Jarmere Jenkins may have grown up with enough siblings to field a complete batting lineup in the family’s backyard baseball games, but he fell in love with tennis at age 4 and hasn’t looked at another sport.
The 22-year-old Atlanta, Georgia native and recent University of Virginia graduate just received the McKevlin Award as the ACC’s top male athlete—a title with a past honoree list that includes four Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers, seven number one NBA draft picks, and a Heisman Trophy winner. Aside from University of Maryland’s John Lucas, who played both tennis and basketball, Jenkins is the first tennis player to receive the award. It’s the perfect send-off as he leaves the UVA team —which just snatched up its first national championship in May—and transitions from collegiate tennis to a professional tour.
“It was overwhelming at first,” Jenkins said of the award. “I mean, Michael Jordan is on that list.”
The second youngest of nine children, Jenkins grew up playing with and against his eight siblings on the court. It was “controlled competitiveness,” he said, laughing at the memory of being sponsored by Adidas while his brother was sponsored by Nike. He started playing competitively around age eight, and by the time he hit adolescence he started homeschooling and focusing on his career as a competitive junior tennis player.
“I didn’t go to prom or anything, and the last time I sat in a classroom was in the seventh grade,” Jenkins said. “Tennis definitely dominated my life.”
Upon his arrival at UVA in 2009, Jenkins said he began to regret not attending a public high school and learning how to socialize outside of athletics. Living in a dorm, sitting in a classroom, scheduling his life around academics—it was all completely new. He doesn’t downplay how challenging the transition was.
“It was really hard,” he said. “I didn’t know how to talk about anything other than tennis.”
Social and academic pressures aside, one of the toughest obstacles for Jenkins was the sudden realization that he wasn’t always going to win.
“Losing was the hardest part. I used to define myself by wins and losses,” Jenkins said.
He credits UVA’s head tennis coach, Brian Boland, with helping him accept the fact that life—and even tennis—didn’t have to revolve around winning and losing. Boland, who’s entering his 18th year of college coaching and 13th year at UVA, recalled watching Jenkins struggle as he adapted to his new surroundings.
“He had to adjust from the selfish life of junior tennis to the unselfish life of being part of a team,” Boland said. “He had such incredible expectations for himself, and wanted things to happen sooner than they did.”
Jenkins started out “in the bottom half of the lineup” for his first two years on the team, Boland said, and was playing with some of the best seniors in the world.
“It was very humbling for him,” Boland said. “As much as he wanted to be the best player on the team, he had the opportunity to have some of the best players in college tennis surrounding him, and he understood that they had a lot to offer him.”
After two years in the team atmosphere, he slowly worked his way up in the rankings. Jenkins became a team captain as a junior, and one of the only players Boland has seen hold the position for two consecutive years.
“You have a better opportunity to develop as a player and as a person when you start to understand that you’re doing something that’s bigger than yourself,” Boland said. “Not only did he absolutely grow as a player, but he absolutely became a leader within that environment.”
Jenkins has dozens of titles under his belt, including Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) National Player of the Year, NCAA Doubles Champion with teammate Marc Styslinger, ITA Singles and Doubles All-American, UVA Male Athlete of the Year, and NCAA Tournament MVP—and those are only from 2012-2013. He’s the fifth UVA athlete to receive the McKevlin Award; the last was lacrosse player Chris Rotelli in 2003.
Since graduating and saying goodbye to the teammates that became his second family over the past four years, Jenkins has wasted no time diving headfirst into the world of professional tennis. For the next year he’ll be traveling with the ITA collegiate team, practicing daily and competing two or three times a month. After that, he said he’ll be on his own to find a personal coach to travel with, and he intends to remain on the tennis court as long as he’s physically able.
“I’m not settling down any time soon,” Jenkins said.
For Boland, the most rewarding aspect of his job is keeping up with his athletes after graduation.
“It’s just pure joy to be able to watch them go through this process and then go on and take on those next challenges. Not many days go by where I don’t talk to any former players,” he said, adding that, as a former competitor and longtime coach, he couldn’t ask for a more gratifying gig. “If you’re a college coach, regardless of the sport or level, this is the way you would want to script it.”