If you haven’t heard of Brandon Nakashimayou will be soon.
Not because the San Diego native has moved up from number one. 355th in the Men’s World Tennis Rankings at the beginning of 2020 to a career-best 1st. 49 last week after he reached the third round on French Open and followed by a five-set loss to the fickle Nick Kyrgios in the 1/8 finals at Wimbledon last month.
Nakashima, who turns 21 on August 21st. 3, and now occupies the 1st place. At 56, he is the fifth youngest player in the top 100 among men. He has a terrific backhand, strong court flair and a solid serve that makes up for exactly what he might lack in strength. Over the past week, he has scored 73.95% of his first innings in 2022, just behind the 21-time Grand Slam singles winner. Novak Djokovic (74.54%) and No. 1 in the world. 1 Daniil Medvedev (76.38%).
“I think his strength is that he doesn’t really have any weaknesses,” said Gary Swain of WME/IMG Tennis, who has represented John McEnroe for 32 years and took on Nakashima as a client a few months ago. “I think his next level will be to learn to play more aggressively and dictate the rules more on the court.”
Nakashima is also calm. Mature. He will probably never throw a racket thanks to the ethics instilled in his Vietnam-born mother Christina and Japanese-Californian father Wesley. Both are pharmacists. They taught him the value of hard work and were not going to pay for broken equipment or the faltering efforts of him or his younger brother Bryce.
“It’s a pleasure to work with such a smart and responsible person. Just a solid character as a person,” Swain said. “I think he is a good role model. I hope he reaches his full potential because he can be great in the game.”
As he prepares for his quarter-final match Friday at the Atlanta Open – his second-place finish there a year ago propelled him into the top 100 for the first time – Nakashima is the face of a crowd of youngsters chasing the respect and titles earned by the hard-nosed Rafael Nadal (22 Grand Slam singles titles) and the graceful Roger Federer, who has 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Nakashima perfects his footwork and movement towards the net to separate himself from this crowd. He also takes smart steps to stand out off the court.
“Now I try to work smart, investing in my team as if we were a start-up company.”
— Brandon Nakashima on his own branding strategy.
Realizing that he needed to upgrade his coaching and support teams to break into the top ranks, Nakashima partnered with IMG to reach out to powerful sponsors to help pay his bills. Nakashima, who won academic and athletic honors in his year at the University of Virginia, sees similarities between college athletes’ new ability to promote their name, image, and likeness, and his strategy to define and capitalize on their image to a global audience.
“I think social media has really allowed young athletes to find their voice and values earlier in life, allowing us to connect more directly with companies and fans who want to support similar interests and values,” he said via email. “I am just beginning to understand the broad implications of this. It’s about building a brand, and I’m interested in that.”
Nakashima has partnered with sports companies Fila and Babolat, as well as cybersecurity companies Motorola and SentinelOne, but he estimates his budget could be $500,000 this year. His coaching team is led by Eduardo Infantino and should ideally include coaches, physios, hitting partners and data analysts, among others. According to the ATP Tour, he earned $670,195 in 2022. He pays the salary and expenses of his entourage. “Everything: breakfast, lunch and dinner,” said Christina Nakashima, who takes turns attending Brandon’s extensive tournaments with her husband. “It adds up quickly.”
He has a team of four. “And I still think my resources are limited compared to the best young pros like Carlos Alcaraz and Yannick Sinner,” he said of the world’s No. 5 and 10 players who have huge teams.
“To achieve my tennis goal of being number one in the rankings, I realized that it takes more than just hard work. Now I try to work smart, investing in my team as if we were a start-up company. The resources are there and the players who are able and willing to invest will have a competitive edge.”
Swain plans to capitalize on Nakashima’s multicultural background, his youth and involvement in public life. In 2020, Nakashima led a shoe sale that included San Diego healthcare workers; a few months ago, he flew home between the Italian and French Opens to help raise funds for friend and former junior rival Ivan Smith, who was paralyzed in an accident. “He has his priorities in order,” Christina Nakashima said.
Swain has another key aspect of marketing in mind. “Everyone, including us, is looking for the best male American player again,” Swain said, referring to the drought among American men in Grand Slam singles that began after Andy Roddick won the US Open title in 2003.
“There are a number of good young male American players who obviously have the same goals, but in men’s tennis it’s a very hard work because it’s an extremely demanding physical and mental sport. These players who build a great team around them and work hard both on and off the court are becoming very, very good and their level is extremely high.”
Nakashima is ready to get to work. He recently spent about 10 days training in Miami to get used to the hard courts and the humidity and heat he is likely to face in Atlanta. He began working with Infantino ahead of the French Open and was encouraged by the quick positive results there and at Wimbledon.
“We strongly believe that with the right preparation I can compete for Grand Slam titles within a year or two,” he said of himself and Infantino, who coached Juan Martin del Potro and other top five players.
“My close match with Kyrgios at Wimbledon only reinforces our belief that we are on the right track.”
Judging by the speed with which he moves, you will recognize his name and his game very soon.