With Next Gen, Nakashima joins elite, exciting pack

Published on Nov 13, 2022 10:27 PM IST

The American Nakashima may not have yet whipped up the kind of buzz his fine young talents have at the elite level, but the 2022 Next Gen champion is quietly shaping up as a quality next in line.

Brandon Nakashima (AP) PREMIUM
Brandon Nakashima (AP)
ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai

If the Next Gen ATP Finals winners roll is an indicator of things to come from the young champions, then Brandon Nakashima finds himself in an esteemed and exciting club alongside Hyeon Chung, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz.

Alcaraz is the current top-ranked men’s player and reigning US Open champion, Tsitsipas sits two spots below him in the rankings chart, and Sinner has six ATP titles.

The American Nakashima may not have yet whipped up the kind of buzz his fine young talents have at the elite level, but the 2022 Next Gen champion is quietly shaping up as a quality next in line.

The 21-year-old wore the crown among this year’s eight best 21-and-under players after beating Czech Republic's Jiri Lehecka 4-3(5), 4-3(6), 4-2 (the fast-paced Next Gen Finals is competed in best-of-four games, five-set matches) in the final in Milan on Saturday. Nakashima dropped just three sets all through the week, going two steps further than his semi-final show last year where he lost to fellow American Sebastian Korda.

By then, though, Nakashima had already carved a notable upward trajectory.

Son of California-born Japanese father and Vietnamese mother, the former junior world No 3 turned pro in 2019 after spending a year at University of Virginia. He won an ATP Challenger title in 2018 and would go on to add four more in 2020—he beat India's Prajnesh Gunneswaran in a final in Orlando in November—and 2021.

From starting the 2020 season placed 367 in the world, Nakashima ended it as the 166th-ranked player and Novak Djokovic's training partner for a week at the US Open. Although he lists Roger Federer as his idol, Nakashima feels he plays a lot like Djokovic.

He was about to do Roddick things the next season. In July 2021, the 19-year-old made consecutive ATP finals in Los Cabos and Atlanta, losing them both yet becoming the first American teen to enter back-to-back finals on the ATP Tour since an 18-year-old Andy Roddick in 2001. Days later, he cracked into the top-100, reiterating his belief that he did “belong with these guys and that I can play on the ATP Tour”.

It was now time to win. Third time was the charm for Nakashima this year at San Diego, where he clinched his first ATP title in September to reach a career-high world No 43 in the next month. More eye-catching, however, have been some of his victories on the Grand Slam stage.

After crashing out in the Australian Open opening round, Nakashima entered the third round at Roland Garros where he ran into to Alexander Zverev. At Wimbledon, he delivered the biggest win of his career thus far in beating then world No 16 Denis Shapovalov in the second round and reaching the fourth before losing to eventual finalist Nick Kyrgios in five sets. That top-20 win in London was no flash in the pan; Nakashima turned up in New York and packed off 19th-ranked Grigor Dimitrov in the US Open second round.

The Gen Next title was a sweet little dessert to the spread of firsts this season for Nakashima.

“It has been a great season for me,” Nakashima, armed with a power-packed groundstroke game complemented by solid serve, said after the final in Milan. “At the beginning of the year, I had some goals—to win my first ATP title. And to be able to do that in San Diego was super special. Then to finish off the year here winning the title at Next Gen is super special.”

Perhaps with the exception of Chung Hyeon who won the inaugural edition in 2017, Next Gen Finals has invariably proved to be a stepping stone to richer returns the following season for Nakashima’s predecessors.

After Tsitsipas was crowned its champion in 2018, the Greek kicked on to bag three titles on the ATP tour in 2019 and stamp his name among the "Gen Next" contenders out to challenge the Big Three stranglehold. Italian Sinner had a breakthrough season last year in reaching a maiden Masters final and pocketing four titles on the back of the 2020 Next Gen triumph. And what about the 2021 winner Alcaraz continuing to win hearts, matches and titles this year, albeit on a much grander scale?

"(To be) mixed will all the past champions is a great achievement," Nakashima said. "I'm just going to keep working hard and I am looking forward to next year.”

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