Although the towering American Reilly Opelka stole the lion’s share of attention at the Delray Beach Open last week by claiming the title, it was one of his countryman Brandon Nakashima who perhaps deserved as much acclaim for his exploits.
Nakashima came into the tournament ranked No. 294 in the world, but the 18-year-old Californian spectacularly advanced to the quarterfinals and nearly established himself as the first American since Wade McGuire in 1994 to advance to the semifinal round in an ATP Tour debut.
And yet, Nakashima did not know until he had almost given up that his wish had been granted to be the recipient of a wild card into the main draw at the event.
Nakashima explained during an interview after he had flown back home from Florida.
“It was a nice surprise. Me and my team were kind of asking a couple of weeks in advance [about the wild card] and they weren’t really giving us an answer. So by four or five days before the start of the tournament, we had just decided to plan a training week in California.
“But on the Friday morning, I got a text from my agent saying that I got the wild card. We flew early Saturday morning and got to Florida around 5 or 6 PM that day. I got a light hit in that night, hit a couple more times on Sunday, and then played my first round match on Monday.”
Not having much time to think might have benefitted him. He opened up on the hard courts against Jiri Vesely, a left-hander from the Czech Republic who recently captured his second career ATP Tour title in India. But Nakashima was not intimidated by taking on an experienced adversary, taking the match, 7-6 (4), 6-1.
“I knew him a little bit and saw that he had just won a 250 a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “I was just trying to focus on my game. It ended up being a good match. We both were serving well in the first set. I did not expect his level to drop so much in the second set, but he was maybe feeling it a little bit out there in the hot conditions.”
Coming off that triumph, Nakashima was flowing. In the second round, he took on Cameron Norrie. The Brit had just toppled No. 3 seed Taylor Fritz, but could not contain Nakashima, who came through 7-5, 6-2.
“I wasn’t too familiar with Norrie,” said Nakashima. “I had seen him on TV a couple of times but had never practiced with him or played him in a match. I knew I had to stay the course.
“Winning the first set really boosted my confidence and gave me a lot of momentum going into the second set. I got an early break in that second set and played well. “Against Vesely, there were a lot of quick, serve and first ball points. But with Norrie we had a lot more rallies and I had to work the points more. I played better in that match.”
By the time he made it into a quarterfinal duel with Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka, the teenager was increasingly comfortable with his surroundings. He liked his chances.
“I definitely felt going into that match that I had a good chance of winning it,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a tough battle because he gets a lot of balls back. I came up just a little bit short but it was really good for me to play against him.
“I won the first set dictating pretty well and played pretty similar in the second set. It was just a couple of loose errors from me that decided it. Against a quality player like him that is all it takes. It was a well-played match from both of us.”
Match point—Nakashima defeats Norrie:
Nishioka won, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4, but Nakashima acquitted himself honorably. It was a step in his evolution as a tennis player. With him all week in Delray Beach was none other than 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, now established as a top-flight coach after working with CoCo Vandeweghe, among others.
“Pat was supposed to be working with me back home in California, but when I got the wildcard at the last minute he changed his flight and came to Florida, he says. “He wasn’t telling me too much. It was good meeting him and nice having him watch my matches. We are going to try this out for the next couple of weeks and see how we connect together.
“He got a feel for my game and now we will train together in California. I have been working for the last few months with a really good young coach from California, Beau Treyz. It has been great traveling with him a lot. Hopefully Beau and Pat and I will all be traveling together in the future.”
Cash feels the same way. A friend urged him recently to consider coaching Nakashima.
“I started watching some of Brandon’s Challenger matches. He is really talented,” Cash says. “I saw on YouTube that Brandon had decent technique. That is the first thing. The second is: how does he play under pressure?
“So I would fast forward on YouTube to watch him at 4-4, 5-5 and in tie-breakers. I just did my homework. I could see that he had all kinds of things going for him so I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’”
Having observed a good deal of Nakashima online, Cash witnessed him for the first time in person last week at Delray Beach. He was very impressed.
“I was amazed by his improvement. I just couldn’t believe this was the same player,” Cash says. “It was phenomenal seeing how much better he was serving and his depth with the ground strokes. I had thought before he could be a Top 50 player but now I think he could be significantly higher than that.
“How much higher? That is the five million dollar question. If he follows a game plan he’s got a chance to be a seed at the Grand Slam within a couple of years. He knows where to hit the ball and his racket control is something you rarely see from an 18-year-old.
“What he can do with the ball is pretty special. He has a good team and a good family to guide him. And whether I am there or somebody else is, he has got a bright future.”
Cash is optimistic that an arrangement can be worked out for him to play a prominent coaching role alongside Treyz.
"Beau has been fantastic. I would say we will know what is going on with me over the next couple of weeks, and find out whether it is full time, part time, or no time,” he says. “But if it works out, Beau and I would definitely be working together with Brandon. Beau will have his own drills and ideas and I will have mine. Brandon is a startup company with a lot of potential, and the CEO has got to lead the way for the team. Perhaps that will be me.”
Nakashima hopes that will be the case as well. If history is any guide, he will make the right decision. Having graduated from high school a semester early, he played college tennis for the University of Virginia from January to May of 2019 when he was 17, establishing himself as the ACC Freshman Player of the Year. He then took the fall off and played Challenger tournaments, electing to turn pro in November.
“I had some opportunities on the table with agents and endorsements and other stuff so I just decided to turn pro,” he says. “I had the confidence to do it and I am glad I did. I think I made the right decision.”
The Californian has laid out his immediate and long-term goals.
“I would definitely like to be competing at all of the Grand Slam tournaments and maybe be Top 10 in the world in the next couple of years, or not long after that,” he says. “I want to keep improving on all of the physical aspects of my game, keep getting stronger and faster around the court, come to the net more, and mix up my shots more.
“I need more consistency with less letdowns. I just want to be smarter overall as a player. Delray was a great week for me, but I try not too excited about anything. There is a long way to go in my career.”
Following his Delray Beach stellar run, Nakashima climbed to No. 255 in the world this week. His dreams are larger than ever.