Turpin, Brown Show Off Their Junior Potential

By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer

Turpin, Brown Show Off Their Junior Potential

There was a period of time when Battery Park and the North Side of Richmond produced a steady stream of African-American tennis players.

Junie Chatman, Rodney and Marell Harmon, Rozzell Lightfoot and Leonard Booker to name a few. There were hardly any female players emerging from that part of town, although Koren Fleming made the city women’s final one year.

While those days are long gone, the Richmond Tennis Association is aiming to change that scenario by bringing clinics and the Quick Start game for kids to Battery Park and other locations, and giving the more talented and interested children a chance to continue to play and learn.

“We can’t create an Arthur Ashe,” said Fred Bruner, former president of the RTA and an advocate for the inner-city youth. “Arthur Ashe has to be born. But we can certainly give kids an opportunity to change their lives by becoming good high school and maybe college players.”

Ashe, of course, is the Richmond native who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open during an illustrious career.

“The best thing, to me, is even the kids who aren’t going to carry on with the tennis, the more kids who get exposed to tennis [the better],” said Bruner. “Tennis is a sport that requires self-discipline and will power in order to just be able to play the game.

“Those are the attributes that have been proven to be some of the most significant things in life … the kind of things that make a difference in life. So this is a sport that lets you hone those life skills on the tennis court.”

There are two excellent examples right now of what that support by the RTA can deliver in Nayla Turpin and Makkijha Brown.

Turpin, 13, first became interested in tennis when she attended a clinic at Byrd Park.

“When she was right around seven, Richmond Parks and Recreation had a free program at Byrd Park,” said Jimmy Turpin, a former basketball player at John Marshall High School and Virginia State University.

“Guy named Victor Rizzi was in charge. They started off the summer with about 30 kids. She went every day and by the end of the summer there was one or two kids left, and she was one of them. The game came very natural to her.”

There were several aspects of the game that were very appealing to Nayla.

“I think it was the competitiveness and meeting people,” said Nayla, an eighth-grader at Lucille Brown Middle School. “And just being out there in general was a lot of fun.”

Nayla has been taking lessons for the past year from Janet Fleishman, a teaching pro at Raintree Swim and Racquet Club and winner of the past three city women’s singles championships.

“We have connected very well and she’s very supportive of my tennis and even myself in general,” Nayla said. “She’s always been there for me.”

With her game improving, Nayla will attend Steward School in the fall and is expected to play somewhere in the starting lineup. She has been ranked in the top 100 of three age groups, the 12s, 14s and 16s.

“I just want to make the team next year,” she said. “Travel with them and maybe win the state.”

As far as college goes down the road, “I would like to go to William and Mary or Yale,” Turpin said. Those are lofty goals to be sure, but certainly attainable if she keeps working hard and getting better.

Brown, 14, got interested when he tagged along when his older sister, Zoey, was attending camps under the auspices of the Metro Richmond Tennis Club with George Banks and Guy Walton.

“You know little kids, they are not going to sit still and watch someone else have fun,” said Frank Brown, Makkijha’s father. “So Makkijha picked up a racket and was like ‘Hey, can I join in?” When he joined in, they saw that he kind of had some potential.”

Makkijha Brown showed off that potential again during some National Tennis Day activities at Battery Park, where he caught the eyes of Bruner, Shima Grover and Katrina Adams, a past president of the U.S. Tennis Association.

Makkijha was only eight or nine years old at the time but it was obvious that tennis, not basketball (his previous love) was his sport.

“I used to watch my sister play a lot and it really looked interesting to me,” said Makkijha, who is home schooled. “I liked the scoring aspect. And the game itself, it was really fun. There were so many things about it that I liked.

“It’s kind of fun being by yourself. In singles, you’re able to control the point, control what you’re doing and make adjustments on how you are playing and how your opponent is playing. You’re able to focus a lot better [by yourself].”

As for choosing tennis over basketball – the game of most African-Americans – Makkijha said, “I felt that tennis would be a more challenging and more inspiring sport than basketball.”

Makkijha was the boys recipient of the Greg Semon enthusiasum for the game award for 2017, presented by the RTA in February.

“His love for the game and work ethic is inspiring for those players, as well as for the coaches, who have had the pleasure of working with him,” said Jamie Morgan, who has worked with Makkijha for the past several years.

Morgan, formerly an assistant coach at the University of Richmond, lives in Winchester now, so Makkijha makes the three-hour ride from Richmond with his father to continue the lessons. He will sometimes spend a week with Morgan.

“Some nights I get back home at 2 a.m. from that drive,” said Frank Brown, an IT specialist for Bon Secours Health System. “I have to be at work at 8 so ….” In other words, some sacrifices have to be made for Makkijha to keep up with his peers.

Brown said he is trying to get Makkijha into one of the local schools for high school in the fall. The final two possibilities are St. Christopher’s and Steward, and he expects to find out in the next month or so if he will be accepted.

Turpin and Brown are examples of what the RTA hopes will be another generation of African-Americans similar to the Harmons and Chatmans of another generation.

“If you’re going to attract kids to a game, they have to see success,” said Bruner. “If you have a kid like Makkijha or a kid like Nayla doing very well, the kids at Battery Park, Byrd Park or Westover see them playing and competing.

“They find out, number one, how hard they’re working because they are working hard. They’re going to clinics, they’re taking private lessons and doing tournaments, and they’re seeing that’s what it takes to get to the next level.”

Bruner and the RTA are ready to lend a helping hand to those seriously interested in learning about the game and what it takes to climb the ladder toward high school and college success.