Net Game
Jackie Jenkins, a junior tennis player, has learned a lot about character on and off the court from his parents.

Photo by Robert S. Freed
Some tennis players hang back at the baseline and volley while waiting for their put-it-away shot, but not Jackie Jenkins Jr. Known for his powerful serve and for charging the net with abandon, he embodies the principle his parents instilled early on: You get out of the game what you put into it.

"I’ve always preferred to come to the net and finish off the play," says the junior political science major and a key member of the men’s tennis team. "I’d rather be the one in charge instead of just reacting to something."

It’s a message that Jenkins’ parents also imparted to his two younger birth brothers, three adopted brothers and four foster siblings.

Starting with Jenkins at age 4, the whole family, which was profiled in February on Oprah Winfrey’s show, has spent countless hours on tennis courts near their suburban Atlanta home.

"Win, lose or draw, tennis helps you survive in other parts of your life," says Jenkins’ father, Jackie Jenkins Sr., a respected player at the local level who more or less fell into "family" tennis as a way to simultaneously play and baby-sit. "You’re out there by yourself, and you’ve got to make decisions. Hopefully, they’re the right decisions."

The decision to lob thousands of balls over the net to the Jenkins children has paid educational dividends: The younger Jackie received a full scholarship to Northwestern, and the next-oldest child, Jarmaine, will be getting a free ride starting this fall at Clemson University. In all, five children play competitively, and the sixth, all of 10 years old, is itching to start.

It was through connections to Georgia’s Division of Children and Family Services that the family grew beyond the original three boys. As soon as he was old enough, Jenkins became a third parent, helping his brothers and sisters with homework and assisting in getting them fed, dressed and off to school. "They look up to me," he says, "and I want to set a good example for them."

Between Jenkins’ familial responsibilities, school and tennis lessons that got him home late in the evening, the young man learned self-discipline at an early age, but there were rewards. Whenever he played in Atlanta, he says with a laugh, "I had my own fan club cheering for me."

When men’s tennis head coach Paul Torricelli scouted Jenkins just before the young player’s senior year of high school, he knew right away that Jenkins’ poise and self-confidence were no accident. "Jackie [Sr.] and [his wife] Brenda are two of the most remarkable parents I’ve ever met," Torricelli says. "It’s a family that has enough love for three or four families. Anyone with kids knows how challenging raising them can be."

Three of the children in the house were born addicted to drugs, and two of the foster children are legally blind, but they’ve all thrived. "My parents knew that tennis would consume a lot of our time," says the younger Jackie, who showed a remarkable aptitude for the game from the start and was never resentful of the time it took. "We didn’t have the opportunity to be distracted by much else."

Yet as important as the game is to the family, tennis competitions go on the shelf if the children’s grades sag. "My parents always said, ‘No, no, you do the work first,’ " Jenkins recalls. " ‘Then you can go to practice.’ "

An African American in a sport that still has relatively few minorities, he plays the game on his own terms and lets the rest take care of itself. "As a kid, I began noticing that there were only a handful of us out there," Jenkins says. "I don’t know if I see it as normal, but I’ve never associated race with tennis."

Torricelli appreciates Jenkins’ presence on the tennis squad. "He’s a very important part of our team chemistry," he says. "He’s extremely adaptable and has played doubles with a number of guys."

In keeping with Jenkins’ aggressive style of play, he is committed to at least a try at the pro level after Northwestern. "I’ve put in so much time," he says. "I’d be cheating myself otherwise."

And Jenkins likes his chances. "If you can get to the net for 25 out of 40 points, the percentages will be good to you," he says.

— Robert S. Freed