Brandon Nakashima’s ‘old school’ backhand can save American men’s tennis

The hype over Brandon Nakashima began in February when the American reached the Delray Beach Open quarterfinals at age 18 — and in the process bowled over Pat Cash.

Cash, the former Australian great, had flown in from Down Under to scout the teenager from San Diego. Cash signed up to coach Nakashima as soon as he saw that backhand and temperament.

Cash almost didn’t make it as he had forgotten his passport, but he talked his way into the country. (His mother was born in the U.S.).

One flaw among American men’s tennis players often is lack of a dangerous backhand, but that’s the now 19-year-old Nakashima’s best shot. Cash, though he says he doesn’t want to jinx it, compares Nakashima’s backhand style to that of his friend and tour legend Jimmy Connors.

“I got to be honest — I know Jimmy Connors’ backhand well and when [Nakashima] played an exhibition in Santa Barbara, I invited Jimmy to come out,’’ Cash told The Post. “I told Jimmy, ‘I think it’s almost as good as yours — flat and hard, two-handed, along the same lines.’ Not many backhands like that on the tennis circuit. That’s old school.”

Nakashima, a wild card in this U.S. Open, will play a second-round match Wednesday against No. 5 seed Alex Zverev. It’s a monumental test, but the newest American men’s prospect is ready for the challenge after enjoying a career-defining experience last week before his first Open.

Brandon NakashimaGetty Images

Nakashima, who won his debut match at the Open on Monday, spent all last week as a hitting partner with Novak Djokovic. Nakashima’s first-round victory will place him in the top 200 for the first time — moving him from 223 to at least 191.

“I warmed up with him every day,’’ said Nakashima, who dropped out of the University of Virginia last summer to turn pro. “It was great hitting with him, getting all his experience on the court and how well he hits the ball.”

Nakashima has a second coach alongside Cash, former Serbian tour stalwart Dusan Vemic, a close friend of Djokovic’s. Hence, the hookup.

“We got closer after a couple of days of hitting and I was able to ask him stuff and learn from him,’’ Nakashima said. “When he’s not hitting, he’s laughing and having a good time. But when it comes to practice, he’s locked in and down for business. It’s a matter of how he hits the ball so effortlessly and gets such easy power and really smooth with all his strokes.’’

Wednesday will further demonstrate how much Djokovic’s hitting sessions have helped.

Cash is hesitant to put “the next Connors” type of pressure on the kid, but said he thinks Nakashima has a chance to reverse the horrific fortunes of American men’s tennis.

No American male has made the Open semifinals in 14 years and two of the country’s top contenders, John Isner and Sam Querrey, already have been bounced out in the first round.

“It’s a long haul,’’ Cash said. “The men’s game is really brutal. The depth is absolutely extraordinary. But sure [he can].’’

Nakashima doesn’t qualify his goals.

“Yeah, I think so,’’ he said when asked if he feels he’s destined to win a Grand Slam tournament. “Obviously I’ve always wanted to be No. 1 in world and win a Grand Slam. It’s matter of developing my game during this time and get more experiences like this under my belt.’’

Cash spent part of the pandemic with Nakashima in San Diego, turning his serve from a “junior-level one to a weapon,’’ the Aussie said. Nakashima also built strength after not picking up a weight in his first 18 years.

“It’s how quickly he learns and implements things,’’ Cash said. “I haven’t seen anything like it. He picks up things that would take some six months and he does in a month.’’

In winning his first-round match in straight sets over Paolo Lorenzi of Italy, Nakashima took out an opponent who had warred through 46 Grand Slam matches.

“I’ve definitely been waiting for this to happen,’’ Nakashima said. “I always thought I had the right game to compete with all these top guys.”

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