Considered by many as the nation’s top collegiate recruit, Brandon Nakashima has other things on his mind as he hoists the winning trophy at this year’s USTA International Spring Championships in Carson. While reporters want to know about his dominant performance, his competitive outlook, and what’s next on his tennis schedule, Nakashima is preparing to put backhands and topspin aside. He’s got one week to finish preparing for ACT college standardized testing, yet again balancing academics with sports, this time with emphasis more on the scholar and less on the athlete.
College is on the horizon, and like many talented young athletes, Nakashima has decisions to make. Coveted by collegiate tennis programs from coast to coast, the 16 year-old plays beneath a proverbial spotlight. Whether competing at Indian Wells during the qualifying rounds of the BNP Paribas Masters (pushing ATP #75 Canadian Vasek Pospisil to a second set tiebreak), or powering through the draw in Carson, Nakashima is under the watchful eye of coaches eager to add his prowess to their roster when Fall 2019 rolls around.
He’s not alone. The Tennis Recruiting Network – an online watchdog tracking junior players nationwide – follows and rates promising athletes beginning as early as sixth grade. Sebastian Korda (son of former Australian Open champion Petr Korda) ranks at the top of senior level 18 year-olds and among the world’s top juniors, and is expected to forego a college experience to start his professional career as a teenager. Among girls, New York’s Elysia Bolton is the top 18 year-old; she will head west after committing to the UCLA Bruins earlier this year.
Why did Korda decide against college? Why did Bolton not turn pro? It’s a decision unique to each player, a multifaceted procedure that relies heavily on input from parents, other players, and coaches. What we do know is that every player is different – in skill, in personality, in confidence – and each will carve their own path in competitive tennis.
“Nowadays, many of the players who want to turn pro are just not ready,” according to Stella Sampras-Webster, who this year tallied her 400th win as head coach of the UCLA Women’s Tennis squad. “They are just not mature enough. It’s how they handle situations. The game is so physical now, their bodies still need to mature. But if they are committed, (college tennis) will not hurt their development.”
Sampras-Webster is no stranger to the collegiate experience. Only the second player in UCLA history to earn four All-American honors, she was an NCAA doubles champion in her freshman year and a finalist in her senior year, then turned pro and competed on the grand stages of Wimbledon and the US Open. Her younger brother Pete Sampras is a 14-time Grand Slam champion who, conversely, opted to forego college tennis and turned pro as a teenager.
“Pete had already proven himself at the age of sixteen,” Sampras-Webster recalls, noting that players who excel in such a manner are few and far between. “It definitely depends on the player.”
“The Process” starts as early as a player’s freshman or sophomore year, with varying levels of immediacy based on the prowess of the recruit. A rare find – perhaps, a player who has exceled at an unusually rapid pace – will garner the attention of prospective college coaches as early as three years before they select a college program. The vast majority, however, tend to mature throughout their high school career, proactively reaching out to university programs for consideration. But competition can be fierce, with only a select number of slots available in any given year, for any given team.
When recruiting a talented junior player, coaches are likely to make a proactive connection with the player’s existing private or high school coach. This first step in The Process is rather informative for college staff, who will look to further develop a relationship with the player as time progresses and a mutual interest is expressed.
“Once we figure out that it’s a player who will fit our program and our team,” says Sampras-Webster, “it gets proactive. But we have to continue to be patient. Some will make a big jump closer to junior year, and they come on the radar.”
The Process accelerates toward those latter years of high school, when both the athlete and the colleges assess and focus their goals and expectations. Important campus visits are scheduled (a new NCAA policy will soon allow for high school juniors to make early official campus visits, perhaps expediting recruitment/commitment methods), recruitment regulations come into play, and crucial decisions loom on the horizon as players weigh academics, athletics, and team obligations. Coaches, on the other hand, must strategically fill open spots on their roster.
“It’s like a game,” Sampras-Webster says, just as she and her coaching staff fill the three open slots on the Fall ’18 roster. “So much of it is timing, and you want to be as honest as possible (with recruits).” Admittedly, Sampras-Webster says, it can be difficult to continue to recruit players who are not the program’s number one choice, and keep all of them engaged as The Process plays out.
In other instances, the recruit may be overly steadfast in their selection of a school and tennis program, an approach that could be detrimental to both parties.
“It is a shame that most kids decide what school to go to before the official visit,” notes Peter Smith, Men’s Tennis Head Coach at the University of Southern California (USC), who looks to fill three slots of his own this fall. “The official visit gives so much information to the recruit and the school.”
For Smith, a Division I head coach for thirty years now in his 16th at the helm of the Trojans, the team benefits from players who are good students not just in the classroom, but on the tennis court. “(I look for) character, grit, the ability to listen, and the ability to work hard,” he says. “If a kid will work hard, listen, and communicate then everything else usually takes care of itself.”
“Reputations are out there,” warns Sampras-Webster, acknowledging that the team can easily determine if a prospect has difficulty getting along with teammates and may not be a fit for the close knit Bruins. Instead, the program flourishes with players who are “coachable, grateful, who enjoy being part of a team and working toward a team championship. Players who love to play, and love the sport,” she says.
The best resource for insight into team prospects? The current roster, according to Sampras-Webster. “They are the ones who know who would fit in here,” she says.
Danielle Lao is a two-time USC All American and 2008 USTA National Open champion, currently touring as a professional at ITF and WTA circuit events. In 2013, Lao co-wrote “The Invaluable Experience” as a resource for players and parents who face the potentially daunting task of juggling life, school, and sports.
“As a teenager,” Lao recalls, “choosing a college was the biggest decision of my life at that point,” adding that the experience was “very stressful, but at the same time very exciting… I didn’t want to take my decision lightly, so I pushed myself to talk to all coaches that contacted me just to give myself an accurate overview on what was being offered at every university that wanted me.”
One of Lao’s most essential resources? Her parents. In nearly all cases, The Process relies heavily on parental input, advice, and guidance. In some instances, selecting a college or university represents the final major decision that a parent will make in tandem with a child who yearns for freedom and adulthood.
For Cris Nakashima, Brandon’s mother, that kind of communication is essential. As she prepares to send her son off to college with lofty aspirations in tow, Cris assumes not just the role of parent, but also that of advisor, and perhaps her most valuable resources are the coaches who hope to bring Brandon into the fold.
“I think the best college coaches will communicate very effectively and honestly with the parents of their prospective players,” says Cris. “We don’t need to create our own relationship with a prospective coach, but the coach should be able to tell parents and players alike how they will implement their programs in the foreseeable future.”
As college coaches develop a relationship with recruits, the same approach occurs with parents. With every new recruit comes a new set of parents, engaged in a journey of their own to put their son or daughter in the best possible environment to grow and succeed.
“It takes a village to raise kids,” says Smith, who has coached two of his three sons at USC, “and parents are the most important people in a teenager’s life. I spend as much time as we need talking to the parents.”
“It’s really important that parents are educated so they can be supportive, and not add to the stress of their child,” advises Sampras-Webster, who makes every effort to meet a recruit’s parents as early in The Process as possible, well before a player commits to the Bruins. “If you let the player deal with coaches and decisions, it helps the player grow up.” If not, she says, kids are likely to bottle up their emotions and challenges, and it becomes tough on the young athlete.
Off the court and aside from the collegiate program, perhaps the most vital communication happens at home, in the private family setting between recruited prospects and their parents. Fielding overtures from schools like UCLA, USC, and Stanford, the Nakashimas may have a wealth of options, but the decision will rely heavily on factors ranging from coaching philosophies and teammates to academic opportunity and school culture.
“We don’t think Brandon can go wrong with the options available to him,” Cris Nakashima confides. “But our family is tight knit, and we will likely discuss his options at length before he decides. Ultimately, Brandon will make the decision and we will be supportive and happy for him… There are countless components and considerations that require attention and no one wants to make a mistake in this big decision, especially us as parents.”
“Chances are this is as new a process to the recruit as it is to the parent, so they need each other to make this big decision,” Danielle Lao adds. Parental consultation is crucial, she says, yet even with invaluable input from parents, the students should make the ultimate decision and begin to carve their own path. “Sometimes parental input starts to outweigh the recruit’s (input),” she warns. “At the end of the day this decision should be based off what the recruit wants, and it’s a parent’s job to help steer them in that direction.”
Parental input was crucial for Ashley Lahey, a former SCTA Player of the Year who in 2016 was the #6 rated female prospect in the country. She’d considered an Ivy League education that would parlay itself into medical school, but ultimately heeded sage advice of her father in selecting a suitable university that would foster both her academic and athletic requirements.
“My dad is a Yale alum,” Lahey recalls, “and he told me that if I chose (an Ivy League school) I would not be able to pursue tennis the way I wanted to. He said studies were vigorous and professors were often inflexible. He wanted me to go to a place where I could thrive in academics and tennis simultaneously and keep my dreams alive in both.”
Lahey made her commitment to Malibu, where she majors in Sports Medicine and competes in her second year with the Pepperdine Waves, a top Division I program. “After visiting Pepperdine,” she says of her recruitment experience, “I had this incredible gut feeling that I belonged at the school. I always tell my friends to follow their gut feelings. You will get a feeling that this is the place where you belong.”
There are multiple schools of thought relating to college athletics and pro aspirations, most notably as a source of ongoing chatter within the football or basketball ranks, where the pressure on highly talented young players to declare pro eligibility is palpable. As a result, pro athletes like Jennifer Brady or Mackenzie McDonald – both UCLA Bruins who turned pro after two decorated seasons in Westwood – regularly opt for an abbreviated university experience and depart after one or two years to embark on a professional career.
Sampras-Webster has seen players join her team, only to embark on the pro tour just two years after arriving at UCLA. Still, she does not see the practice as a recruitment deterrent.
“It’s OK, as long as they are up front with me (about their professional aspirations),” she concedes. “We’re trying to get the best players out there. Having Jennifer Brady on our team helped our program.”
But Sampras-Webster is quick to remind about the pitfalls of best-laid plans. “It doesn’t always work out,” she says of players anticipating a shortened college career. Instead, the recommended approach is to reevaluate after two years to weigh the athlete’s preparation and ability to acclimate to the demands of a pro lifestyle.
“Good academics is just as important as playing tennis at a given college,” says young Nakashima, who is smart to consider the entirety of a college experience but won’t rule out an accelerated path to the pro tour. Heeding Sampras-Webster’s advice, he agrees that academics will remain a top priority. “I don’t look at a good education as my backup to a tennis career; I see it as a strong base for what I will do after I stop playing competitive tennis.”
“I made my college choice based on the team culture, school reputation, and overall quality of life I envisioned students had at each school,” recalls Lao, a Southern California native. “Heavily weighted academics was not ideal, nor was heavily weighted athletics. There had to be a nice balance between the two to yield a balanced quality of life. I wanted to grow as a person, not just as a tennis player or as a student.”
At any given match, recruiting staff from a handful of schools could be in the shadows, watching from the sidelines while gathering their own insight and opinions on Southern California prospects. For a sixteen year-old like Brandon Nakashima, that alone could be a source of stress and pressure, yet he takes it very much in stride.
“When I’m practicing or playing tournaments,” Nakashima says, appreciative of the interest and attention he’s received, “I am pretty focused on the tennis in front of me because there is only so much court time I have to get better.”
From a coach’s perspective, the goal is to witness potential without adding any pressure to the situation.
“I always tell kids when I am watching them that I am always rooting for them,” Peter Smith says, “and not to feel pressure from me watching. I am there to support them because I believe in them. I never try and pressure kids to make a decision. I always want them to feel like they made the right decision, in their time.”
By this time next year, Nakashima and his tennis peers will have come to that much-anticipated conclusion. Some will commit to the university of choice, while others will wait and hope for a roster invitation. A few faces may even jump to the pro tour, banking on reward over risk. Each will determine if their return on investment was worth The Process.
“I know there are no guarantees,” Nakashima admits. “But if I work hard and keep improving, I hope that there will be more opportunities to play at the pro level. One of my main goals is to become a top college player, since this will signal my readiness to compete at the highest pro tennis level.”
Of course, he’s already dipped his feet in the pool. At Indian Wells opposite the skilled Canadian Pospisil, Nakashima took a little time to shake off the nerves and eventually fell into his groove before reaching the decisive tiebreaker.
“It was an experience I’d love to go through again – hopefully next time as a better player who can pull off an upset.”
And, perhaps, with his college teammates cheering him on from the sidelines.
– Darryl Nash