancelled midway through its second leg in Croatia as several players, including Djokovic, tested positive for the virus.

Djokovic went on to equal Nadal's record for 35 Masters 1000 titles by winning the Cincinnati Masters, but was then disqualified from the US Open in the fourth round when the Serbian accidentally hit a line official in the throat with a tennis ball after losing a point. He was a favourite to win the title at Flushing Meadows and his departure, coupled with defending champion Nadal and Federer's decision to skip the tournament, meant that the US Open was going to see a new men's singles champion. It was Austrian Dominic Thiem who went all the way beating Germany's Alexander Zverev in the final to win his first Grand Slam title.

American Sofia carried forward the momentum she built up from a strong finish to 2019, in which she became the first from her country after Serena Williams in 1999 to win the WTA Most Improved Player of the Year award. She won the Australian Open, her first Grand Slam title, beating world No.1 Ashleigh Barty on the way and downing 2017 Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza in the final. She was aged 21 at the time, and thus became the youngest American woman to win a Grand Slam singles title since Williams won Wimbledon in 2002.

Sofia went on to win the Lyon Open, the last tournament to be held before the pandemic froze the women's tour, and achieved a career-best ranking of fourth. She then entered the fourth round of the US Open before reaching her second Grand Slam final of the year at the French Open.

However, Sofia was not able to get past a marauding Iga in Paris, who became the first player from Poland to win a Grand Slam title. Iga, 19, was ranked 54 in the world at the start of the 2020 French Open, thus became the lowest-ranked winner of the tournament in the history of the WTA rankings. She was also the youngest singles champion at the French Open since Nadal in 2005 and the youngest women's singles winner since Monical Seles in 1992.

Japan's Naomi Osaka won her second US Open title this year. Osaka expressed her support for the Black Lives Matter movement by wearing seven black masks during her matches, each bearing the name of an African-American killed by police action. Earlier in the year, she was beaten by compatriot Coco Gauff in the third round of the Australian Open while Osaka had to withdraw from the French Open due to a hamstring injury.

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The New Indian Express