Player Development Coach Profile:
Victoria Chiesa | December 3, 2021
When Jamea Jackson knew that her playing career was set to end prematurely at age 23 due to a recurring hip injury, she turned one of her closest confidants—longtime coach Ola Malmqvist—to help her figure out what was coming next. It was the Swede—who was, at the time, the head of women's tennis for the USTA—who suggested she take up coaching as her own career. More than a decade later, Jackson has come full circle as an influential mentor for USTA Player and Coach Development herself.
"Ola is probably one of the people on this earth that I trust more than anyone... he's the one who got the whole ball rolling with me, even just thinking about [coaching], considering it, looking into it," Jackson recalls. "Had I not had that conversation with him, it never would've occurred to me to get into coaching."ADVERTISEMENT
With Malmqvist's support, Jackson found her fit at Okalahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla., and honed her craft under head coach Chris Young for four years from 2009-13—a role she says not only helped open her eyes to completely new experiences, but allowed her to embrace what she loved most about the sport she'd devoted her life to since age 8. A product of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., Jackson says she particularly enjoyed her time playing for the U.S. in Billie Jean King Cup—she played two ties in 2006—and taking time in the summers to play World TeamTennis, and she was able to embrace those familiar feelings in her new life at Oklahoma State, where she also matriculated as a student.
"I'd only lived on the coasts, but my parents are from some small towns, so going to Oklahoma State in the center of the country, I was pretty familiar with that environment," she said. "That was kind of a nice reminder of that, and it was very grounding, but it was just a huge world. For me, it was going from tennis, which is this small world where you know pretty much everyone who you'll run into at some point, to this huge environment where there are so many people and so many ways of doing things.
"Different people are doing different things with their time. That was what was very different for me going into the college setting. The team environment of college tennis was very different than what I had experienced but I absolutely loved it. I loved dual matches. To me, that was one of the most fun things, and doing all of that team stuff on a college campus was amazing for me. I really think I made a good choice in going Oklahoma State because I had a great head coach in Chris Young to really show me the ropes and things like that, and have him as a mentor who was there with me all the time.
"The college realm for tennis just has so many great things about it. You don't know what you're going to get out of it when you're going into it, or sometimes, even what you need, but it has a lot of resources to it that can really help a person out."
Working the sidelines in Stillwater, where she eventually helped the Cowgirls attain a national Top 25 ranking and an appearance in the Big 12 Championship in 2013, soon afforded Jackson the opportunity to expand her coaching resume. The former world No. 43 was picked to lead the USTA collegiate summer team—an initiative the USTA started in 1996 to support the best American collegiate players in their early days as touring pros—in 2010 and 2011, and helped the then-fledgling Irina Falconi, Mallory Burdette, and Nicole Gibbs kick-start their careers. Eventually, she reunited with Malmqvist full-time in 2013 when she joined the USTA as a national coach.
Jackson has continued to embrace opportunities to be a team coach in the years since. Exactly a decade after her playing career ended, for example, she captained the U.S. Junior Billie Jean King Cup team to the world title in 2019, and when Team USA traveled to Prague to compete in the Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas Finals last month, Jackson was there on the bench as a member of captain Kathy Rinaldi’s coaching staff. While she's dabbled in guiding women on the pro tour, Jackson says her true passion lies in the work she does every day with junior girls ages 13-15, mentoring the teens at a "crucial" time in their lives, both on and off the court.
"Those formulative years are so important," Jackson said. "Getting them at this time, when they are so impressionable and still learning things for the first time, it's incredibly important that they start off on the right foot so that they don't have to go back and re-learn things or look back with regrets and wish they had done things differently. I think that's a huge part of what we do at the USTA, that we provide vision for the players so that they begin to see things in a whole new way.
"They come to us at this point after having been more local or state-wide, and their field of vision is relatively narrow. We have to widen it to a global position really quickly and show them the road they need to be on to be the kind of player they want to be, how they have to apply themselves to get where they want to get to and help them grow up as people, become their own person and know who they are. These are the years when you make a huge dent in that."
Jackson counts players including Sofia Kenin, Hailey Baptiste, Robin Montgomery, Whitney Osuigwe and Katie Volynets amongst the athletes that she has directly coached or assisted with, and says she draws on both her professional playing experience and her college coaching experience to set her players on the individual paths best tailored to them. That includes encouraging them to utilize USTA resources in nutrition, strength and conditioning and mental health to aid them in well-rounded development—something she says took a while for her to learn in her career.
"There were maybe three coaches who I had who were really an inspiration to me, and I wanted to impact young players as much as they impacted me," Jackson said. "I went through a time in my career when I first started where I was really hopping around and I didn't really have a very set plan as to what I was looking to do. I wasn't goal-setting the way that I needed to be. I got started with a certain coach who helped me set up my training blocks, schedule tournaments, and get me more organized with what I was trying to do on court.
"Of course, it makes all the sense in the world looking back on it now, but when you're in the midst of it and you haven't been through it before, you're searching and you're asking a lot of different people for advice. Maybe they're all telling you something different, and that equals to you not really going in any particular direction, certainly not in the direction that you want to go.
"Here, there are so many people within the USTA who have worked with so many players who have come through the pipeline and gone on to be some of the most recognizable names in the sport. They all were impacted in a different way. They'll say one thing, but then their parents might say another thing because different things are going to stand out to different people. But they were all impacted in a way that was really important for them and for their careers, at some point, by someone within the organization or one of the resources that the organization provides. That's just invaluable."
While she's influencing the next generation of tennis players, Jackson also hopes that her presence is helping to move the needle for diversity, equity and inclusion in the sport, even in a small way. Citing Katrina Adams—who was Jackson's coach in her teenage years—Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil among her early mentors, Jackson says she's encouraged by the increase in diverse faces and voices in the sport in the decade-plus since her playing career ended, but also recognizes that there's still work to be done.
"I had these really strong female African-American role models to look up to, but when I played, there weren't many of us," Jackson said. "Now, I look around and there are so many more young players of color—African-American, Asian, Hispanic players—so there's definitely been an uptick in the amount of diversity that you're seeing out there, which is great for everyone. I think that that's probably more on the women's side than on the men's side, to be honest, so I think it's something that we still have to continue to work on as far as outreach and finding ways to pull people up with us as we go along.
"I wouldn't I wouldn't be where I am without those role models and without Kathy [Rinaldi], without Ola, without seeing [General Manager, USTA Player and Coach Development] Martin [Blackman] where he is. It takes a whole community. I think it's hard for a young person to really think about it that way. You can think, 'I want to be the first and I want to be a trailblazer,' but I think it's a lot more common just to model what you see. Having Sloane [Stephens], Madison [Keys], the Williams sisters and Coco [Gauff], having them out there and playing, I think that's going to grow the sport more, but we have to also continue to find those talented players and coaches, nourish them and help them grow in what it is they want to do. Their goals might be different, but we want to help them grow themselves. I think it's multi-layered... continuing to attract diverse players, and then finding ways to keep them in the game if they want to be.
"I started coaching to try to impact people... and that doesn't necessarily mean being No. 1 in the world. It just means being the best that you can be, and everything that you do is teaching that lesson through the sport. That's what the best coaches do. They're in every community and that's just our constant job, to try to locate them, find them and lift them up."
Jackson says still counts Malmqvist, who's now her supervisor as the USTA's director of coaching, as a mentor she looks up to—"And literally, too, because he's really tall"—but also reflects on how their relationship has evolved from coach-pupil to that of peers. Ultimately, she says, coaching is a people-first vocation, and the 35-year-old relishes the opportunity she has every day to learn from experienced colleagues both within the USTA and beyond.
"All of us, we're here because we love tennis. I look to my left and I look to my right and everyone is just so good and everyone is working so hard. I think that we push each other day in and day out here and we push the players, and the players get better," she said. "We're trying to build the ethos of what it's like to to train at the USTA, and we want to keep building, keep growing, keep getting better, keep working to help make Americans better."
Did You Know? Jackson is the first tennis player ever to use the Hawk-Eye electronic review system in tennis history. In her first round match at the 2006 Miami Open against compatriot Ashley Harkleroad, she challenged a call made by the line umpire on a serve she thought was in. As it turns out, she did in fact hit it out—though she got the challenge wrong, she went on to win the match, 7-5, 6-7, 7-5.