Next Gen glory perfect stepping stone for Nakashima

 - Alex Sharp

The American joined a prestigious list of champions at the 21-and-under season curtailer

Brandon Nakashima / Next Gen ATP Finals©Ray Giubilo / FFT

It’s a short but mightily impressive roll of honour for the Next Gen ATP Finals.

The tournament, with an injection of format tweaks, is the 21-and-under version of the ATP Finals, which has Hyeon Chung (2017), Stefanos Tsitsipas (2018), Jannik Sinner (2019) and world No.1 Carlos Alcaraz (2021) as past winners.

Nakashima: "A great stepping stone"

Add to that list Brandon Nakashima.

“To be on that list of past champions here is such a super achievement,” beamed the 21-year-old.

The understated and supremely gifted American provided the perfect ending to his campaign, lifting up the trophy in Milan as an undefeated champion.

Nakashima ended a dominant week posting 4-3(5), 4-3(6), 4-2 in Saturday’s title match with world No.74 Jiri Lehecka.

The American dropped just two sets in the group stage, including another straight-sets triumph over Lehecka, before a top drawer 4-3(6), 1-4, 4-2, 4-3(5) passage past in form Brit Jack Draper in the last four.

“I think it's great that all the young and upcoming players come together in a nice fun format,” stated the world No.48.  

“I think this tournament is a great stepping stone. I'm just going to keep working hard and I am looking forward to next year.”

Effective shot making, piercing serves, get-out-of-jail retrieval skills, Nakashima has assembled a pretty complete game ever since turning heads as a strong junior in 2018.

Last November, Nakashima fell in the Next Gen ATP Finals semi-finals, but head down, the American grafted to keep picking off plenty of notable results under the radar.

Take the Grand Slams. At the Australian Open he pushed Top 10 talent Matteo Berrettini to four sets. At Roland-Garros Nakashima hit the third round and was only halted by then world No.3 Alexander Zverev in three tight sets. Over to the lawns of Wimbledon and the American ventured into the second week, eventual finalist Nick Kyrgios escaping in five sets.

Brandon Nakashima & Nick Kyrgios - Huitième de finale Wimbledon 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

The major moments kept coming at the US Open, Nakashima booking a third round ticket, which ended with a four sets triumph for Sinner.

Quite the Grand Slam output.

Those major moves culminated in his maiden ATP title on home courts in San Diego, propelling Nakashima up to a career-high No.43 in the rankings.

I think it has been a great season for me,” said Nakashima, who started the season at No.68.

“I've definitely learned a lot every match and every tournament. At the beginning of the year, I had some goals, one was 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.

“I think the whole year for me has been very consistent. I have such great memories both on and off the court and I'm super thankful for everyone that has been a part of it.”

Lehecka: “Last I was the first alternate, this year I’m in the final"

Rewind to last November and Lehecka was bemoaning just missing out on the Next Gen ATP Finals field as first alternate.

Soaring from world No.141 all the way up to No.74 this season, the 21-year-old’s standout results came during a semi-final run at ATP 500 Rotterdam as a qualifier back in February. 

A runner-up spot in Milan has given Lehecka another taste for the top.

“This tournament has been my goal from the beginning of the year,” he said, having defeated Dominic Stricker to reach the final.

“Last I was the first alternate, for me it was a little unlucky. This year I’m in the final. If somebody told me this before the tournament I’d be super happy.

“So this for sure has been a great impact to my game and to see what I need to work on again, stuff we need to improve to get to the highest level and compete against the best guys. Now I will focus for sure to keep in the Top 100 and to stay there.”

Jiri Lehecka & Brandon Nakashima - Next Gen ATP Finals©Ray Giubilo / FFT