Jackson, Fed Cup team motivated by doubters
Jamea Jackson led the United States to the semifinals of the Fed Cup. Bonnie DeSimone explains that the 19-year-old Jackson could be the future of American women's tennis.
News that the 17-time champion U.S. Fed Cup team would have to do without Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters in the quarterfinals didn't get a lot of love in a post-announcement smattering of headlines, which described the roster as "depleted" and "patchwork."
Turns out that rampant pessimism was a case of not seeing the forest for the trees -- in particular, one young sapling who last weekend showed she may be ready to emerge from the shade cast by those long-dominant, now idled players.
"We knew coming in that there was more talk about who wasn't there than who was there," Jamea Jackson said. "Definitely, it motivated us. We were being called 'the leftovers.' Everyone expected us to get killed."
The 19-year-old Jackson has shown a few indications that she is ready to reach for the sky, including last month in Key Biscayne, where she took a set from Nadia Petrova. Jackson's two singles victories last weekend that clinched a road upset against Germany prove she has the potential to be a top-10 player, said U.S. captain Zina Garrison.
"From the time we got here, I was on her about being the best player she could be, and telling her the confidence I had in her," an ebullient Garrison said by phone from Germany after the U.S. team wrapped up the 3-2 first-round win on outdoor clay in the Black Forest town of Ettenheim. "This is going to be a really big turnaround for her."
Jackson defeated No. 14 Anna-Lena Groenefeld and 104th-ranked Martina Muller, a late replacement for No. 52 Julia Schruff, who injured her calf in an earlier match.
The win puts the United States into the semifinals against formidable Belgium, led by top-10 fixtures Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne. Belgium knocked off Russia last weekend and will host the next round in mid-July.
The 19-year-old Jackson came into the weekend ranked 75th, with a 9-8 match record on the year and no previous Fed Cup experience, although two years ago she was one of the so-called "Young Guns," players brought along to practice and soak up the atmosphere. She also played World Team Tennis with the St. Louis Aces last summer, experience she called "invaluable" in this group endeavor.
Groenefeld is the highest-ranked player Jackson has ever toppled, but the pressure in her Sunday match against Muller was arguably greater. Veteran 39th ranked Jill Craybas, who had beaten Schruff Saturday, had lost to Groenefeld earlier that afternoon. Under the Fed Cup format, the lone doubles match is played last, which would have put the untried U.S. doubles team of Vania King and Shenay Perry on the hot seat.
Instead, it was Jackson, who managed to keep her focus despite the draining win over Groenefeld and a tiebreak in the first set against the junkballing Muller.
"Zina gave us a pep talk before the matches and said, 'You did a great job yesterday, I expect the same today,' " Jackson said. "I just went out and fought for every point."
Jackson may have inherited a little of that into-the-breach stuff. Her father, Ernest Jackson, was an All-American defensive back and Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year at Duke University in 1971. In a game against Navy that season, he filled in at running back and rushed for 181 yards and a touchdown.
He went on to play for nine years with the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions. His wife, Ruby, is a former Delta flight attendant and author of "Flying High: The Diary of a Flight Attendant." They also have a son, Jarryd.
Ernest Jackson was no stranger to tennis back in his collegiate days. He played recreationally, admired the late Arthur Ashe and made a point of going to see a few matches featuring a local Durham, N.C., prep tennis standout -- future NBA player and coach John Lucas.
Jamea took ballet lessons, enjoyed swatting a stationary object in T-ball and ran track, but seemed most drawn to tennis after she began playing at age 8, coached by a family friend in Atlanta, where the family then lived.
Her father hit with her for a while, "but by the time she was 11 or so, she had probably outgrown my usefulness," he said, chuckling, from the family home in Bradenton, Fla.
"Early on, I think I helped set the foundation for her as an athlete," Ernest Jackson said. "You embed the philosophy that you try to do your utmost, and you have respect for the sport. I always tried to make the games fun, but we didn't waste time, either."
Jamea Jackson said having a pro athlete as a parent and a bunch of avuncular former players in the family's extended circle -- her godfather is former San Francisco 49ers cornerback Bruce Taylor -- was a real advantage as she began pursuing her career.
"They understood what I was going through as a child trying to become a professional, how hard I had to work," she said.
Jamea trained at the Nick Bolletieri Academy and had a solid junior career, culminating with a win at the 2002 U.S. Tennis Association International Hard Court Championships, where she defeated none other than Groenefeld in the final. She also has won two lower-level events on the USTA Pro Circuit.
Jackson reached her first WTA quarterfinal last season and finished the year ranked No. 75. Her most memorable moment, however, came when she walked shakily onto Court Two at Wimbledon to play "one of my childhood heroes," then-No. 1 Davenport, in the second round. She conquered her nerves but couldn't overcome the established star.
"But you get on that stage a lot more, you get a lot more used to it," Jackson said last month in Key Biscayne. "I just hope I get there more so I get more experience at it. If you keep doing well and keep working hard, you feel more and more like you belong and you can start not only compete with the top players but start taking them out as well."
Next up for Jackson is a clay-court tournament in Morocco, and then her first main-draw invitation to the French Open, where she fell short of qualifying last year. She is No. 81 this week, slipping a bit despite her Fed Cup heroics.
Jackson's success was especially sweet for Garrison because the two have known each other since the younger woman was 11. As a grade-school kid, Jackson told the Bradenton Herald newspaper earlier this month, she dressed as Garrison for Halloween; Garrison later tapped her for a junior international event.
Garrison said Jackson has all the athleticism she needs, and her ability to bear down on consecutive days in Germany proves she is learning the mental game as well. (She is coached by Rodrigo Nascimiento in Florida.)
"Her serve is much better than she thinks it is," Garrison said. "And she has to learn to use her speed as a weapon. She's extremely explosive.
"She needs to start believing, on and off the court, in everything she does."
Freelance writer Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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