By Gideon Rubin
Winning a USTA regional tournament is an impressive accomplishment for any youth tennis player.
When an 11-year-old emerges from a field of predominantly bigger, stronger and more experienced players in a 14-and-under bracket carrying the trophy, it tends to attract a bit more attention.
Such is the case for Brandon Nakashima, whose surprise showing in last month’s Long Beach tournament helped catapult him to elite status in national and regional polls.
Nakashima, a Carmel Valley resident who attends Keystone Academy, is ranked No. 2 in the nation and is the top- ranked player in Southern California in the most recent 12-and-under USTA rankings.
The rising Carmel Valley star will compete this month in a prestigious national youth event that could shoot his stock up even higher.
Nakashima will travel to Delray Beach, Fla., for the April 7-12 USTA Boys’ & Girls’ 12s National Spring Championships.
The tournament is a qualifier for the Longines Future Tennis Aces tournament, with the boys’ and girls’ champions competing amid an intensely competitive international field in June on the storied clay courts of Roland Garros Stadium in Paris, France, that are the site of the annual French Open
“It would mean a lot because that’s where they play some of the biggest clay tournaments,” Nakashima said.
But Nakashima’s coaches are taking a long-term view towards his development, building on his solid foundation for a career with seemingly limitless potential.
“We try not to get too excited about what he’s doing now,” his coach, Angel Lopez said. “The goal is how good he can be 10 years from now.
“He’s like a little tree and we kind of want to make him a big tree.”
Nakashima’s tree, however, is already yielding fruit.
His performance in the Long Beach tournament followed an appearance in the finals of USTA Winter Nationals in Phoenix earlier this year.
Lopez attributes Nakashima’s success to a fundamentally sound game and a solid foundation that are products of a great work ethic. Nakashima practices three hours a day, which Lopez attributes to a passion for tennis that he says is rare.
“A lot of kids like tennis but not a lot of kids love tennis,” Lopez said. “It’s something I see once a decade.”
Lopez believes Nakashima’s passion for the game is a contributing factor in his success.
“It’s a big part of it,” Lopez said. “If it was a pain in the butt for him to go out there every day I don’t think he’d do it.”
Nakashima said he developed his passion for tennis when he was practically a toddler. He was 3 when his grandfather, Anh Pham, first starting hitting balls to him on local tennis courts. He started taking private lessons when he was 7.
His passion for the tennis grew as he began idolizing tennis star Roger Federer, whose game and playing style he’s tried to emulate.
Asked what he liked about Federer, Nakashima said “just how he’s calm and pretty smooth. He doesn’t get that emotional.”
Some of those qualities seem to have rubbed off on Nakashima.
“He doesn’t get too excited and he doesn’t really get too mad, he’s a cool cucumber type of kid,” Lopez said of Nakashima. “If he hits a great shot he doesn’t celebrate too much, if he hits a bad shot you’d never know he made a bad shot.”
These days, Nakashima isn’t making too many bad shots.
Lopez described Nakashima as a “smooth dude” who doesn’t have any readily apparent weaknesses that opponents can pick apart — a scary prospect for any youth-level opponent.
“He’s a complete all-court player and he’s got every tool in his toolbox,” Lopez said. “He’s got stuff in his bag that other kids don’t have.”
Just as impressive is Nakashima’s down-to-earth persona, something Lopez attributes to the influence of his mother, Cris.
“He respects the teacher, he respects what’s being taught to him and he respects the game,” Lopez said. “A lot of it is nature and a lot of it is nurture too.”
And although Nakashima’s long-term development remains his primary focus, Lopez admits it’s hard not to be excited about his present-day successes, let alone the prospect of him advancing to Paris.
“It would be a great accomplishment and it would be a great experience for him to go to Paris and experience that,” Lopez said.
But Lopez said the smart money is riding on the future of a player whose combination of ability and work ethic has the potential to be pretty special.
“I would bet on it,” Lopez said.