India's Sumit Nagal came from a set down to beat Brazil's Joao Menezes 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 in the third round of qualifying on Friday and book a place in the main draw of the US Open. His first-round opponent in his first-ever Grand Slam tournament: Roger Federer, on the US Open's most-historic show court, the Arthur Ashe, under lights.
The draw was exactly what the 22-year-old from Jhajjar, Haryana had wished for, though he could not immediately believe it.
"When I first heard of the news, my reaction was, 'oh my god, are you serious?' This is what you dream of, playing these big players who have been dominating tennis for so long. I'm beyond excited to share the court with Federer and learn from him," Nagal told ESPN.
The prospect of playing Federer, though, is merely a sweet bonus. For Nagal, making the main draw of the US Open is a matter of great pride in itself. Last year, he competed in the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon qualifiers but could not win a round. Come Tuesday, Nagal will become the fifth male Indian - after Somdev Devvarman, Yuki Bhambri, Saketh Myneni and Prajnesh Gunneswaran - in the last six years to take part in a Grand Slam singles event. He is also the youngest of those four players.
"It's obviously a very big thing, qualifying for a slam at the age of 22. Especially considering my history of never having won a Grand Slam qualifier before," he said.
"It's also special because I am playing in a surface that I don't really like much. This proves that I can play on both clay and hard courts. The US Open means a lot to me, and every match I've played to get here has a special meaning. I'm very proud of myself and my team, to be here after a year."
Nagal's journey to Flushing Meadows certainly hasn't been easy. As a child, he initially dabbled in cricket before his father, a retired army havildar, got him to switch to an individual sport. He was then enrolled into the Delhi Development Authority Tennis Academy at the age of seven.
Nagal's first major break came in 2007, when he was personally handpicked by India's current Davis Cup captain Mahesh Bhupathi following the Apollo Tyres Mission Grand Slam 2018 programme. The story goes that Nagal was upset after one of his friends, whom he used to beat in practice, was picked ahead of him. Nagal subsequently went up to Bhupathi and asked why he wasn't picked. Bhupathi eventually watched him play and was impressed by what he saw.
"Mahesh is still my mentor. He has always been there for me, giving advice both on and off the court," Nagal reaffirmed.
In 2015, Nagal won the Wimbledon boys' doubles title partnering with Vietnam's Nam Hoang Ly. In doing so, he became only the sixth Indian to win a junior Grand Slam title after Ramanathan Krishnan, Ramesh Krishnan, Leander Paes, Sania Mirza and Bhambri.
Another landmark followed in September 2016, when he made his Davis Cup debut for India in the World Group playoff tie against Spain in New Delhi. Following a spirited start though, he lost his dead rubber match against Marc Lopez after developing breathing trouble that forced him to seek a medical timeout. He returned to take a 3-0 lead, but promptly lost the next six games and inevitably, the match.
Fitness issues, particularly trouble with his shoulder, would continue to torment Nagal. In November 2017, he clinched his maiden ATP title in Bengaluru, but went on to lose in the first round at 16 different tournaments over the next one year. The defeats and injuries at one point even made him question his place in the sport.
"It wasn't just about the tennis before. I wasn't enjoying being on the court," he explained. "I also had problems with myself, and many personal issues. But once you find happiness and start enjoying life, everything changes. I suddenly started to enjoy competing again. I was waking up every morning looking forward to playing a match."
Nagal credited his current coaching team, especially his trainer Milos Galecic, for the upturn in results. He is currently placed 190th in the world, his career best ranking.
"Not everyone has the privilege to play the top 100 right out of the juniors. Tournaments like the Futures and Challengers are great learning experiences, but the less you stay in those tours, the better," he said.
"You want to play the best tournaments. You just need to grind it out and keep improving right from an early age. It's unlikely you'll be able to train and improve the same way at 29 or 30 as opposed to when you are 17 or 18.
"I have been working with Milos for the past year. We are very professional about the things we do and the decisions we make. I'm really liking it and think we're making the right choices for my schedule.
"Everything seems to be going well for now."