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Monday, April 2, 2012

March Aces; Daniel Nguyen Feature

Today is a travel day/evening for me, as I head to California for the International Spring Championships and the Easter Bowl, so I'm posting the link to my March Aces feature for the Tennis Recruiting Network and this guest article on University of Southern California senior Daniel Nguyen by USC journalism student Kate Rooney before I start the journey west.

To keep up-to-date on today's action at the ISC Grade 1, listen to Ken Thomas at radiotennis.com or look for scores via their twitter account: @USTA_ISC

“Nguyen-ing”: How an Unassuming Local Player Became a College Sensation

by Kate Rooney

LOS ANGELES--Daniel Nguyen is clutch.

What better way to describe the USC men’s tennis captain, who clinched consecutive NCAA titles for his team, and at the age of 18 became the first-ever Vietnamese-American to compete in the U.S. Open?

At least, that’s how Nguyen’s teammate and longtime friend Steve Johnson put it.

“He’s just Mr. Clutch,” Johnson said. “We’re lucky to have him on the team because he’s a big part of the reason we’re so successful.”

Without Nguyen, the Trojans quite simply would not be vying for their fourth-straight national title. It’s funny, now, to think that the senior standout wasn’t even supposed to go to USC in the first place.

Nguyen picked up his first racket at the tender age of four. His mother, who came to the United States with Nguyen’s father during the Vietnam War years, was an avid fan of the sport and a recreational player.

“She took me out to the local courts and started feeding me balls,” Nguyen said. “I remember seeing my older brothers play and that got me excited.”

His two brothers were both good at the sport and played until college, but by the time the youngest Nguyen was 10 it was clear he belonged on the elite circuit. The Oxnard, Calif. native started winning junior tournaments and at 12 began training with top-level coaching duo Ben and Zibu Ncube.

“His hand-eye coordination and his awareness on the court was very advanced,” Ben Ncube said. “He was one of the most coachable people you could ever meet.”

The Ncube brothers coached Nguyen to national victories, including a doubles win on the biggest stage in junior tennis, the national championship in Kalamazoo, Mich. But when it came time for college, things got complicated.

The preternaturally focused Nguyen had devoted every ounce of himself to tennis. Academics were an afterthought.

“People have no idea what he had to go through,” Ncube said. “The school side was a weakness, but he managed to grind his butt off and do almost two years of school in one year.”

Nguyen’s best friend played at UCLA, and he didn’t even both to look at any other programs. But in the eleventh hour, UCLA decided not to offer Nguyen a spot on the team. So Jeffrey Grant, a family friend who had sponsored Nguyen for tournaments his family couldn’t afford and had a son on the USC team, put a call in to Trojan tennis coach Peter Smith.

“When I heard he was interested in SC, I jumped on it,” Smith said. “To me it was a very easy decision to have him join our team.”

But no one—not Nguyen, not Smith, not the Ncube brothers—expected him to play that year.

One by one, though, other athletes went down with injuries, until Smith was forced to play Nguyen.

“He was our No. 7 guy, but fortunately for him—for all of us, really—guys kept getting hurt,” Smith said. “After awhile, it was obvious that this guy was legit.”

Nguyen went on that season to win the Pac-10 invitational singles tournament, reach the semis in doubles at the Pac-10 championship, and finish second on the team in overall singles wins that season.

Neither Smith nor Nguyen has ever looked back.

“He’s been very special to the program, the school, and to me,” Smith said, citing Nguyen’s unmatched work ethic as a key to his success. “He leads by his example and how hard he works. That’s why I always call him ‘the unassuming hero.’”

For Nguyen, the hard work on the court is the fun part, and all the time spent off it just gets in the way of his goals.

“Tennis is my passion,” he said. “I wake up in the morning looking forward to playing.”

Next on the agenda is a fourth NCAA championship ring. The Trojans are ranked No. 1, and have already won the ITA Indoor Championships this year. After that, Nguyen will set his sights on going pro and go back to work with the Ncube brothers.

“He just needs to get a little stronger and train a little harder so he can last playing at a higher level,” Ncube said. “I think he can definitely make the top 200 or 100, for sure.”

Johnson, a senior who has already spent some time on the pro circuit, needs no convincing when it comes to Nguyen’s pro prospects.

“He definitely has the game to be a very successful tennis player,” he explained. “The sky’s the limit for that guy.”


wotten wun said...

Daniel Nguyen's tennis journey is engaging stuff, reason enough for USC journalism student Kate Rooney to keep this piece handy in case one day a movie script's needed.
That fellow Trojan Steve Johnson, himself a USC superstar, thinks the team captain is the real-deal makes Nguyen a name to remember.