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FLASHBACK: Nakashima defeats Rune at Next Gen ATP Finals

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Heading into this weekend, a remarkable 13 AFC teams were mathematically involved with the NFL playoff picture. The hopeful Los Angeles Chargers, guided by captivating quarterback Justin Herbert, are just on the outside looking in at 8-7 with two games left against division rivals.

One of their devoted fans can relate to the importance of pushing through the wear and tear of a grueling season to leave everything on the field, or in this San Diego native’s case, the tennis court. Coming up during the COVID-19 era, 20-year-old Brandon Nakashima experienced the weight of a full year on the ATP Tour for the first time in 2021 and emerged as one of the rising prospects to keep a close eye on as the next season gets underway.

Through the peaks, like notably reaching his first two ATP finals in consecutive weeks at Los Cabos and Atlanta—and valleys, such as picking up zero tour-level victories during the European clay swing—Nakashima ended a significant season of growth in promising fashion. After ousting defending champion Alex de Minaur en route to the Antwerp quarterfinals, the American clinched his second ATP Challenger crown of the year in Brest, France without dropping a set. Thanks to this final surge, Nakashima finished inside the Top 70, an advantageous location in the rankings for a hungry competitor looking to take his ambitions further in 2022.

“I think like most other players towards the end of the year, the gas tank starts to get a little bit low,” Nakashima reflects in a Zoom chat just before Christmas. “There are certain times you're a little bit more mentally tired than physically out there. That's why at the end of the year, you just try to push as hard as you can, try to finish the year strong.

“I think being at a different spot in the rankings definitely helps with planning tournaments. Having that clear schedule and trying to pace yourself, not playing too much all at once, having training weeks, having off weeks, is going to be big to make sure I play at a high level throughout the whole year.”

Nakashima went 17-12 in 2021 tour-level matches, where he posted four Top 30 wins.

Nakashima went 17-12 in 2021 tour-level matches, where he posted four Top 30 wins.

Following a semifinal performance at the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, Nakashima rewarded himself with two weeks away from the baseline. He soaked up quality family time, which included a trip to Disney World, before beginning his pre-season at a new location. Evaluating his options, Nakashima settled on a training block with Emilio Sanchez in Naples, Fla. after being introduced through mutual friends.

“It was pretty intense training those four weeks, trying to maximize the time without tournaments and focus on different areas to improve in my game. And now that's over, I'm feeling really fit,” he says. “I feel like my game and my ability out there has definitely improved a lot. We'll see if we decide for Emilio to travel some weeks next year, or sometimes go back there and do some training weeks.”

Coaches Dusan Vemic and Carlos Benatzky remain crucial team members as 2022 kicks off. While both are important assets with growing into tour life, there is plenty of growing that extends outside of the competition circle for a player in Nakashima’s spot. Questions like, ‘How much tennis is too much tennis?’, ‘Do I need to invest in a bigger team?’, ‘Are my sleep patterns optimized?’ are among the considerations that tennis players need to take ownership of. Nakashima is the first to recognize his privilege as a player backed by brands that include Babolat, Fila and Motorola—one that fortifies a means to direct the bulk of his energy towards progression on the court, while noting the daily responsibilities required to sustain a career provide benefits beyond improved forehands and backhands.

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“Tennis is such an expensive sport, so the support from sponsors definitely helps a lot. It puts you in a good position out there,” Nakashima says. “You're not having to worry about the financial side as much, as maybe if you didn't have them.

“You have a team around you that gives guidance on your journey, but ultimately most of the decisions are up to you and how you play out there. It's tough compared to other sports, but it's good for maturing and the tennis afterlife.”

Nakashima, who began 2021 ranked No. 170, was nominated for ATP Newcomer of the Year—a distinction that went to countryman Jenson Brooksby. The two shared a warm exchange on Instagram after the news was released. In 2020, Nakashima teamed up with Sebastian Korda at a pair of tournaments and in 2021, he partnered eventual Comeback Player of the Year recipient Mackenzie McDonald at two events. Looking ahead, Nakashima states it would be “cool” to share the court with Brooksby or Carlos Alcaraz in the near future, little surprise based on his character and value set.

“I think it's really important to have friends that you're close with on the tour. It's always great to compete against them, but at the end of the day, it's just a sport,” he says. “I think for me, the most important is having that respect for others and building those relationships off the courts.”

You have a team around you that gives guidance on your journey, but ultimately most of the decisions are up to you and how you play out there. It's tough compared to other sports, but it's good for maturing and the tennis afterlife. Brandon Nakashima

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This month, with the calendar page just turned, Nakashima finds himself in a new part of the world: Australia. The world No. 67 begins at the ATP Cup as a member of a U.S. contingent that includes Taylor Fritz and John Isner, and he assures it was the right call—whether or not he’s nominated to suit up by captain Michael Russell.

“Even if I'm not playing on the team, just to be around all those guys and just to experience it for a week, and get used to the conditions around there and everything, is a good decision,” says Nakashima, who spent a year at the University of Virginia before turning professional. “It's going to be a fun team format out there. You're competing against all the other top pros from different countries.”

As his Chargers look to make a big finishing push, Nakashima aims to start with one of his own that features an Australian Open main draw debut. Five years ago, he set his alarm for the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal final at Melbourne Park and wasn’t disappointed in the decision to stay up. The Chargers aren’t in the position yet to receive the same treatment on the flip side of the globe, but Nakashima is cautiously optimistic they can get there by attaining the simplified goal he chases every week.

“Similar to tennis, it's a tough sport where it can come down to a matter of points or seconds out there. For me and most other tennis players, just having that consistency each week is going to make a difference in the end for them as well,” he says.

“I think at every single position, they have top players that can make an impact. That could help them make the playoffs and hopefully make a deep run there.”