US Open: Nagal’s weak serve disappoints during defeat to Thiem (Analysis)

The 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 scoreline tells us very little about how close India’s Sumit Nagal ran World Number 3 Dominic Thiem before bowing out of the second round of the US Open in New York. Nagal pulled off forehand winners from impossible angles, ran down every ball, clawed back from 0-3 in the first set, made Thiem sweat and forced the commentators to sit up and take notice.

In the end of the match on Thursday, a couple of data points from the standard list of 13 analytics that the IBM Watson AI assistant spits out speak to the gaps between the World Number 124 and World Number 2 in a match situation like we saw at the Arthur Ashe stadium: Points won on first and second serve.

Overall, Nagal got more first serves in (71 per cent) compared with Thiem’s 64 per cent. But Nagal won less than 6 in 10 points on his first serve and less than 4 in 10 points on his second serve. Of Nagal’s total of 4 double faults, three came close to each other in the first set.

Almost immediately, Nagal seemed to cut the speed on his first serve, began curving the toss towards his left shoulder and kicking his serve more, averaging 96 mph on his first serve through the first set and around 88 mph on his second serve in all three sets. Nagal slammed in a single ace in the entire match compared with Thiem’s seven.

Of a total of 46 points won on serve, Nagal won 36 of those off his first serve and 10 came from the second. Thiem won almost the same number of points as Nagal on his first serve but a total of 18 off his second serve alone across all three sets.

Nagal clocked an average first serve speed of 102 mph, Thiem’s came in at 113 mph. Nagal’s average second serve was at least 10mph less than Thiem’s. Nagal was unable to win a single point on his second serve in all of the second set.

At one level, Nagal took the pressure off his second serve by kicking in more first serves but what that also meant is that Thiem got a lot more chances to get more balls back, stay in the point and eventually outhit Nagal. Thiem and his coach Nicholas Massu have been working on precisely those kind of high returns during practice sessions, which Nagal served up for Thiem today: Lots of spin, bounce and generally tricky to handle, especially for Thiem who plays single handed backhands.

Massu, a former No. 9 on ATP Rankings knows a thing or two about that brand of tennis: He’s a clay courter from Chile, after all.

Against Thiem, Nagal’s serve didn’t function as a weapon, it played the role normally reserved for the second serve. It began points that delighted us, the online audience, but fell well short of sealing the big points.

The first serve as a match winner is a well loved theme richly documented in tennis history. The less told story is about what happens when top players lean towards a little more spin as a safety valve against top 10 players. That, ultimately, was the top takeaway from the Nagal-Thiem match.

For someone who didn’t know Nagal or Thiem’s world ranking, today’s match highlighted the promise and depth of Indian tennis. Watching Thiem on the ropes in the first set and standing almost 10 feet behind the baseline to return Nagal’s serve, you couldn’t tell that Nagal is ranked more than 100 spots below Thiem.

When Nagal began kicking his first serve in, the gap between the World Number 3 and World Number 124 split wide open.

“He’s very dangerous when he can dictate with his forehand. I was exactly trying to avoid that. He also has very, very fast legs. I was trying to play my fastest tennis to keep him on the backhand, to not let him dictate with the forehand. I did that very well today,” Thiem said of Nagal’s game.

With a first round win here, Nagal became the first Indian man to triumph in a Grand Slam singles match in seven years, since Somdev Devvarman in 2013.