On Sunday, Brandon Nakashima had his moment in the spotlight. After a tumultuous and unprecedented 2020 season, it was the 19-year-old who seized the opportunity and concluded his campaign with a maiden ATP Challenger Tour crown.
Nakashima was the last man standing in Orlando, prevailing at the USTA National Campus. The California native did not drop a set all tournament, capping a dominant week at the Orlando Open with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Prajnesh Gunneswaran.
Nakashima is building his reputation around a steely resolve and unflappable determination. An elite problem solver on the court, nothing rattles the teenager, regardless of the score, situation and opponent. This was on full display on Sunday, as he saved all eight break points faced to cross the finish line. With Gunneswaran pressing to draw level deep in the second set, Nakashima emerged from a 0/40 deficit and did not look back.
At the age of 19 years and three months, Nakashima is the youngest American champion since Frances Tiafoe in 2017. In addition, his victory marks the sixth time that a teenager has lifted a trophy this year. He joins Tomas Machac, Lorenzo Musetti and three-time champion Carlos Alcaraz in the teen winners’ circle.
Nakashima soars 36 spots to a career-high No. 166 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. He is one of two #NextGenATP Americans closing in on the Top 100, along with Sebastian Korda. Korda is also coming off a maiden Challenger triumph, prevailing two weeks ago in Eckental, Germany.
Nakashima spoke with broadcaster Mike Cation after taking the title in Orlando…
Brandon, you don’t show a lot of emotion, but you dropped your racquet and raised your arms after match point. It seems like this one means a lot to you to get that first Challenger title.
It definitely does. Playing all these Challengers the past couple years was all leading up to this moment, to win my first title. I couldn’t be happier right now.
It’s been a very interesting progression for you, in terms of what you’re trying to do. I know there’s that long-term expectation of getting to the Top 100, Top 50 and beyond. How are you managing that while still focusing on these Challenger tournaments?
Ever since I started playing, I’ve always wanted to play tennis at the highest level and eventually become No. 1 in the world. I think this is just a great stepping stone in that direction. It shows that all my hard work throughout the past couple years is paying off. I’m happy to get my first Challenger under my belt and this will give me a lot of confidence for any future ATP Tour tournaments in the future.
You had a couple of rough weeks in Europe, before coming back to the states. What did you learn from those tournaments where you had some early losses and how did that translate to these weeks in the U.S.?
Those tournaments in Europe were on clay. I hadn’t had much experience playing on the surface. But it was great to go over there for the first time as a professional and play Roland Garros qualies and then some Challengers all over Europe. It was just a great experience, no matter my results. I know I gained a lot and learned a lot and that eventually helped me in these past couple weeks back in the states. And it will definitely help me when I’m back over there in the future.
I think you are universally applauded for your problem solving. What are the things you are working on, to take this to the next level and beyond?
I always try to improve every part of my game as much as possible. During the [COVID-19] shutdown, I was definitely trying to improve my serve a lot and get some more free points from it. I am working on being more solid from the baseline and also add more variety to my game. It’s a good progression throughout the past few months. I’m definitely heading in the right direction. After this, I’m just ready to get back to the practice court and continue improving all aspects of my game. And especially fitness. That’s important and something I want to focus on more.
2020 Teenage Winners
|Carlos Alcaraz||17 years, 3 months||Trieste, ITA|
|Carlos Alcaraz||17 years, 5 months||Barcelona, ESP|
|Carlos Alcaraz||17 years, 5 months||Alicante, ESP|
|Lorenzo Musetti||18 years, 6 months||Forli, ITA|
|Brandon Nakashima||19 years, 3 months||Orlando, USA|
|Tomas Machac||19 years, 4 months||Koblenz, GER|
I want to get back to that shortly, but regarding today, you saved all eight break chances. What does that say about what you’ve been doing over these last several months?
I think that saving all those break points shows my mental ability and being able to play one point at a time. I know I can come back from any situation when I’m out there. It just shows how mentally tough I am and we’ll see where that takes me in the future.
When I speak to other people in the media, everyone is in awe of your mental and emotionally stability. Do you actually have a good understanding of how different that is from so many players?
[Laughs]. Yes, I’ve definitely heard that from a lot of people, that I’m really strong mentally. It definitely helps me get through these tough matches and to win these critical points. I’m always trying to improve that.
How do you set up your offseason, with so much uncertainty surrounding the start of 2021? How do you plan what you’re going to do for the next few weeks?
As all players do, we’re just going to get back on the practice court and focus on what we can do to improve. I’m going to work on the stuff that I’ve built the past couple weeks. I know what I need to do to improve. It’s great that we have a little break, but as always I’m looking forward to competing again, no matter when it is.
I’ve been watching some of your practices and this guy over here [coach Dusan Vemic] has been pretty tough on you. Is he going to allow you to celebrate a little bit? [laughs]
I hope so. Maybe he’ll allow me to have a treat tonight, but we’ll see. I’m going to take a few days off and enjoy it as much as possible.