After arranging for a sustenance budget of Rs one crore that keeps him going on the ATP Tour, India's number one tennis player Sumit Nagal is left with less than Rs one lakh in his bank account and a morose feeling of not leading a comfortable life.
He has been training at the Nansel Tennis Academy in Germany for a few years but lack of funds meant that he could not train at his favourite place in the first three months of season 2023. (More Sports News)
His friends Somdev Devvarman and Christopher Marquis helped him stay in shape in January and February before he finally managed to fund his stay in Germany.
The fund crunch is the story of probably every Indian tennis player but the fact that the country's number one singles player is not saving enough money for himself and his family just exposes the unhelpful system and the brutal Tour where the players wage lonely battles.
To stay and play on the extravagant ATP Tour, Nagal has invested all his prize money, his salary from IOCL and the support he gets from the Maha Tennis Foundation.
The expenditure is related to his stay at the training centre in Peine and his travel for tournaments along with either his coach or a physio.
"If I look at my bank balance, I have what I had at the beginning of the year. It is 900 euros (approx Rs 80,000). I am currently getting help from Mr. Prashant Sutar through MAHA Tennis Foundation and I also get monthly (salary) from IOCL but the funding needed to break into the top 100 is around one crore," Nagal told PTI in an interview.
Nagal's racquet, shoes and apparel needs are being taken care of by Yonex and ASICS respectively.
This year in 24 tournaments played, Nagal has earned about 65 lakh with his biggest pay cheque coming from the US Open where he lost the first round of the Qualifiers and still pocketed USD 22,000 (approx Rs 18 lakh).
"I am investing whatever I am making. The yearly cost when I travel with one coach is costing me around 80 lahks to 1 crore and that is just with one travelling coach (no physio). Whatever I have made I have already invested.
"I feel like I am lacking support despite being India's number-one player for the past few years. I am the only player to qualify for the Grand Slams, and the only player to win a (tennis) match at the Olympics (Tokyo) in the last few years, and still the government has not added my name to the TOPS.
"I felt when my ranking dropped after injury, no one wanted to help me, no one believed that I could be back. That was disappointing because I feel whatever I do is not enough. It's so hard to find financial support in India. To be honest I do not know what to do, I have given up."
The son of a primary school teacher in Punjabi Bagh, Nagal fought off-court battles last year when he underwent hip surgery and also contracted COVID a couple of times.
It was not surprising that he began to doubt if he would ever get back to the tennis courts. Sitting and waiting is never easy for an athlete.
"Rehab took six months, then coming back to play took another six months. I would say I took a year-and-a-half, just to feel okay.
"It was in mid-summer last year when I started feeling better. I lost a few matches I should have won, I lost matches from match points or when serving for a match and when I was a set and a breakup. I got COVID twice last year, so I had a long, long two years.
"I don't have anything in savings. I am just breaking even depending on how I do in the tournaments. I did not earn anything in the last two years so I am happy that I am breaking even. At least I am not in minus where I have to leave the academy and travel on my own."
Nagal said his coaches advised him to save money and then get back to Germany.
"I sat with Sasha Nansel (his coach) and Milos (his fitness trainer). They said you do a few things yourself and try to save as much money as possible in India and we start again in April.
"I travel with one of the two, and this is just the basic. I am not saying I want to stay at a five-star hotel, nothing like that, this is just the basic."
A look at the ATP singles chart shows that Nagal is the best-ranked Indian at 159. The next best is Sasikumar Mukund, way back at 407.
Out of action Prajnesh Gunneswaran is further behind at number 540 and is followed by Digvijay Pratap Singh (554) and Ramkumar Ramanathan (569).
Nagal rues that Indian singles players not just lack financial support but also guidance.
"We lack funding, we lack the system. If there is a system, there will be funding. China has money. We have potential like China. Why do we win just 5-6 medals in the Olympics but China won 38 gold (in Tokyo)?
"We are 1.4 billion, we can match them in talent but why we do not make it to a high level? The guidance is missing. In tennis, we are far away from competing at the top.
"I am improving. I do feel I have the game. If my body is good and I am playing tournaments, I feel I am ready (for big leap)."