SMASHING: The local sport continues to produce outstanding talents, like national number-one seed Damion Johnson.
"Good try!" shouts John Bailey, offering an encouraging word to the agile lads on Court 2 competing on Day One of the All-Jamaica Senior Tennis Championships. It's a golden Saturday morning at the Liguanea Club in New Kingston. Bailey, sitting in the sparsely occupied stands, knows all about the mental pressures that come with vying for top honours in such a highly competitive sporting contest. "As a junior tennis player in the Seventies, I was competing against top guys like Andrew Harris and Stewart Sarnia, my arch-nemesis in that '72 Under-12 final at the St. Andrew Club," recalls Bailey, dressed to the nines in court-apt gear, as if he's got next.
"In those days," he continues, "tennis in Jamaica was one of the most popular sports and Jamaica was one of the top competing countries in the Caribbean." His colleague Charmaine Alexander, a Tennis Jamaica administrator and a former star player herself, backs him up here. "The camaraderie was also very different from what I see happening today," she says. "We had more events to play at and there was always an audience."
As Bailey and Alexander are both clearly suggesting, how times have changed for competitive tennis in Jamaica. For starters, Bailey, who has been in the top post for the past two years, bemoans the scarcity of sponsoring partners willing to come on board to stage tournaments like the currently running senior champs which, TALLAWAH later learned, is just returning to the national calendar after a roughly 15-year hiatus. "It's always a challenge getting the sponsors and getting them on board in advance so that we can effectively plan," says Bailey. "But I want you to mention that it's been a pleasure working with the Hi-Pro team as the title sponsors of this tournament, and we look forward to working with them for the next several years."
Led by a team that also includes tournament director Lockett McGregor, the sporting body has drafted a strategic three-year plan chiefly aimed at raising the profile of the sport in Jamaica as a throwback to the glory days. "We want to start from building up the 10-and-under programme right up to the seniors, as well as introduce an official training programme for coaches," explains Bailey. Later this year, he adds, could see them hosting an international tourney featuring some of the top-150-ranked players in the world.
Asked to comment on the state of tennis in Jamaica today, McGregor tells TALLAWAH, "As I mentioned at the press launch recently, it's very difficult to have a national development programme without regular national tournaments, and for that you need committed sponsors."
The flagship events for Tennis Jamaica, the senior championships (with over 50 participants, male and female) and July's Sagicor-sponsored junior equivalent go a long way in helping players improve their national rankings and eligibility for team selection for the all-important Davis Cup.
Bailey sounds like a proud papa when he singles out gems like top-ranked juniors Kyle Martin of Wolmer's Boys and the sensational Blaise Bicknell, who has proved just as dominant while competing across the United States, where he is now based. Then there's the top-100 ranked Dustin Brown, impressive on the Grand Slam scene but now competes for Germany. "Dustin Brown learned his tennis right here in Jamaica, so that tells us that Jamaica can produce the best in the world," Bailey insists. The president emphasizes that one of the main objectives of his tenure is to usher in a new generation of national players eager to etch their names in the global history books.
"It's a process, especially for the juniors coming up," he says, choosing his words. "We have to ensure that they continue to get the exposure, and if they do it will happen. And the world expects it. I was at the US Open a couple of years ago, and one of the questions I was asked is, When is Jamaica going to produce a Usain Bolt of tennis?"