It’s not about the path that’s taken to get to where you are, it’s about the journey and love of the game.
That’s been the motto for Virginia Tech senior and club tennis team member Thomas Jackson, who is in the midst of competing for the final time in a Hokie uniform this spring.
What many don’t know, however, is that his path to where he currently is in his tennis career has featured many ups and downs. It’s a career that almost never got started because of his baseball abilities growing up as a kid, a sport he loved as early as he could remember.
By the time he got to be 11 years old, he realized it was time to hang up the cleats, be done with the long doubleheaders and try something new.
“My dad has always played tennis, granddad always played tennis, so they got me out on the tennis courts,” Jackson said. “Hitting with them or doing the occasional lesson really started the snowball effect of where I am today.”
Jackson picked the sport up quickly within the first year or two thanks to playing against athletes who were better and more experienced than him.
By the time he arrived at Midlothian High School, he found himself playing on one of the best men’s tennis programs in Virginia. A perennial power in the Virginia High School League Class 4, the Trojans have a reputation of being one of the top teams in the Richmond area.
After climbing the depth chart in his first two seasons, Jackson evolved into one of the top players on his high school squad. While his play was improving, his teammates’ took notice of his leadership skills and made him a co-captain as a junior. His other captain that year, Matthew Cousins, made it a priority to help mentor Jackson as a leader.
“Thomas is still trying to gain the authority to lead the team, but he’s doing a great job by taking responsibility and trying to set a good example,” Cousins said in an interview in 2016 with Midlo Scoop. “It’s good to work with him.”
Evan Hughes sits down with Thomas Jackson to analyze his tennis career.
Despite it being six years since they were last teammates together, Cousins can still recall how talented of a player Jackson is to this day.
“I thought what always made him pretty sharp was his tactical side and mixing up different balls, not giving you the same thing every time,” Cousins said.
By the time he graduated, Jackson helped guide Midlothian to two State Championship appearances in his four years. Despite getting to their dream destination twice, they never walked away with the coveted hardware.
“Our team was great and we were really close,” said Jackson. “Definitely some heartbreak in there, but it’s part of the game.”
There is only one champion in sports, which leaves the rest of the field asking what they would have done differently. Or, what could have been. For Jackson, in his senior year, he broke his wrist just days before tryouts. He shattered his radius on his wrist and broke his ulna, something that required surgery, a plate and seven screws in his wrist.
While it could have put a damper on his season and had an impact on another runner-up result in the State Championship, the senior decided to turn a negative into a positive. He attempted something that not many athletes would do in his situation: play in matches with his non-dominant left hand.
“I did not want to sit on the sidelines for the whole year,” Jackson said. “About two weeks in, I couldn’t do it anymore sitting on the sidelines. I picked up a racquet and the rest was history.”
After a storied career for high school standards, one might assume that he would try to continue his playing career at the next level. For Jackson, it was an easy decision — his competitive days of tennis were now a thing of the past.
“There was never a thought in my mind that I would be playing collegiately,” Jackson said. “It just wasn’t an interest to me and I wanted to go to a bigger school with better education.”
For the first two years of his time at Virginia Tech as a double major in finance and accounting, that’s all that Jackson was: a normal college student. However, the itch to pick the game back up soon returned with a perfect opportunity to fill the void that he was missing by joining the Virginia Tech club tennis team.
After not making the team his freshman year after still rehabbing from the wrist injury, he finally got his shot in the spring of his junior year.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Jackson said. “COVID has kind of put a damper in it, but we’ve gotten together quite a few times. We’ll do inner-team tournaments, which are a ton of fun. Just getting out and hitting is better than sitting at home and doing nothing.”
Even though club tennis isn’t a varsity sport at Virginia Tech, it still attracts top talent and the matches against other schools are very competitive.
“They’re good,” Jackson said about opposing club tennis teams. “They all have top players [who] probably have multiple stars, could’ve gone [to] play division one. It’s laid back, but people kind of get into it.”
Just like he did at Midlothian, Jackson has made an impact on yet another team late in his career. While it might not lead to two State Championship appearances, his legacy will be defined as someone that was beloved by his teammates and made others around him better.
“As a human being, he’s definitely one of a kind,” club tennis president Alexander Merjian said. “Practicing with him is always humorous, but at the same time, it’s fun.”
“Thomas brings a nice lightheartedness to every practice and event, teammate Jing Waid noted of Jackson. “You can tell he’s always having fun on the court.”
Everyone’s path in life is different than others. Some athletes commit to a college when they are in middle school, while others might walk-on and make a name for themselves. For Jackson, he’s enjoyed every step of his tennis career.
From lengthy doubleheaders in baseball, to trying tennis as a teenager, to State Championships and now club tennis, his journey has been unique and special.
“I think the good thing about tennis is that it’s never over,” Jackson said, referring to leagues with players 65 and older. “Looking back, it’s been a blast. You meet so many great people, you have so many good memories, you have so much fun and you get better. I think that’s a great part of the game.”