Taking a shot on tennis in Jamaica

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Venus and Serena Williams were impressed by the talent they saw in Jamaica, and the sisters hope tennis can become a major sport on the island.

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- The Treasure Beach Sports Park in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, has one tennis court. It's between a multiplex court used for basketball and a soccer field. The blue tennis court is clearly new, hardly worn by the stampede of feet at the baseline or lightened by the sun. Its color is striking against the acres of grass designated for cricket and soccer.

One must drive a lot of rugged roads to reach this quiet corner of the county. Yet here stood two of tennis' greats, Serena and Venus Williams, in town to conduct a tennis clinic for about 40 children.

"We really had a great time enjoying and playing with the kids and seeing how much talent there actually is in Jamaica," Serena Williams said to local media, including the radio station KLAS, ESPN's partner on the island. "There's so many sports going so well, obviously with track, and we would like to see tennis do well here, so we really feel honored to have a chance to come here and be a part of the community."

Fourteen-year-old Shaeda Nickle got to play with Serena at another clinic the Tryall Club in Montego Bay. Nickle started playing at age 5 and has represented Jamaica in Curaçao, Suriname, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, but she was still overwhelmed meeting her favorite player. "After I finished playing she said, 'Good job,' and I was like, 'Oh my God, she said good job to me,'" Nickle said.

It's that kind of excitement that Karl Hale, tournament director of Toronto's Rogers Cup, had in mind when he invited the sisters to the island. "It really gave a buzz to Tennis Jamaica and the players that were involved," said Hale, a former top-ranked Jamaican and Davis Cup player. "It made them a little bit more comfortable seeing what a top player looks like and gives them a better feel." He's already scheduled Jim Courier to visit the island in April.

Tennis is seen as an elite sport. Track and field, football, cricket and netball are mass sports. Every school has a track program. So for corporate Jamaica to support track, it’s a lot easier. ... But for tennis it’s a building process.
Lockett McGregor, coach and tournament director for the Jamaica National Open

Tennis is not new to Jamaica. In 1966, Richard Russell and the late Lance Lumsden defeated the top-ranked doubles team of Arthur Ashe and Charlie Pasarell in a Davis Cup match against the United States at the St. Andrew Club in Kingston. They went on to play in all the Grand Slams before they retired.

Russell now runs a tennis academy and is the coach at Campion College, a high school in Kingston. His son, Ryan, played professionally and was the doubles partner in juniors of Germany's Dustin Brown, who was raised in Montego Bay. They played Davis Cup for Jamaica. Sylvester Black has also represented Jamaica in the Davis Cup. He is the father of Tornado Black, runner-up for the 2013 US Open girls' singles title, and he once coached Sloane Stephens.

But tennis is considered a minor sport in Jamaica. There are few qualified and affordable coaches and courts, so Jamaican players who can afford it often travel or live abroad for better competition and exposure to more tournaments. There aren't many senior tournaments played throughout the year because of a limited number of entrants and a lack of corporate sponsors.

"Tennis is seen as an elite sport," said Lockett McGregor, a longtime coach and the tournament director for the highly anticipated Jamaica National Open. "Track and field, football, cricket and netball are mass sports. Every school has a track program. So for corporate Jamaica to support track, it's a lot easier. And track has always been able to have a star, somebody that you can link your brand to. Look at Usain Bolt. But for tennis it's a building process."

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During the clinic at Treasure Beach, sprinters Yohan Blake and Warren Weir, Olympic and world medalists who are sponsoring a track and field ground that is being built at the sport park, played doubles against the Williams sisters.

"We held them off pretty good," joked Weir, chuckling at the lack of a challenge they offered the sisters. "We gave them a run."

Weir, 24, called the sisters athletic icons and said he could see parallels in the two sports: "You need to be really flexible and really fast and all day on your toes, so track and field and tennis are definitely hand in hand. You definitely need track and field abilities to do exceptionally well in tennis."

At the Jamaica National Open, local Brigitte Foster-Hylton peacefully sat in shorts by the courts, barely recognized by the spectators. Since the 2009 100-meter hurdles world champion retired last year, she has started playing tennis. "I love it," she said. She practices four days a week and has been repeatedly urged to enter the tournament next year by tennis officials.

Russell is working with Tennis Jamaica to try to expose up to 20,000 children to the sport in the next five years. "Once we start going out on the international scene, [recruiters are] going to start coming here," he said.

Jason Henzell, president of Breds, the Treasure Beach Foundation, oversees the Treasure Beach Sports Park. He said he plans to build three more tennis courts on the soccer field beside the current court so he can hold tournaments. The foundation has received funding from UNICEF to hire coaches to work with local primary and high school students. Henzell also wants to start a weekend program for students who want more in-depth coaching.

"It's all about building confidence and having fun," Henzell said. "What we've seen in those schools is that the attendance goes up on the days that our coaches attend. There's less fighting, better grades and more respect is shown to the teachers."

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This year, the Jamaica National Open, sponsored by the Jamaica National Building Society bank, was the only senior event that had a women's draw. Sixteen women entered the tournament in the senior category, along with 55 men.

Connie Aitcheson / Special to espnW

Former Fresno State player Tinesta Rowe, left, defeated Shelita Haughton to win the Jamaica National Open, the only senior event in the country that has a women’s draw.

Tinesta Rowe easily won the women's event. She's the No. 1 female tennis player in Jamaica, despite not having played competitively in at least a year. She defeated Shelita Haughton 6-0, 6-1 in a little over 40 minutes at the Liguanea Club in Kingston.

It was an uneven match considering Rowe, 28, made it to the NCAA finals in doubles for Fresno State and Haughton, 18, is in high school, trying to earn a college scholarship.

For Haughton, the defeat was a learning experience. After the match the two players walked off the court together, then strolled the club grounds. "It was good playing her to see how my level of game is," Haughton said, "and … how I need to step up my game, so when I catch her again I can kick her ass."

They laughed, but Rowe knew Haughton was serious and she wanted to help her improve, promising to train with her a few days a week. "She's the best matchup I've played in the tournament," Rowe said. "It's just a matter of her playing somebody at my level. I don't think she's used to it. Tennis in Jamaica is not of a high standard. There's not much. So you gotta go out there and play with somebody who is great to lift your game."

When Rowe finished college she expected to return to Jamaica and begin her professional career. "When I came back here I really wanted to play but there was no support," she said. "It came down to money and I didn't have it."

Now she works as a coach, training students ages 3 to 18 at Hillel Academy in Kingston. She makes extra money by entering competitions like the Jamaica National Open, where first place earned her $475. Although Rowe has a degree in accounting, she won't stop working around tennis. "I love tennis. Anything tennis related I'm always in," she said. "I think there's a lot of talent here in Jamaica."

Russell sees a lot of promise in Selena Blythe. At 13, she is already on the tennis team at Campion, and is also on Jamaica's senior swim team. She hasn't played much competitive tennis, but Russell isn't worried. Like the Williams sisters, who didn't play a lot of junior tournaments, he just wants her to get the fundamentals down. Although she's a great swimmer, her heart belongs to tennis.

"The rush you get on the court is different from all the other sports," said Blythe, who began playing at age 3. "You feel like you're at home on the tennis court."

She is a big fan of the William sisters. "On the tour, they are few of the only African-American women that really stand out and they show that everyone is the same and equal and anyone can do the same thing if you just put your head to it," she said. "The aggression that they show on the courts, they're fearless."

Blythe knows Jamaica is years away from becoming a strong tennis nation but, she said, "There's a saying that we have: 'Wi likkle, but we tallawah.' 'We're little, but we're powerful.' So, we have a lot to us."

Michaela Stephens, who played against the Williams sisters at one of their clinics, embodies that spirit.

"I felt like my dream came true because I got the pace of the ball and how they formed their stroke," the 11-year-old said of her time at the clinic. Serena Williams, the current world No. 1, told Stephens that one day she could be No. 1.

"I was like, 'Yes, I'm going to be No. 1,'" Stephens said. "And if she doesn't quit [one day], I might be able to beat her."

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