Taking a set from Alexander Zverev, the No. 5 player in the world, in the second round of the U.S. Open counted as a success for 19-year-old American wild card, Brandon Nakashima.
Zverev, the smoke-serving German who is arguably the best men’s player who hasn’t made a Grand Slam final, buckled down and form held in a 7-5, 6-7 (8-10), 6-3, 6-1 victory.
Nakashima, who entered the Open ranked 221st, was two points from winning the first set when leading at 5-4 before squeaking out the second set in a tiebreaker to even the match.
Playing ruggedly for the first two sets at empty Louis Armstrong Stadium, Nakashima showed poise, touch at the net and a booming two-handed backhand that has been compared to that of legendary Jimmy Connors.
After dropping out of Virginia last year to turn pro, Nakashima was playing only his second tour-level event. The USTA has high hopes he could be the one to reverse the sagging fortunes of American men’s tennis.
“It was definitely a lot to learn from this match,’’ Nakashima said. “I felt good out there in my game. I picked up the level. It was my first time playing a top-10 player and my first Open. So it was new to me. I knew what I had to do going in. It didn’t work out in the end but it was good for my confidence.’’
Nakashima went toe-to-toe with Zverev for the first two sets. It was so intense, the German had to change his shoes because he was soaking through them with sweat. He gave the San Diego resident his due after his opponent got up 5-0 in the second-set tiebreaker. Zverev, who banged 24 aces, double-faulted on Nakashima’s seventh set point.
Pat Cash, the Australian legend, is Nakashima’s coach and has improved what once was a marginal serve.
“His serve surprised me a lot because he doesn’t serve very fast, but his placement is incredible,’’ Zverev said. “He can go any corner. He has all the serves that you need. His second serve is incredibly good. He’s very young, he still needs to develop, but his development over the last few months, has been very good. What’s his ranking now, 100-something?… He’s going to be top 100 in no time. I think he’s going to go even further.”
Asked if he sees a top-20 guy, Zverev said: “He definitely has that talent. I think there is a lot more to being a top-20 player than just talent. He can decide for himself. It’s in his hands and his coach’s hands.’’
Next up for Nakashima is the French Open qualifier, since his ranking won’t get him into the main draw. Nakashima, whose hitting partner last week was Novak Djokovic, will move to 190 in the world after his first-round win in the Open.
“[Zverev is] such a great player and has a lot of experience under him,’’ Nakashima said. “It’s great to go out and compete against him. The third and fourth sets were great learning experiences.’’