NJTL 50 for 50:
Arthur Kapetanakis | May 14, 2019
As the USTA Foundation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the National Junior Tennis & Learning network, USTA.com looks at 50 NJTL leaders and alumni who helped shape this incredible community dedicated to helping youth strive for academic and athletic excellence on the tennis court, in the classroom and in life.
In this installment, we catch up with Marc Atkinson. A former student of the Malivai Washington Youth Academy, Atkinson now serves as the program's head tennis professional. A four-year member of the Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) men’s tennis team, Atkinson was the first graduate of the program to play at the college level. Today, he inspires young players of all ages to follow his tennis path.
The Marc Atkinson File
Name: Marc Atkinson
NJTL Chapter: Malivai Washington Youth Foundation (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Role with NJTL: Head Tennis Professional
Year became active in NJTL: 2000
How did you first become involved with the Malivai Washington Youth Academy?
Marc Atkinson: One summer, in sixth grade, I was in a program for general education. We were finishing up a block party and I met Terri Florio, the program’s executive director.
She asked us if we wanted to play tennis. I said, “Tennis?” So she grabbed some racquets out of her car, and we were hitting the ball back and forth.
I was the first student to sign up for the tennis and tutoring [TnT] program that they started in 2000. I signed up at the age of 12. When I started I just did it on the side. I mostly played football and basketball. But as I got older, I started falling in love with tennis more and more. Plus it was different from all my friends, so I decided to stick with it.
How did you transition into coaching?
Marc Atkinson: When I signed up for TnT, we didn’t really have a middle school program. We have a middle school and a high school program now. I started coaching at the age of 13 here in the program, because I was much older than the other kids and I was better than them. The coaches just used me as an assistant coach and then gave me private one-on-ones from time to time during the week.
So I started coaching at 13-14 and got USPTA certified after I graduated from college. I've been involved ever since.
Now, I help with the under-30s national board, trying to get younger pros certified and get them in the door. Have more opportunities for us younger guys, because there's more older pros than younger guys.
In addition to creating those programs for older children, how else has the program evolved over the years?
Marc Atkinson: When I started there were only 25 kids signed up to the program. Now we have at least 185 on a daily basis. I love it. You just see the growth. That’s why I came back to the tennis program
In 2007 we built our own facility, and now we are in the process of building our own facility through the "Net Generation Giving Back" initiative and a bunch of donors and sponsors.
How did you transition to your full-time role?
Mark Atkinson: Once I graduated high school, I always came back to help with the summer camp. And then once I graduated, they didn’t have anything for those high school kids who were making that transition trying to go to college.
They created a teen coordinator position, which I came in as, and I just developed some plans for the high school kids to focus on. I was making sure they were getting all their core classes and then tennis as well.
Once our head tennis pro left, I went into that role, about three-and-a-half years ago.
How does your experience as a student of the program help you connect with the current kids?
Marc Atkinson: They notice that. I grew up in the same neighborhood. I know most of their, uncles, brothers, aunties, moms.
They say, “You’re really from around here.” And I say, “Yeah, I just play tennis. It’s nothing different.”
I tell them my story and they understand where I’m coming from. It makes memore relatable to the kids and makes it easier to talk to them and give them direction. Most kids, in general, I’m just like them. I’ve been through what they’ve been through. Anybody that’s relatable, they’ll open up to and they’ll listen to.
What does it mean to be a part of this program, which traces its roots back to Arthur Ashe and others 50 years ago?
Marc Atkinson: They created an opportunity for guys like me to have the funding and the possibility to get introduced tennis. Not many inner city kids get introduced tennis.
If I had never met Ms. Terri [Florio] I would never have gotten into tennis. I would’ve just stuck to the basic basketball and football, maybe baseball. What they’re doing through the NJTL with tennis, and just the opportunity to learn and grow and develop in this sport, is amazing.
Without their vision to make this happen, we wouldn’t have programs all around the United States like this.
We have more kids that want to get involved in tennis, and our program is growing tremendously. I believe over the within the next year we should have a solid USTA Foundation NJTL Excellence Team.
Pictured above: Marc Atkinson (back row, left) with NJTL students at the BB&T Atlanta Open. (Photo Credit: Marc Atkinson)