As we reveal this year's edition of The 21 & Under Club, we'd like to call your attention to Team Luke Hope for Minds, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that supports families with children who have suffered an acquired brain injury. Headed by former Texas Tech tennis coach Tim Siegel—whose son, Luke, suffered severe head and chest trauma from a golf cart accident which resulted in an anoxic brain injury—Team Luke Hope for Minds has lost numerous fundraising opportunities throughout 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To learn more about the organization, and for information on how to donate, go to teamlukehopeforminds.org
ATP Rank: No. 220
UTR Rank: No. 55
What he's done since last summer: Shaved more than 700 places off his ranking; quarterfinalist in ATP tour debut at 2020 Delray Beach
Christopher Wallace, better known by his stage name, The Notorious B.I.G., once said that real G’s move in silence. While the reference may be outdated for the music tastes of 18-year-old Brandon Nakashima, he certainly understands the sentiment.
Extremely mild-mannered and soft-spoken, the San Diego, Calif. native prefers to let his Babolat Pure Strike do the talking. Ever since Nakashima turned pro towards the end of 2019, the sound of his racquet has been deafening.
“Watch out for this guy,” Frances Tiafoe said after facing Nakashima in February at the Dallas Challenger. “This guy’s special. I like his game, I like his demeanor. Great backhand, good serve, and he’s level headed. I’m a fan, for sure.”
In September of 2019, Nakashima sat at No. 942 in the ATP rankings. He’s now No. 220, and would be much higher had the coronavirus not halted his 2020 momentum. Just before the sport went on an indefinite pause, Nakashima capitalized on a last-minute main draw wildcard from the Delray Beach Open, reaching the quarterfinals thanks to wins over Top 75 opponents Jiri Vesely and Cameron Norrie in his ATP tour debut. He followed that up with four more victories at the Indian Wells Challenger en route to a semifinal showing.
In the interim, Nakashima has been showcasing his game at various exhibitions, including a successful World TeamTennis debut. We shouldn’t read too much into the mid-pandemic results, but all one can do on court is solve the opponent across the net, no matter the stakes. Across a variety of formats and locations, Nakashima has faced a slew of talent in Hubert Hurkacz, Tommy Paul, Ryan Harrison, Steve Johnson, Jack Sock, Reilly Opelka, and Sam Querrey. He’s beaten them all.
“It’s rare to see an 18-year-old who can analyze his opponents strengths and weaknesses as well as he does,” said USTA Pro Circuit commentator Mike Cation, who has had a front row seat for Nakashima’s immediate success on the Challenger circuit. “This combines well with the fact that he doesn’t have a glaring weakness, so he’s able to go after his opponents very well.”
“If you are looking for negatives, he doesn’t quite have that KO punch yet,” Cation added. “His point construction is great, but at the next level, you need to find a way to earn a few cheap points. At the futures and challenger levels, you can often win a slew of matches by outlasting and outworking your opponent. That’s not true the higher you move in the rankings. If he nails the next steps, he’s got Grand Slam seed written all over him, and beyond.”
Though Nakashima idolized Federer’s free-flowing artistry throughout his childhood, he modeled his game after another all-time great, Novak Djokovic.
“I just try to stay solid on the court,” Nakashima said. “I try not to show too much emotion, I try to stay calm throughout the match. Federer was my favorite player growing up but my game is definitely more similar to Djokovic’s. I really don’t like giving my opponent too many errors.”
Much like Djokovic, Nakashima hardly ever misses his two-handed backhand and moves the ball around the court with his forehand well enough to funnel his opponents shots toward the moneymaker. Nakashima doesn’t always own the athletic advantage on the court, but almost always finds a way to win.
“He’s not that fast, but he’s never ever off balance,” added Cation. “He anticipates well and his footwork is pretty perfect, that right there makes him a player you always have to beat.”
Nakashima caught the eye of former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, who has been coaching him alongside Dusan Vemic.
“It’s nice to work with a kid who’s very keen, focussed and has a lot of talent,” Cash told ATPTour.com. “I’m still getting to know him, but I’ve been very impressed with his mentality. He’s very good under pressure, wins a lot of tie-breaks.
“He’s got a lot of developing to do. He’s got good technique and is very solid on the baseline. Now he needs to develop a big shot, a bit more power, and keep getting fitter and stronger. There are a lot of good players out there who play like him, so now he needs finds to something a bit special. That’s what we’ll be working on.”
In the juniors, Nakashima climbed all the way to No. 4 in the ITF world rankings. He began turning heads at the 2018 ITF Junior Masters in Chengdu, where he beat the world No. 1 junior Chun Hsin Tseng like a drum, 6-2, 6-1, in the championship.
He enjoyed a successful, but not other-worldly freshman season at Virginia, racking up a 17-5 record at the No. 1 singles position. His instant success at the pro level has surprised everyone but himself.
“These results have been great,” Nakashima said. “It definitely helped me gain a lot of confidence and it shows that I can hang with these top guys.”
According to his UTR rating, Nakashima is the 55th best player in the world. Should the tour return in August, Nakashima will look to make an early push, with a modified ATP rankings structure in place and just 26 points in his current breakdown from events staged in August and September 2019.
He has a lot of work to do if he is to align his ATP ranking with his lofty UTR, but judging by his recent results, it’s just a matter of time until you see this silent assassin winning matches on the world’s biggest stages. Put simply, he is the real deal.
The Class of 2020 is now on TENNIS.com and Baseline.
Monday, July 27: Sofia Kenin | Monday, July 27: Elena Rybakina | Monday, July 27: Alex de Minaur, Dayana Yastremska, Casper Ruud | Tuesday, July 28: Stefanos Tsitsipas | Tuesday, July 28: Thiago Seyboth Wild | Wednesday, July 29: Amanda Anisimova | Wednesday, July 29: Brandon Nakashima | Thursday, July 30: Coco Gauff | Thursday, July 30: Caty McNally | Thursday, July 30: Jannik Sinner, Iga Swiatek | Friday, July 31: Felix Auger-Aliassime | Friday, July 31: Carlos Alcaraz | Saturday, August 1: Denis Shapovalov | Saturday, August 1: J.J. Wolf | Sunday, August 2: Bianca Andreescu | Sunday, August 2: Leylah Fernandez | Sunday, August 2: Marketa Vondrousova, Miomir Kecmanovic