In their own words: Marc Atkinson on Black History Month
It’s important that we celebrate Black History Month because Black youngsters need to see Black excellence—but we should not just celebrate one month out of the year; Black history should be celebrated all year long, and especially in tennis. Black youngsters always see Black football and basketball players, but it’s important that we promote Black tennis players to our youth, too.
Growing up, I knew of Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, but as a child, I did not understand their importance to the game of tennis. I did not know that many Blacks played tennis and coached it as well. So now, in my role as Director of Tennis at the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation in Jacksonville, Fla., I make sure I connect our youth to Black tennis players and role models. One way I do that is via social media through the players that I follow.
I grew up right here in Jacksonville, playing tennis as a junior, then went on to play at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in Tallahassee, where coach Carl Goodman saw my potential and brought me onto the team as a walk-on. I’m both a USPTA and PTR professional, and I’ve now been with the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation for more than nine years.
In many ways, I feel my most satisfying contribution is being able to teach youth in the community in which I was raised. There’s no better feeling than that: coming back to this community that made me the person I am today, and teaching tennis to youngsters who wouldn’t normally be exposed to the sport. I truly enjoy giving the youth of Jacksonville a different option that can provide them with a path to a better life, and I’m so thankful to Terri Florio and MaliVai Washington for giving me this opportunity.
Coaches play a central role in the lives of youngsters, and in my career, I’ve been fortunate to have some very important coaches as mentors. One is Helen Thomas, who was my first tennis coach. Not only did she inspire me to play tennis because she knew it could help lead to college, but she encouraged me to be me, not to just follow the crowd simply because they were my friends, but to always make the best decisions.
Another mentor for me is Devin Reddick, who gave up his weekends to take me to play junior tournaments—and sometimes, having to deal with my occasional craziness on the court. He taught me how to navigate through my matches and helped me become the player I am today. He was like a big brother to me.
Then there was Harrell Thomas, a very humble man, but he helped turn me into a competitive player. I learned true tennis strategies from him—and he helped me to develop both the life skills and tennis skills to play college tennis.
But I have to say, my brother Areon Atkinson is the main reason I wanted to play college sports. He played basketball in college, and I really wanted to follow in his footsteps. He also learned how to play tennis to connect with me more, and that meant the world to me. My sister Tesha made sure I had what I needed to grow up the right way, and my brother Areon gave me the blueprint to being a young man in this world.
Today, I’m thankful, too, that my wife Tashika has been interested in playing tennis. I’ll be her coach now, and I’m certain she’ll be ready to play me in a match in six months. My children Nylah, Marc Jr., and Marcel are truly enjoying this sport and all its benefits. They were never forced to play, and now, seeing their smiles when they hit a passing shot by me, or crack a great serve, is the greatest feeling in the world for me.
As we celebrate Black History Month, and as I reflect on my own journey through life and through tennis, I appreciate more and more what my ancestors had to endure and overcome. And I’m thankful that I can show this same perseverance and excellence to not just my own kids, but to so many youngsters in our community.
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