In his younger days, prone to perfectionism as he was, there came moments when the promising young athlete lost his cool. Spotting this tendency, his college coach jokingly referred to him as "John McEnroe." More recently, as the boy grew into a man, he realized that if he wants to compete effectively, it's best to stay calm. These days, those closest to him think he embodies the tranquil spirit of Roger Federer. And when it comes to playing the game, they think he's as versatile as the great Swiss.

No way, though, is he a tennis player. Well, sometimes he’s been one, much to the amazement of his father and sister, each of whom has logged in thousands more hours of court time.

The young man’s name is Mac Jones. He’s the quarterback of the nation’s number one-ranked college football team, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. As early as age five, Jones set his sights on becoming a great football player. He’s currently a strong contender to win the Heisman Trophy. But in many ways, a number of the lessons that have helped Jones lead his mates past rivals like Auburn and Ole Miss were learned not just on the gridiron, but also on the tennis courts of his hometown, Jacksonville, Fla.

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Heisman Trophy contender Mac Jones strongly shaped by tennis

Heisman Trophy contender Mac Jones strongly shaped by tennis

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Jones’ father, Gordon, was a first-rate tennis player, good enough to have won the 1977 NAIA singles championship at Flagler College and reach an ATP career-high ranking of No. 322. His wife, Holly, also lettered in tennis at Mercer University. After teaching tennis for a few years, Jones earned an MBA and a law degree from the University of Florida.

As he and Holly raised a family, Jones believed sports was a great way to keep his three children engaged both physically and mentally. Naturally, he exposed them to tennis. Daughter Sarah Jane took to the sport most enthusiastically, eventually playing at the College of Charleston, where she graduated in 2018.

Between his father’s serve-volley attack and his older sister’s grinding baseline game, Mac took in his share of tennis and even made a mark in the Jones family tennis saga. “Mac just loves sports,” says Gordon. “He was a very good, natural tennis player. He’d watch a match on TV and by himself, he’d be practicing the strokes, figuring out how to hit it.”

One tennis match in particular revealed a skill vital for being a successful quarterback: studying and picking apart the opposition.

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Sarah Jane had lost a match to a girl with reasonably good groundstrokes. Then it was Mac’s turn. Says Gordon, “He saw instantly that she didn’t like drop shots, so all he would do was dink her and top a lob over her head. He won.”

“He didn’t have a lot of court time, but he had this forehand,” says Sarah Jane. “His wrists are really strong from football. He was pretty much self-taught, so he had this natural forehand with a lot of wrist and a lot of topspin. It was very annoying.” Gordon refers to his son’s lively forehand as “the Anaconda,” adding that, “if I had a forehand like that, I’d still be playing.”

As you might expect from someone who’s 6’3” and throws a football, Mac also has a reasonable serve. “He just throws it up and jumps,” says Sarah Jane.

Yet for all Jones’ potential tennis prowess, football has always been first, Mac drawn to everything from the physical aspect to being part of a team. “Tennis is so skills-based,” says Gordon, “that you’re going to have to put in your time no matter how athletic you are. But when it comes to football, if you’re a good athlete and very competitive, and you don’t mind getting hit, you don’t need to acquire a lot of skills early on to be pretty good.”

The team dimension was most responsible for Jones’ emotional transformation. “In tennis, McEnroe can be fiery and that will help him play better,” says Gordon. “You might do that in football and play better individually, but you’ve got teammates looking for you to be calm, self-assured and appear that way. You’ve got to be a leader, not just of yourself, but of others.”

Come January 1, Jones will be in Dallas to lead Alabama versus fourth-ranked Notre Dame. Should the Crimson Tide win, it will take on the winner of the game between Clemson and Ohio State in the national championship game on January 11. Though it’s not likely he’ll hit a tennis ball in advance of any of those games, there’s no question the sport has played a significant role in shaping his athletic path.