Tata Open Pune ATP 250: Nagal, Manas Dhamne have their moments, but bow out on opening day

With Filip Krajinovic stuck at an irretrievable distance along the backline, Sumit Nagal knew a drop shot would give him a toehold in the decider. The execution wasn’t particularly sharp, but there was nothing wrong with the shot selection.

The Indian would fluff his lines at the crucial juncture – dumping his shot in the net with an open court staring at him – as he went down 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 to the Serb.

Usually in such situations, Nagal’s racquet strings would quiver – the frame quake at the likelihood of his fury getting transferred like a non-earthed shockwave. But on Monday at the Balewadi courts, during the opener of the Tata Open Pune ATP 250, Nagal managed to stay composed.

The Jhajjar man had played some crunching forehands, served reasonably solidly (first serve was up to 73 pc), slid acrobatically and not allowed Krajinovic to max out his seven breakpoints. “I had more chances in the third, but he played the bigger points better,” he would self-diagnose.

Yes, yet another wild card had bitten the dust. But Nagal fought till the end, and played the type of proactive tennis that raises hopes of a good season, never mind the quick end on the opening day. He would say later that his racquet-smashing days were behind him. The composure was helping his game.

“It (the anger) was one of my weak sides because I would be playing up and down. You can fix backhands and forehands. But not what’s going through the mind. I’m seeking help from an American sports psychologist,” he would say.

India’s singles brigade is stuck in a limbo, where a wildcard becomes a two-edged sword. It’s an opportunity alright. But it’s also where they are routinely reminded and impatiently guilted over how they waste that opportunity by not winning in the main draws.

Nagal would explain the dilemma. “We feel lucky we have one ATP tournament. But it’s sad we don’t have 20-25 tournaments (like America does). We know what a difference it makes to have your fans cheering you, eat your own food, have family and friends there when playing at home,” he added.

On his first match point, Krajinovic had been greeted by chants of ‘Sumit, Sumit, Sumit’ by a home crowd that rooted for their own player. “Crowds make a difference,” he added.

Nagal has been trying to prop up his serve this last year, and went out with a silver lining of belief despite the loss. “Tennis is all about confidence. If I can play like this the rest of the year, I’ll be happy,” he said.

Manas starts well; impresses Mmoh

Manas Dhamne, the other local wildcard playing on Centre Court, consciously started well as he came armed with a plan to not get overwhelmed. It worked for the 15-year-old against Michael Mmoh, who informed later that a “food poisoning-like feeling” had him start the match a tad nauseous. But there was no taking away from Dhamne’s composed start.

The wildcard was ambitious, because it was meant to be that way. He started with a 15-shot exchange and clipped the rally with a gorgeous down-the-line forehand screamer. “I wanted to play solid on the first point, first game and not miss,” he would say of his deliberate attempt at not messing up. It jolted Mmoh a little, though the actual points and service breaks fetched up only in the second as Dhamne lost 6-2, 6-4.

Mmoh would break him at 2-2, and then again to pocket the first set. But Dhamne struck confidently, had the legs to chase the ball on the flanks, and could hit deep. He didn’t seem to have much time to indulge his nerves – they were next to none. “Next time, I’ll try to improve on important moments,” the Indian teen added.

“He played his best tennis at the start of the match. I didn’t know what would happen. He’s pretty talented for a 15-year- old,” Mmoh said. Dhamne, who came into the spotlight with an Asian junior title, trains in Italy at the Riccardo Piatti centre.

Mmoh acknowledged his physical condition made the match “interesting.” Named Michael after Jordan, whose fan his father was, Mmoh is still finding his feet after graduating from juniors.

His mother shelled out $500 for a half-hour training spot at the Nick Bollettieri Academy before he landed a scholarship. The seniors though have been a steep climb. On Monday, Dhamne would see from across the court how tough it could get even for a tennis prodigy as Mmoh beat back nausea to get a fighting first-round win.

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