INTERVIEW: Brandon Nakashima Poised for A Productive Year in 2023
As the curtain closed on the ATP Tour season in 2022, the youngest American competitor among the top 50 in the world was proud about where he stood, but determined to keep moving up the international ladder across the next couple of years.
He was appreciative of his many accomplishments, yet eager to explore new horizons in 2023. He seemed poised to achieve on an even wider scale in the year ahead, quietly confident about the player he has become, and secure with who he is and where he might be headed.
I spoke on the telephone not too many days ago with 21-year-old Brandon Nakashima. This was not the first time I had interviewed the appealing Californian over the past couple of years but, even in his understated way, it struck me that this young man has now become surer of himself, more aware of his capabilities, and better able to understand what it will take for him to make deeper inroads in the sport he plays so passionately for a living.
We started the conversation, of course, with his recent season-ending triumph at the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan. That eight man event is reserved exclusively for the top 21-and-under players, showcasing their current status in the sport, signaling the prominent role many of them will play in the future shaping of tennis. This round robin tournament experiments with the rules significantly. Rather than the standard six games to win a set, a player needs only four to succeed. Tie-breaks were contested with the game score locked at 3-3 rather than 6-6. Best of five set matches were played for the entire tournament as always has been the case. Time limits between points were reduced from 25 seconds down to 15 after an ace, a double fault or a missed return of serve.
Nakashima felt he handled the difficulty of a demanding format well in Milan. He told me, “With these shorter sets it can go either way. You get down a break and you are pretty much moving on to the next set. It takes away the element of trying to come back when you are down because it is so difficult to do. This was a good experience for me to win with this format. Personally I prefer the normal scoring format for tournaments, but it is a good concept to try it out for the Next Gen Finals. The shorter sets are more entertaining for the fans.”
Nakashima dealt with it all exceedingly well, and surely benefitted from playing the Next Gen Finals a year ago and reaching the semifinals.
As he told me, “I think it definitely helped to have played it the year before. I got used to the format a little bit. But I was still nervous coming into my first match this year. I didn’t know what it was going to be like with these new players. It was still kind of new to me. I knew I had a good chance of doing well there and I had high expectations going into the event. I was happy with my level the whole tournament. It was a fun event for me to play.”
Nakashima endured some stressful moments in his opening round Robin clash before overcoming the Italian Matteo Arnaldi in five sets. He took the second and third set in tie-breaks, lost a tie-break in the fourth, but prevailed 4-2 in the fifth.
Asked if he felt that hard fought and tense skirmish did him some good going forward, he replied, “I think so. The first match of any tournament is always going to be tough as you get used to the conditions out there. I was a little nervous coming out there and he was an Italian who had the crowd behind him, so it definitely wasn’t easy. It helped me for the later stages of the tournament in terms of my mindset on the crucial points.”
Next on the agenda for Nakashima in the round robin was world No. 74 Jiri Lehecka of the Czech Republic. He took that match in straight sets and then concluded his round robin assignments by taking apart the Italian Francesco Passaro (ranked No. 119 in the world) 4-3 (6), 4-2, 4-1.
Now Nakashima had advanced to the semifinals, and in that penultimate round he stopped the formidable left-handed British player Jack Draper 4-3 (6), 1-4, 4-2, 4-3 (5), winning both the first and fourth set tie-breaks with characteristic poise under pressure. Nakashima was happy with his own performance and impressed with his opponent.
He explained, “Jack played a really good match against me. Both of us played high quality tennis and had great rallies from the beginning to the end of the match. He has a very big game with a good lefty serve that is tricky with the different spins he can get. He is very solid from the baseline as well. He has a good all around game to be at the top level of tennis, so I am sure this is not going to be the last time I play against him on the tour. We will be pushing each other far into the future.”
Having reached the Milan final, Nakashima found himself up against Lehecka for the second time in one week, with this meeting mattering much more than the initial contest. Nakashima was the better player on the biggest points in a high quality meeting. He came through 4-3 (5), 4-3 (6), 4-2 to take the title deservedly.
“It is definitely not easy playing the same guy twice in the same tournament,” admits Nakashima. “I kind of knew the first match against him didn’t mean much going into the final. Obviously we knew more about each other’s games. I knew he would want to get revenge and he got off to a pretty good start from the back of the court. I had to weather the storm. Both of us played well. A couple of points at the end of both tie-breaks made the difference. It could have gone either way. I was fortunate to pull it out.”
Asked about the significance of closing his 2022 season on such a high note, Nakashima responds, “It definitely means a lot ending this year with a title. It was a great year for me all around. I learned a lot and grew as a player. Finishing the year with a title against the best young and up and coming players is a great achievement. This tournament will be a good stepping stone for me.”
The Next Gen ATP Finals was not the only important prize that Nakashima added to his collection in 2022. In late September, he realized a longtime dream by capturing his first ATP Tour title, taking the 250 event in his hometown of San Diego, defeating countryman Marcos Giron in the final. That was a reward he will relish forever.
Nakashima says, “At the beginning of the year it was always a goal of mine to try and win my first ATP Tour title some time during the year. I always knew I had the game to do it, but it was just about having the right opportunity at the right time. To be able to win my first title in my hometown was super special. Having all my friends and family come out there to support me was really nice. I grew up learning the game of tennis in San Diego. I will never forget winning that tournament.”
Meanwhile, Nakashima impressively displayed his court craft at three of the four majors, reaching the round of 16 at Wimbledon before losing to Nick Kyrgios in five sets after ousting 2021 semifinalist Denis Shapovalov, going to the third round of Roland Garros where he lost 7-6 (2), 6-3, 7-6 (5) to Sascha Zverev, and making it to the third round at the U.S. Open with a good win over Grigor Dimitrov before he was beaten in four tough sets by Jannik Sinner.
Those showings were abundant proof that Nakashima can compete against the best players in the world. Nakashima realized after doing so well in those big tournaments that he is not far away from moving to another level of the game.
As he points out, “I had the opportunity to play against some of the top players and I played some of my best tennis against them. It gave me a lot of confidence. Playing in those big stadiums like the Centre Court at Wimbledon and Armstrong at the U.S. Open was a cool experience. Even though I lost some tough matches to Zverev, Kyrgios and Sinner, I took a lot of positives from those. Maybe my favorite moment was beating Dimitrov at the U.S. Open. He had beaten me in Rome. At the Open I had the crowd behind me. It was great to win that match there and it was one of the highlights of my year.”
Over the course of 2022, Nakashima made some changes in his coaching camp that he feels will make a significant difference in the coming year and beyond. He now has in his corner Eduardo Infantino and Franco Davin. Davin, of course, worked in the past with a number of accomplished players including 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro.
Speaking about some of the coaching expertise that has come his way, Nakashima starts with the wise council he received from 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, who was with him in a crucial period up until the end of 2020.
Nakashima says, “I had a great time with Pat. We spent a lot of time together and I learned a lot from him, especially coming forward to the net as much as possible. I am grateful for the help he gave me and we will always have a good friendship. But at the time we stopped working together, I was looking for something else. I tried a bunch of coaches. Now I have Eduardo and Franco. It has been going really well. It is such a strong team and I have a physio as well. In terms of the coaching, Eduardo and Franco share it and they collaborate and communicate a lot, so having both in my corner has been great. They both add a lot of value to my tennis game.”
Being the youngest American in the world’s top 50 (at No. 47) is an honor not lost on Nakashima. He is prideful about his rise at the age of 21 into the elite of the game, and hopeful that the coming year will provide him with a chance to accomplish on an even wider scale.
As Nakashima explains, “It is a great achievement for me to end 2022 in the top fifty. American tennis right now is being played at a super high level. You have a bunch of guys in the top 50 and the top 100 always having consistent results. American tennis is in a very good spot. So for me to be inside the top fifty is great, but I want to keep getting better. My goals for next year are to break into the top 25 or 30 and go deep at all of the Grand Slams as well. I am still pretty young at 21 so I am building up my fitness and getting stronger and faster. One of the keys next year will be lasting longer in these best of five set matches. I felt that Sinner at the U.S. Open definitely lasted longer than me in those long rallies and the really physical games. So I am working hard to get fitter and fitter. I know what a difference that can make for me.”
(EXCLUSIVE) Ukrainian Journalist Reacts To Controversial Booing Of Marta Kostyuk At French Open
The first day of the French Open saw Aryna Sabalenka breeze into the second round but the talking point of the match occurred just seconds after it had finished.
Approaching the net her opponent, Marta Kostyuk, refused to shake hands with the world No.2. Her decision to do so was because of Sabalenka’s home country supporting Russia in their war against Ukraine. It is not the first time that a Ukranian player has done this on the Tour but the crowd reception was something that has rarely occurred before. Kostyuk was booed off the court as a result of her gesture, even though it was widely expected that she would do this before the match.
The situation adds to the frustration of Ukrainian players with some of them previously calling for tougher penalties to be implemented on Russian players due to the conflict. Something the governing bodies of tennis refused to do this as they argue that players shouldn’t be punished for the actions of their governments. The only exception was Wimbledon and the Lawn Tennis Association who last year banned Russian and Belarussian players from their events amid fear of those athletes being used for propaganda by the Russian regime.
One of those watching Kostyuk’s match was journalist Sergey Kontorchik who is the founder of the Ukranian tennis website BTU. As somebody who follows the actions of his compatriots on the Tour every week, he admits the reception given to fans at Roland Garros to Kostyuk caught him off guard.
“This is quite surprising to me. I think Marta and our players have explained quite clearly the reasons why this is happening,” Kontorchik tells Ubitennis.
“If somebody still doesn’t understand why Ukrainian players don’t shake hands with players from countries that kill Ukrainians and wage an invasive war, they won’t understand it anymore.”
Kontorchik lives in Dnipro, a city located in the centre of the Dnipropetrovsk Region which borders Donetsk. On Friday two people were killed and 30 injured following a Russian missile strike on a outpatient clinic in Kontorchik’s city.
The situation involving Kostyuk is even more surprising given the recent support that was shown towards one of her peers, Elina Svitolina, who won the Lyon Open title on Sunday.
“Not really, maybe somewhere in smaller tournaments,” Kontorchik replied when asked if he remembers any other players from his country going through a similar scenario to that of Kostyuk.
“Even in yesterday’s final (of the Lyon Open), the public was quite on the side of the Ukranian.”
Quizzed about the incident during her press conference, Sabalenka said she understood her rival’s decision to not shake hands with her. Adding that Kostyuk shouldn’t have exited the court in the way that she did. Sabalenka has previously said players are entitled to hate her if they wanted to and has called for politics to be kept out of the sport.
“I understand why they are not shaking hands with us. I can imagine if they gonna shake hands with us, and then what’s gonna happen to them from the Ukrainian side. So I understand that. And I understand that this is not kind of like personally, you know,” she said.
“I think she didn’t deserve to leave the court that way.”
Sabalenka also adds that she believes that ‘normal people’ would not support the ongoing war. This a rare statement from an athlete from either Russia or Belarus to make about the current situation.
“I said it many, many times: Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. Nobody. How can we support the war? Nobody, normal people will never support it.” She said.
“Of course, we don’t support war. If it could affect anyhow the war, if it could stop it, we would do it. But unfortunately, it’s not in our hands.”
However, that comment has been met with scepticism from Kostyuk who has publically called for the Australian Open champion to clarify her view about who she backs in the war and why.
“She never says that she personally doesn’t support this war,” Kostyuk replied during her press conference.
“I feel like you (the media) should ask these players who would they want the war to win because if you ask this question, I’m not so sure these people will say that they want Ukraine to win.”
(EXCLUSIVE) Clara Tauson: The Other Danish Rising Star Competing At The French Open
When it comes to Denmark and tennis in 2023, the name of Holger Rune comes to the mind of many given his rapid rise in the sport which includes nine wins over top 10 players within a six-and-a-half month period.
However, the Nordic country also has a promising player on the women’s Tour who has already experienced her fair share of ups and downs. 20-year-old Clara Tauson has been constantly compared to Caroline Wozniacki whilst growing up given her impressive junior career. In 2019 she claimed the Australian Open girls title at the age of 16 which elevated her to the top of the ITF junior rankings. During that same year, she rose by over 130 places in the WTA standings to inside the top 300.
Transitioning to the women’s Tour from junior competition is always a challenge but Tauson impressed early on. A breakout 2021 season saw her claim two WTA titles in Lyon and Luxembourg. She also won a WTA 125K event in Chicago. Then last year she reached a ranking high of No.33 before injury derailed her rise in the sport.
The person in charge of trying to get Tauson back to the top of her game is Carlos Martinez who joined her team just weeks before the start of the French Open. Martinez is a veteran of tennis coaching and previously worked with Daria Kasatkina. He has also guided Svetlana Kuznetsova, Marc Lopez, Fabio Fognini and Feliciano Lopez in the past.
“She called me two or three months ago when I stopped working with Dasha (Daria Kasatkina). We have been in contact for a long time because we talked a few years ago as well,” Martinez told Ubitennis about his latest coaching role.
“She is a girl who has very good potential, really nice and kind. She also wanted to come to my academy. We started a one-week trial and then very fast we started to form a very good connection. In the beginning, we started without any conditions. Then we both felt good (about the collaboration) and started working (together).”
Martinez’s academy, CMC Competition, is located 20 km outside of Barcelona in CT Mollet. The facility has six clay courts, a fully equipped gym and even an outdoor swimming pool. Making it an appealing place to train at this time of the year for players such as Tauson who impressed her new coach at a young age.
“I first saw her when she was 16 and playing at a Fed Cup tie in Poland,” he remembers. “At that time I liked how she was doing. She won the Australian Open (girls) title and was No.1 in the juniors.’
“When I saw her practice at my academy I was not surprised (by her game) because I know she is a really good player. The only thing is that she has to be healthy and work on some aspects. I believe she has a very good future.”
Whilst there is a lot of optimism for the future, it depends a lot on how the Dane’s body holds up. A back injury ruled her out of last year’s French Open and hampered her preparation for Wimbledon where she retired from her opening match. The setbacks continued into this season with a foot injury forcing her out of the Australian Open.
It is always a concern when a player is blighted by injuries at a young age but she isn’t the only person to have experienced this. Another notable case is Emma Raducanu who is currently sidelined from the sport after undergoing three ‘minor’ procedures on both of her hands and ankle.
“I think because she is tall and it was at that time when she was growing, she was affected by a few injuries. We need to prepare her body to be healthy and be one hundred per cent confident that she can compete,” Martinez explains.
“We are not rushing in any aspect such as talking about her ranking because for me the most important thing is to recover her level and then make it better than before. The focus is to build her game, make her understand how to play tennis and believe that she can go back towards the top of the rankings.”
The work between Martinez and Tauson appears to be paying off. As a result of her drop in the rankings, the Dane competed in the qualifying rounds of the French Open. In her opening two matches, she breezed her way past Katie Swan (No.161) and Petra Marcinko (No.257). Then in the final round, she edged out Sweden’s Mirjam Bjorklund 7-5, 6-7(3), 6-2, after almost three hours of play.
Roland Garros was where Tauson made her Grand Slam debut back in 2020. On that occasion, she also had to come through qualifying before stunning 21st seed Jennifer Brady in the first round.
“We are happy that she has qualified here at Roland Garros. My speech to her every day is that we have one more way to improve. There is no pressure at all because she is out of the top 100. This is just the beginning and little by little I am seeing nice things that we are doing in practice she is using on the court for matches.”Carlos Martinez
The trio of victories is undoubtedly a massive boost but back home her achievements have been overshadowed by her friend and former doubles partner Rune. Together they won the Danish Under-12s mixed doubles tournament. They will reunite later this year to play in the Hopman Cup which is taking place after Wimbledon.
“The fact Rune is doing so well is a good motivation for her,” Martinez believes. “They are different players and personalities but they can both become very, very good. It’s good for her to have a friend on the Tour who she can share experiences with.”
“She’s the kind of player who can do everything when it comes to attack. She has a huge forehand, one of the best that I have ever seen. She serves good and has a good backhand.” He added.
Regardless of how Tauson performs in her first round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich in Paris, her new coach admits she needs to work on improving her defensive game. Should this and a few other adjustments be made, the sky’s the limit in Matinez’s eyes.
“Her level for sure one day can be top 20. She is very young and has very good weapons. I’m sure she can be very good. As for when I have no idea because I am not magic. I hope I’m going to be with her for a very long time and see how successful she will become.” He concluded.
Tauson will play her first round match on Sunday.
EXCLUSIVE: Monte Carlo Tournament Director David Massey On Attendance Figures And The Rise Of Italian Tennis
This year’s Monte Carlo Masters marked the start of a new era for the tournament.
Overseeing the running of the event for the first time was David Massey who is no stranger to working in the world of men’s tennis. Massey, who has been a resident of Monte Carlo since 2001, has previously served as the ATP’s vice president for Europe and has worked for the organisation in some capacity for 20 years. He also speaks fluently in English, Spanish and French.
Ubitennis spoke with Massey on the final day of this year’s tournament which concluded with Andrey Rublev winning his first Masters 1000 title by outlasting Holger Rune in three sets. He reflects on his first year in charge of one of the most prestigious clay court events outside of the French Open, provides some insights into this year’s attendance figures and speaks highly about the rise of Italian tennis.
SCANAGATTA: I would like to know what has brought you a better experience and what have you learned this year as tournament director? Also, what did you enjoy the most about this year’s tournament?
MASSEY: May I start by thanking Zeljko Franulovic (former tournament director) because it is always easier to build on an existing event. He ran it extremely well for so many years. I also know him, we worked together on the ATP Tour prior to 2004. It was a great privilege for me to take over from him.
In terms of what I have learnt this year, I think my 20 years of experience on the ATP Tour has served me well. Plus I also had one year (2022) where I was the deputy Tour director so I felt I came here (to Monte Carlo) prepared. I think I will always learn every single year. There are always things to improve but we are very satisfied with how we have built up the site this year. We were prepared to receive every sector, whether it would be the media, players, fans etc. We were really satisfied with the results there. Unlucky with the weather a couple of times but overall I am really satisfied with the week.
SCANAGATTA: Can you give us some numbers regarding spectators and the success of this tournament? As an Italian, I would have liked to see Jannik Sinner in the final but still, there was a great final with two great top 10 players.
MASSEY: We had 140,000 spectators which is a number that we have surpassed for the first time in the tournament’s history. That was a result of the real eagerness of our fans to come to sporting events. It has been a great effort from our ticketing department to sell those tickets and market the event.
We have a capacity on the site which can hold 15,644 people at one stage. It is very important for us to keep this in mind. So we are at capacity basically and it is hard to imagine that number increasing in the future but we want to maintain it at least. That is our goal.
We always have Easter Monday during the tournament which helps us and makes a big difference because people can enjoy that Monday of the tournament which is usually a work day.
In terms of the Italian market. We are just 11km away from the Italian border, so it is also like having a tournament which is played in Italy. We had so many Italian fans here and the depth of Italian players these days is exceptional. We saw fine tennis from all of the players. I think Matteo Berrettini was unlucky to have injured himself because he was really in good form before that. We saw how far Sonego went, Musetti’s upset against Djokovic and Jannik Sinner’s extremely good form.
Sinner is one of the few players who have got to the semi-finals of Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo in the same year. I think only Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are the only other players to have done this as well. So Sinner is in great form and I hope to see him go further in the future.
SCANAGATTA: Do you have any idea about the percentage of foreign visitors to Monte Carlo? We saw a match between an Italian and French player on Court 2 and there were more Italian supporters.
MASSEY: Roughly speaking, about 40% of ticket holders are Italian, around 50% are French and then 10% are international.
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