By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The newly crowned ACC men’s tennis player of the year did not start swatting forehands before he could crawl, however popular tennis might have been in his suburban Atlanta household. But UVa junior Jarmere Jenkins could grip a racket at a young age and fell hard for the sport as a boy.
“It’s just a tradition in our family,” Jenkins said this week at the Snyder Tennis Center. “I grew up watching my older brothers play. I never really got into any other sports at all.”
Jenkins has eight siblings, including brothers Jackie Jr. and Jarmaine, who played tennis at Northwestern and Clemson, respectively. When they were in high school, Brian Boland, now UVa’s head coach, was at Indiana State, and “neither of them considered Terre Haute,” Boland said with a laugh.
“With that being said, I would have loved to have had both Jackie and Jarmaine play for me,” Boland added. “I’ve gotten to know Jarmaine very well, and they’re just wonderful people. Jarmere comes from a great, incredibly supportive family. They’re an extremely tight-knit group.”
Jarmere’s record at UVa — he’s 97-19 in singles — would suggest that he’s the best of the bunch, but you won’t hear him say that, “because my brothers, they still have that big-brother mind-control thing over me,” he said with a smile.
A Jenkins family reunion of sorts will take place this month in Athens, Ga., the site of the final four rounds of the NCAA team tournament and the NCAA individual championships. Athens is about 80 miles from the family’s home in College Park, Ga.
Jenkins will compete in the 64-player NCAA singles tournament and, with senior Drew Courtney, in the 32-team doubles tourney. He also hopes to help the Wahoos (24-1) capture their first NCAA team title. A season ago, Virginia was NCAA runner-up, losing 4-3 in the final to Southern California.
“We’re human,” Jenkins said. “We think about it a lot. Ultimately it’s our goal, and I think with the way this team is headed, it’s inevitable that we’ll get it, soon.”
The Cavaliers, seeded No. 3 in the NCAAs, open the tournament May 12 against Fairleigh Dickinson in Charlottesville. Jenkins, as he has virtually all year, will play No. 1 singles for the ‘Hoos. That’s heady stuff for a guy who played No. 4 singles last season and figured he would be slotted behind sophomore Alex Domijan and freshman phenom Mitchell Frank in the lineup this season.
Domijan played No. 2 singles for UVa most of last season. Frank, who recently was named ACC freshman of the year, won two major singles titles in the fall: the ITA All-American and the USTA/ITA National Indoor.
“Alex and Mitchell are phenomenal tennis players,” Jenkins said. “I thought I was going to be playing 3. When the season kicked off, and Coach told me I was playing 1, I just wanted to take it and use it as an opportunity to get better and show that I belong there. And I guess I kept winning, so I stayed there.”
Jenkins has “matured and grown — mentally, physically and emotionally — as much as any player I’ve ever coached,” Boland said, “and that’s a tribute to his hard work and commitment to the sport, and to growing as a person and taking advantage of all the opportunities the University of Virginia has to offer.”
Jenkins’s 2011-12 record is 29-3. His losses were to Fresno State’s Remi Boutillier and William & Mary’s Jamie Whiteford in October and to Georgia Tech’s Juan Spir in early April.
“What he’s been able to achieve in the course of the last 12 months is nothing less than remarkable,” Boland said, “and he deserves all the credit for his hard work and dedication to the game. He comes every day looking for an opportunity to improve, and he’s taken full advantage of every opportunity, and he’s made himself and everyone around him better in the process.”
Jenkins was home-schooled in grades 7-12, and he traveled extensively at home and abroad during that time, establishing himself as one of the world’s top juniors.
At UVa, Jenkins struggled initially. He wasn’t used to being in classes with other students, but he grew more comfortable academically as his first year went on. He’s now an anthropology major who’s thriving on and off the tennis courts at the University.
“He was on the honor roll last semester, and he understands the importance of having an education,” Boland said, “so when he finishes with his pro career, he has something he can fall back on. He’s always taken that as a priority, and that really starts with his family.”
Even after signing with UVa as a 12th-grader, Jenkins considered skipping college and turning pro. But on a visit to Charlottesville, he played Sanam Singh, then one of the Cavaliers’ standouts, in a practice match.
“In about 15 minutes he beat me pretty bad,” Jenkins recalled with a smile, “and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go to college.’ From that moment on, I just knew that this was the right choice. I was going to stay here, do what I could to make the team better, give it my all, get the education, and then once I fully mature [turn pro].”
On a team that went 39-2 and reached the NCAA semifinals, Jenkins played mostly No. 3 singles in 2010. As a freshman he clashed occasionally with the coaching staff, but that’s “not at all unusual” with first-years, Boland said.
“There were times that it was difficult, but that’s what makes it so rewarding now. I’ve made sure that he understands how much I appreciate the opportunity to be part of seeing him grow and develop and to take ownership of his tennis and his life. He’s just an amazing young man.
“Sometimes it takes guys so much longer than Jarmere to figure it out. In his case, he really in the worst way wants to be great at what he does, and he’s looking forward to having the opportunity to play professional tennis at the highest level, and he wants to make sure he takes advantage of every opportunity and resource available to him here, so he’s completely prepared. And I know that he probably admires a little bit what Somdev Devvarman was able to do with that kind of mentality while here at the University of Virginia and then transition into the professional ranks. I truly believe that Jarmere can do the same thing. At least he’s on the right path, that’s for sure.”
Devvarman won two NCAA singles titles during his illustrious career at UVa. Could Jenkins become the next Cavalier to be crowned an NCAA champion in singles?
“There’s no question that Jarmere Jenkins is capable of anything,” Boland said. “He’s a gamer. He’s one of the toughest competitors I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach. He handles adversity and the big moment as well as anybody in the world.
“As the moment gets bigger, he gets better. And that’s something that is really unique and special with him, much like it was with Somdev. They’re just really special competitors. And now Jarmere’s combined that with not only being a special competitor who’s a very gifted athlete, but an incredibly hard and consistent worker, day in and day out.”