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Brandon Nakashima impresses in four-set loss to Alexander Zverev
Although the 19-year-old was dismissed by Alexander Zverev, he proved he has the game to compete with the world's best.
Published Sep 02, 2020
For a player who turned 19 just last month, Brandon Nakashima came highly praised.
His game resembles Novak Djokovic’s, we heard. His backhand is up there with Jimmy Connors’, we were told. One look at him and Wimbledon champion Pat Cash signed on as his coach.
After his first-round win over Paolo Lorenzi at the US Open on Monday, Nakashima, who is currently ranked No. 223, didn’t shy away from setting ambitious goals for himself.
“I always wanted to be No. 1 in the world and win a Grand Slam,” said Nakashima, a native of San Diego who turned pro after one year at the University of Virginia, and reached the quarterfinals in Delray Beach in February. “It’s just a matter of developing my game during this time and just trying to get more experiences like this under my belt, and we’ll see how it goes from there.”
Earlier this summer, Nakashima told UBI Tennis, “I’ve always liked to see Federer play, but I think my game is more like Djokovic’s.” During the Western and Southern Open last week, he had a chance to see Djokovic’s game from up close, when he served as the Serb’s warm-up partner before his matches.
“He’s a good guy. He’s definitely funny at times, especially on the court when he’s not hitting. He’s always laughing, having a good time,” Nakashima said. “But when it comes to practicing and hitting on the court, he’s definitely locked in, all down to business, so it’s great to see that.”
On Wednesday, we got a look at how Nakashima’s game holds up against Top 10 competition, when he faced off against No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev. The Djokovichian qualities were noticeable from the start. Like him, Nakashima has the ability to take a hard-hit ball from his opponent, redirect it from a defensive position, and put his opponent on the defensive with one shot. Nakashima favors his two-handed backhand, as Djokovic once did, and, like Djokovic, the teenager will make you pay if you serve to that backhand side.
Maybe because Nakashima’s game is backhand-based, there’s a deceptive, sneaky-good quality to it. In the early going, it seemed to me that Zverev would have the superior baseline game. The German hits a bigger ball, especially from the forehand side, with more work on it. Zverev can drill forehand winners both crosscourt and inside-out, whereas, Nakashima leans on his crosscourt much more. The inside-out forehand is the favored kill shot of most young players, but Nakashima hit very few of them today.
Yet for the better part of the first three sets, Nakashima had the upper hand in the battle of the baseline—he won 60 percent of the points on his second serve, while Zverev won just 36 percent of his. Nakashima did it not by belting winners past Zverev, but by maneuvering him out of position and finishing points at the net. The American was 35 of 46 up there, and showed good feel and instincts on his volleys.
So why did Zverev win this match going away, 7-5, 6-7 (8), 6-3, 6-1? Why did he dominate the winner count, 60 to 36, and very nearly win it in straight sets? The biggest reason was his serve. Zverev hit 24 aces to five for his opponent, and, despite the excellence of Nakashima’s backhand return, Zverev was never broken.
In men’s tennis, even in the era of the baseliner, one unbeatable shot can count for more than every other shot combined. Zverev routinely fell behind 0-30 on his serve, only to ace his way out of trouble. Nakashima has a nice serve as well, especially the slice wide into the deuce court; but most of the time he has to construct his way to a winning point.
At 19, there’s always time to improve, and playing Zverev over best-of-five had to be a learning experience and a reality check. While he may have idolized Federer as a kid, Nakashima has a pretty good role model in Djokovic. The world No. 1 didn’t get there by bombing aces; he rose up the rankings by doing everything else better than everyone else. If Nakashima is half as good at the modern baseline game as Djokovic, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him.