NEW YORK—For Daniel Nguyen, winning his first U.S. Open match was similar to clinching the NCAA title for the University of Southern California—which he’s done twice.
“I had a little [cheering] section,” Nguyen said after his 7-6 (7), 2-6, 6-4 win over Philip Bester in the first round of the qualifying tournament. “It was awesome to be able to look at them. It felt like when I won in 2011 when we clinched over Virginia. It felt sort of like today’s match where the guys are all rooting for you.”
The former All-American is etched in USC lore after winning the title-clinching matches for the Trojans in both 2010 and 2011. His clutch performances secured USC’s second and third consecutive team championships, and when his school reigned supreme again in 2012, he had a fourth ring for his fingers.
Despite his incredible success in the NCAA ranks, Nguyen originally wasn’t sure he would ever pursue a professional career—before or after attending USC. He’s decided to give it a go, but the 24-year-old supports the college route heavily. “I would recommend it to players,” says Nguyen. “If you’re not ready maturity-wise, I say go to college. If you’re beating guys [ranked] No. 20 to No. 100 it makes sense to not go. But I had a great four years in college.”
That he did. Nguyen thrived in the team environment, playing in the middle of his team’s lineup as an undergrad during one of USC’s most successful stretches in school history. Over his first three years, he amassed records of 100-28 in singles and 81-34 in doubles. Then he had a choice to make. “My senior year I decided to play tennis instead of just going to get a job,” says Nguyen. “I ended up doing well and having great players on the team like Steve Johnson and Robert Farah, who are on the ATP Tour.
“So I thought, ‘Eh, maybe I’ll give it a try.’”
His former teammates’ success—Johnson, who beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga yesterday in Winston-Salem, is currently inside the Top 50; Farah is No. 28 in doubles—helped nudge Nguyen into the professional waters. Now in his second full year in the pros, Nguyen started this season outside the Top 300, but hit a career-high ranking of No. 189 in July. Since graduating in 2012, he has won seven ITF Pro Circuit Futures events.
Currently No. 232, Nguyen squeaked into the U.S. Open qualifying draw after an up-and-down stretch. “I had a rough earlier year of tennis,” he says. “But it was definitely my goal to make Grand Slam qualifying.”
On Wednesday in Flushing Meadows, Nguyen nearly dropped his serve at 4-4 in the third set, but saved multiple break points to keep the pressure on Bester. He then broke the Canadian to seal his first-ever win at a Grand Slam tournament.
“I feel pretty pumped,” says Nguyen, who plays 23rd seed Yoshihito Nishioka in the second round. “It’s crazy, I guess. There were a lot of ups and downs, but I feel pretty happy right now.”
A native of Long Beach, California, Nguyen certainly sounds like he has a very happy-go-lucky approach to the tour, but he’s eager to break into the Top 100 and play more Grand Slams. In 2009, after winning the prestigious junior tournament in Kalamazoo, Nguyen became the first Vietnamese-American to play in the U.S. Open after receiving a wild card into the main draw of doubles.
Six years later, Nguyen needs two more clutch wins to reach the main draw once again.