Is Jackson the future of American women's tennis?

6/29/2006 - Tennis

WIMBLEDON, England -- Zina Garrison, sitting in the comfort of her home in Maryland, laughed into the telephone.

The United States Fed Cup captain was asked, point-blank, whether 19-year-old Jamea Jackson would be a part of the team that would engage Belgium in the July 15-16 semifinals. By way of pleading the Fifth, Garrison opted instead to talk about Jackson's effervescent personality.

"I tell her she doesn't have a million-dollar smile," Garrison said. "She has a two-million-dollar smile."

Read into that what you will. For now: America, get ready for Jamea Jackson. After Venus Williams, at this precise moment in time, Jackson is America's second-best women's player. And, please, don't say you weren't warned.

"It was really cool, actually, today," Jackson said after her 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 first-round victory over Belgium's Kirsten Flipkens. "Venus came up and she talked to me. She kind of talked me through some things. I was honored for that. She's awesome. I've always been a huge fan."

There was a time, not very long ago, when American women were a powerful force at the All England Club

For seven consecutive years, before the 2005 event, three or four of the eight quarterfinalists here were U.S. women. The usual suspects were Venus and Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, and Monica Seles, with a 1999 semifinals guest appearance by Alexandra Stevenson. Last year, the run ended with only two Americans in the quarters, Davenport and Venus Williams, who met in a rousing final won by Williams in the 9-7 third set.

This year, that quarterfinal quotient is likely to be one -- at best. Venus Williams is the only American woman among 32 seeds (No. 6). On Sunday, Williams took herself out of the Fed Cup running. Davenport withdrew from Wimbledon with a back injury; Serena Williams won't be back from a knee injury until next month; and Capriati and Seles are in the limbo of unannounced retirement.

Which leaves -- whom, exactly?

Although you can make a reasonable case that the next best U.S. women's player is Martina Navratilova, who turns 50 in October, the answer is, emphatically … Jackson. Although Jill Craybas and Laura Granville are ranked ahead of her (at Nos. 43 and 57, respectively), Jackson is already No. 58 and rising like a bullet.

"I've definitely heard [the buzz]," Jackson said. "But I'm not really paying it too much heed. Just trying to stay focused and do kind of what I have to do."

She has the goods to be America's next important tennis player; Garrison insists Jackson has top-10 potential.

Early next week, when Garrison announces the Fed Cup team that will play in Ostend, Belgium, Jackson most assuredly will be on it, although Garrison would not confirm that and suggested she might consider changes to the rest of the team that defeated Germany 3-2 in the opening round. Jackson was the leading heroine, beating Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Martina Muller in singles.

She's America's hottest player -- man or woman, having just reached her first WTA Tour final a week ago in Birmingham, England. She defeated four seeded players -- Klara Koukalova, Jelena Jankovic, Elena Likhovtseva and the top seed and two-time defending champion, Maria Sharapova -- before losing in the final to Vera Zvonareva in two tiebreakers.

The win over Sharapova, who was ranked No. 4, compared with Jackson's No. 81, was Jackson's first over a player ranked among the top 10, a significant milestone -- particularly as Sharapova had beaten her in straight sets earlier in the year at Indian Wells, Calif. Like Sharapova and emerging Czech Republic star Nicole Vaidisova, Jackson is a product of Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy, having trained in Bradenton, Fla., since she was 11. Sharapova, who also is 19, started there when she was 9.

"I grew up with Jamea," Sharapova said at the Edgbaston Priory Club. "We played together at Bollettieri's. She has always been a really promising player."

Jackson has begun delivery on that promise.

Listed at 5-foot-4, Jackson is one of the shortest players on tour. Just don't call her small. She is solid, equipped with muscular thighs, and built along the lines of her father, Ernie, who played cornerback for the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions. She has a complete game, with power from both sides, that seems made for grass.

Jackson has a ludicrous backhand, terrific footwork and an improving forehand. The serve needs a little strength, but Garrison singled out one area that needs a makeover.

"Over there in Germany, all the other girls were talking to her," Garrison said. "We all believe she can be a top-10 player -- but it's a matter of her belief. I think the potential is there. I think she's very, very close to putting herself over the top."

The critical-mass moment came in February when Jackson decided to replace her father with coach Rodrigo Nascimento after a first-round loss to qualifier Yaroslava Shvedova in Memphis. A stickler for conditioning, Nascimento and a new trainer have helped Jackson make the commitment necessary to succeed at the highest level of tennis.

"When I got older, he kind of backed off a little bit and let me make my own decisions, which I think was great," Jackson said, "because now I kind of know where I am and what I want for myself. He was really cool about it. He was really not a tennis coach. He knows a lot about sport in general.

"We both agreed for me to go to the next level, I kind of needed somebody who specified and really knew what they were talking about, tennis-wise."

"She had to make a decision -- all of us had to make a decision at one point in our careers -- do you really want to go for it? It's a tough decision, not working with her father," Garrison said. "She made a change for her life and, ultimately, I think it was the right decision."

Jackson's first-round match required two days to complete, which might have been a good thing. It took her that long to come to her senses.

Flipkens, who won the Wimbledon and U.S. Open junior tournaments and finished the 2003 season as the ITF's No. 1 junior, is herself a polished young player. She held a 4-5 lead in the first set when play was suspended by rain on Monday. Flipkens, 20, immediately converted on Tuesday to take the first set. And then Jackson awoke.

"I felt like I just got a lot more aggressive," she said. "I had to play my own game. I got the momentum and I never let it go. I think I fought for every point."

Garrison said that Jackson needs a breakthrough performance in a major; Wimbledon's slippery grass surface plays well to her athletic gifts. In her short career, Jackson is 9-4 on the natural stuff.

"She's such a great athlete," Garrison said. "She has her mom's spunky personality and her dad's a good athlete, so she's a good combination of both. She just needs one tournament to knock her over the top."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.