Column: Amid rankings surge, Brandon Nakashima focused on amplifying his personal brand
If you haven’t heard of Brandon Nakashima, you will soon.
Not because the San Diego native has climbed from No. 355 in the men’s world tennis rankings at the start of 2020 to a career-best No. 49 last week after he reached the third round at the French Open and followed up with a five-set loss to volatile Nick Kyrgios in the round of 16 at Wimbledon last month.
Nakashima, who will be 21 on Aug. 3 and is now ranked No. 56, is the fifth-youngest player in the men’s top 100. He’s got a terrific backhand, strong court sense, and a solid serve that makes up in precision what it might lack in power. Through last week he had won 73.95% of his first-serve points in 2022, not far behind 21-time Grand Slam singles winner Novak Djokovic (74.54%) and world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev (76.38%).
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“I think his strength is that he doesn’t really have any weaknesses,” said Gary Swain of 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 is going to be learning to play more aggressively and dictating more on the court.”
Nakashima is also calm. Mature. He probably won’t ever throw a racket, thanks to the ethic instilled by his mother Christina, a native of Vietnam, and father Wesley, a Californian of Japanese heritage. Both are pharmacists. They taught him the value of hard work and didn’t have the inclination to pay for wrecked equipment or half-hearted efforts by him or his younger brother Bryce.
“It’s fun to work with someone who is so smart and responsible. Just solid in character as an individual,” Swain said. “I think he’s a good role model. I hope he achieves his full potential because he can be great for the game.”
As he prepares for his quarterfinal match Friday in the Atlanta Open — his runnerup finish there a year ago launched him into the top 100 for the first time — Nakashima is a face in the crowd of youngsters chasing the esteem and titles earned by gritty Rafael Nadal (22 Slam singles titles) and graceful Roger Federer, who has 20 Slam event singles titles. Nakashima is refining his footwork and movement to the net to separate himself from that crowd. He’s taking smart steps to stand out off the court too.
“I’m now trying to work smart while investing in my team as if we were a startup company.”
— Brandon Nakashima, on his strategy to create a brand for himself
Realizing he had to upgrade his coaching and support teams to crack the upper reaches of the rankings, Nakashima partnered with IMG to reach out to high-powered sponsors to help him pay the bills. Nakashima, who won academic and athletic honors in his one year at the University of Virginia, sees similarities between college athletes’ new options to market their name, image and likeness and his strategy to define and capitalize on his image with a global audience.
“I think social media has really enabled young athletes to find their voices and values earlier in life, allowing us to connect more directly with companies and fans that want to support similar interests and values,” he said via email. “I’m only beginning to understand the broad implications of this. It’s about creating a brand, and it’s fascinating to me.”
Nakashima has deals with sports-related companies Fila and Babolat, as well as Motorola and SentinelOne cybersecurity, but he estimated his budget this year could hit $500,000. His coaching team is led by Eduardo Infantino and ideally would include trainers, physiotherapists, hitting partners and data analysts, among others. According to the ATP tour he has earned $670,195 in 2022. He pays the salaries and expenses of his entourage. “Everything: breakfast, lunch and dinner,” said Christina Nakashima, who takes turns with her husband in attending Brandon’s far-flung tournaments. “It adds up quickly.”
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He has a team of four. “And I still think I’m resource-constrained compared to top young pros like Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner,” he said of the world’s fifth- and 10th-ranked players, who have huge teams.
“In order to achieve my tennis goal of reaching the top of the rankings, I’ve learned that it requires more than just hard work. I’m now trying to work smart while investing in my team as if we were a startup company. The resources are out there, and the players who are able and willing to invest will have a competitive advantage.”
Swain plans to capitalize on Nakashima’s multicultural background, his youth and his community involvement. In 2020, Nakashima led a shoe drive that benefitted health care professionals in San Diego; a few months ago, he flew home between the Italian and French Opens to participate in a fundraiser for a friend and former junior opponent, Ivan Smith, who had been paralyzed in an accident. “He has his priorities in order,” Christina Nakashima said.
Swain has another key marketing angle in mind. “Everybody, including us, is looking for a top American male player again,” Swain said, referring to a Grand Slam event singles drought among American men that began after Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open title in 2003.
“There are a number of good, young, male American players that obviously aspire to the same goals but in men’s tennis, it’s a process and it takes a lot of work because it’s an extremely demanding physical and mental sport. These players who build a great team around them and who work hard both on and off the court become very, very good, and the level is extremely high.”
Nakashima is willing to put in the work. He recently spent about 10 days training in Miami to acclimate himself to hard courts and to the humidity and heat he likely will face in Atlanta. He began working with Infantino before the French Open and is encouraged by the quick, positive results there and at Wimbledon.
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“We strongly believe that with the right training I can compete for Grand Slam titles within a year or two,” he said of himself and Infantino, who has coached Juan Martin del Potro and other top-five players.
“My close match with Kyrgios at Wimbledon only reinforces our belief that we’re on the right path.”
At the rate he’s going, you’ll know his name and his game very soon.
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