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U. of Virginia Tennis Star Makes Good on a Promise

jarmereJarmere Jenkins had a chance to pull off a rare tennis trifecta this week, as he reached the final round of the NCAA Division I men’s singles and doubles championships and led his University of Virginia team to the finals of the team event.

I first met Jarmere more than a decade ago, when I wrote a profile of his family for Tennis magazine. At the time, he was a precocious 10-year-old living with eight siblings in the family’s modest home in College Park, Ga.

Tennis was only part of what made them special. Jarmere’s parents, Jackie Sr. and Brenda, adopted six of their children, including many from pretty tough backgrounds. Two were born with drug addictions, and another pair was legally blind. Here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote about them in 2011:

I watched Mrs. Jenkins, who insisted on bringing all the extra kids into the home after nurturing them through foster care, get up before sunrise one day to iron all the children’s clothes and ready them for school. Her husband has worked the overnight shift as a dispatcher at the gas company for more than 30 years, a schedule that puts him home when the kids get out of school.

Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins never allowed their financial situation to temper their spirit. When the United States Tennis Association didn’t help out two of their older sons as much as the family wanted, they found other ways to provide them the elite training they needed. That often meant doing it themselves. Mr. Jenkins, a self-taught player with an easy-going style, loaded everyone up in the family van, and drove off to the local park to feed them ball after ball.

Back then, Mr. Jenkins told me, he and his wife used tennis to keep the kids busy and out of trouble, and to keep the family connected. The sport also showed their children a path out of their lower-middle-class life: “Tennis is an intelligent game; you’ve constantly got to think on your own on the court,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Then, when you go to tournaments, you’re surrounded by intelligent people. If it wasn’t for tennis, none of my kids would be exposed to that. It’s going to change their lives.”

It has. Two of Jarmere’s older brothers earned full tennis scholarships to prestigious universities. (Jackie Jr. played at Northwestern, while Jarmaine starred at Clemson.) Terrance, another brother, plays No. 1 singles for Fort Valley State University, in Georgia.

Jarmere initially wasn’t sold on college. “It’s something I had to get used to because I was home-schooled since seventh grade,” he told me this week. But after four years at Virginia, he’s glad he stuck with it. He graduated this month with a degree in anthropology.

He had to miss commencement because his team was competing in the NCAA tournament. Virginia, which had lost in the final round in each of the past two seasons to the University of Southern California, took on another California powerhouse, UCLA, in this year’s final.

Jarmere teamed up to win a doubles point and posted another victory at No. 1 singles. The match, which was tied at 3-3, came down to a duel at No. 3 singles, where Mitchell Frank, a UVa sophomore, was behind, 5-3, in the final set and facing a match point against UCLA’s Adrien Puget.

Fortunately for Jarmere and his Virginia teammates, Puget’s foot touched the net on an easy volley on match point, leading the chair umpire to award the point to the Cavaliers. The call shifted the momentum in Frank’s favor, and he went on to win, giving Virginia its first national championship in men’s tennis.

This week, Jarmere had a chance to add two more national titles. He and Mac Styslinger, a freshman from Birmingham, Ala., overcame an early deficit to take the NCAA title in doubles. But Jarmere fell a few shots short in singles, losing to Ohio State’s Blaz Rola.

Now Jarmere is ready to turn pro, making good on a promise he once made on national television. (After my Tennis article appeared, the Jenkinses were featured on an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s show focused on extraordinary families.)

Jarmere will have plenty of former UVa teammates to lean on as he tries to navigate the rigors of professional tennis. He also plans to turn to his family—brothers Jackie Jr. and Jarmaine are both teaching pros.

As for his parents, they’re still in the business of helping children. They are working with a state child-services program to help troubled youths transition into new homes.

Over the past two years, some 100 children have come through their home, staying anywhere from a night or two to 45 days. “They’re pretty much medically fragile,” says Mrs. Jenkins, a former nurse.

Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins still have two special-needs children of their own in the house. One of them, Jarmel, has traveled with his parents many times to see his brother compete.

He couldn’t make it to the national tournament this year, but Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins brought him home a gift: a ball from one of Jarmere’s matches, which his brother had signed just for him.

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