Teenage discipline can sound like an oxymoron.
In 16-year-old tennis player Sumit Nagal’s case, he’s determined to be an exception.
The junior tennis scene is mostly dominated by 18-year-olds, whose size and experience play a key role in both physical and mental aspects of the game – there are just seven players his age in the top 100 International Tennis Federation Juniors – so Nagal’s ascension to world No. 74 is a sign of significant progress.
“To be honest, I want to be No. 1,” said Nagal, during a practice session at the Rexall Centre. “It doesn’t matter if I win a Grand Slam or not, but I want to be No. 1 so I can say, yes, I am the best in tennis. That’s what I want to be.”
Born in New Delhi, India, the teenager’s mature approach to his game and his future are developing fast, under the management of Bobby Mahal, a former Canadian national junior champion who grew up in Brampton and is the head pro at Toronto’s Kew Gardens Tennis Club.
After Nagal made his first Junior Grand Slam at the US Open in 2012, the teen was disappointed to miss this year’s tournament, due to injury.
But he won’t be shying away from big events in the future, including Junior Davis Cup Championships, played in Mexico at the end of September.
“Playing bigger tournaments just makes you feel more famous and more excited,” said Nagal. “So that’s a different feeling. You’re more excited because there are more players and people watching you.”
Not that he minds.
“I like the attention,” he said with a laugh.
As Nagal’s potential grows, so too does his team, which Mahal has expanded to include additional coaches, a chiropractor and a sports psychologist, Dr. Sue Wilson, to address all aspects of Nagal’s development as a player.
So far, the findings have been impressive.
“He’s got what we call a 10 hertz brain,” said Dr. Wilson at the Rexall Centre.
“This means he’s able to process information more quickly, more easily, than even an athlete. He’s in the top category of being a special brain, so he has the mental fire power to handle lots of things at one time.”
Dr. Wilson studied Nagal’s off-court psychophysiological connection, testing for skills like reaction times using both physical and intellectual games to establish benchmarks for abilities including focus, stamina and the potential for muscle strength.
“There are some people who get special brains and special bodies,” said Dr. Wilson. “So you will see that when they’re juniors sometimes and then the question is whether they have the discipline to see it through.”
While discipline can often be difficult for teenagers, coach Mahal is not worried. Having worked with Nagal since 2007, Mahal saw the potential in the player early.
“I think the main thing that stood out is a good athletic base and also a good competitive nature,” said Mahal. “He loves to compete and he loves to work.
“This past year, I’ve brought on board more people to contribute to his development. As the game becomes more specialized, you need everything that you can get.”
Trying to balance a busy schedule, including online school, tutors, being away from home, and changing surfaces and time zones throughout the year isn’t for everyone, but Nagal is responding well to the demands.
“That’s how it should be,” said Nagal. “Focusing on small, small things now, whereas the last few years was getting you tough and steady, but now it’s like, okay those points need to be bigger, better.”
Mahal is particularly encouraged by Nagal’s attitude, even when the young player shows some on-court frustration.
“I find it’s still better to be this way than not caring. A lot of kids will lose a match and say, ‘Oh well, who cares?’, and they don’t have that competitive nature,” said Mahal. “It is a game, you’re meant to compete.
“It’s good that he wants to win every point, every match.”