The Caribbean Connection: Mark Knowles is Bahamian to the core

The Caribbean Connection: Mark Knowles is Bahamian to the core

When a hurricane devastated his homeland last September, the doubles legend tapped into his island spirit, and a network of players from around the world.

A nine-year-old walks with his mother on a Sunday in London. Trekking to their destination, an enchanting wind whispers hello as butterflies border the blonde-haired boy. The pair arrive and find their seats. Two revered men cloaked in white emerge: one is bold and boisterous with bellowing brown curls, the other is calm and composed to match his graceful golden locks. 

“Fire and Ice” affectionately describes John McEnroe’s yin to Bjorn Borg’s yang, and is a profound representation of the wide-eyed boy in attendance. Though he idolizes Borg and shares the Swede’s relaxed, stoic nature, a McEnroe-esque competitive fury boils inside. 

When the American goes up two sets to one, a fuming Mark Knowles storms out of Centre Court. Flustered, he cools off with a walk around the tennis cathedral. As he glances back at the Wimbledon scoreboard, praying the numbers would change, the greatest tennis export from The Bahamas is officially ordered for production.

McEnroe went on to lift his first of three Wimbledon singles trophies in 1981 after finally conquering Borg. (Getty Images)

During the late ’70s and early ’80s, tennis soared in popularity globally. For Knowles, the sport was already embedded in his DNA. His mom Vicky, who played professionally for England before emigrating, became the first female tennis pro in The Bahamas. While Vicky taught her students, eldest child Mark was looked after by the babysitter: a wall on the furthest court down. Knowles spent countless hours hitting against the unbreakable opponent, honing his reflexes and soft hands. When Vicky hosted camps, Knowles often played up against kids in elder age groups with more skill and power, which accelerated his development. 

Not long after his experience at Wimbledon, Knowles caught the eye of Nick Bollettieri during the Orange Bowl, one of the few international events the youngster could compete in.

“It was a great platform to see where you were, level-wise, outside of your own bubble,” Knowles says. “I was able to play players older than me, which provided a springboard to improve.

“I was fortunate to get discovered by Nick, to be given the chance to take a step in the right direction, to fulfill my dream when he offered me a full scholarship to attend his academy. Even from the age of 10 years old, I was the one who facilitated being away from home, because I didn’t know if I would get that opportunity again.”

Knowles took the leap of faith, but his inner Borg was soon suppressed when grouped alongside the likes of Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and David Wheaton. Knowles needed to radiate McEnroe to survive in this ecosystem, one centered around contending for Bollettieri’s attention and approval. 

An impressionable time for these teenagers, Knowles developed a competitive rush—and edge—that would serve him well in the future. But above all else, these formative years fueled his motivation to prove that an island native could cut it against players from traditional tennis territories. At one point, Knowles was approached to play Davis Cup for Great Britain, an offer he decisively turned down.

Knowles has the most wins in Bahamian Davis Cup history, with a combined 41-32 record across singles and doubles. (Getty Images)

“Financially, it was probably a very dumb move. But I didn’t feel like that’s who I was,” Knowles says. “I’m Bahamian. I’m from the Bahamas and those are my people. I’m sure most people feel that way about their allegiance, but I think it’s highlighted even more when you’re from a small country.”

Nearly eight years after Roger Smith broke ground by cracking the Top 100, Knowles matched his countryman’s career-best No. 96 singles ranking, and soon evolved into one of the game’s great doubles players. There were plenty of pinnacle moments—becoming No. 1, winning four majors, competing at five Olympic Games—but his most rewarding came in a losing effort, quite a selection for a player with 746 career doubles wins.

“The memory that stands out the most was playing the U.S. in a Davis Cup World Group relegation match,” Knowles says. “To think we could go up against a power like the U.S. and make it a competitive match, one that were close to causing some waves, was one of the proudest moments of my career. For Roger and me, to advance The Bahamas to such a high level was extremely prideful.”

Knowles’ country-first mentality has never been in question. Making the most of his platform while on tour, Knowles raised more than $1 million for several Bahamian children’s initiatives through a family-run charity invitational. Now, when he’s not commentating for Tennis Channel or consulting as a coach, Knowles and wife Dawn are busy juggling the pursuits of their three children, Graham (14), Brody (11) and Presley (8)—with the two youngest showing an interest to follow in their father’s footsteps. Although it’s been more challenging to organize local events, Knowles has continually kept sight of his roots.

His homeland screams paradise louder than a McEnroe outburst. Warm, white-sand beaches beckon visitors to explore 360 degrees of breathtaking beauty. The sun spreads solace; pristine ocean water welcomes curious minds to discover what lies beneath 50 shades of blue. Its presentation is Borg: serene, supernatural—and is why more than half of the Bahamian economy is powered by tourism.

Knowles: "We continue to want people to visit, because tourism is our number one industry. That’s how we survive." (AP Images)

Baha Mar, an emerging beach resort in Nassau, reached out to Knowles to discuss potential partnership opportunities in early 2019. The two sides worked to put together a charity event, but in September, their plans were fast-tracked when Hurricane Dorian slammed the northern part of the country. The archipelago sustained maximum winds of 185 M.P.H. and suffered an estimated $7 billion in property damage. The official death toll is 61, with thousands of residents displaced from their homes.

Knowles was at Flushing Meadows when Dorian struck, but his heart was detached, heading to nostalgic places like Abaco and Grand Bahama. Once familiar and friendly, they were now unrecognizable and unsettling. 

“For me, it was so surreal because you associate the Bahamas with such beauty,” Knowles says. “Fortunately for us, our No. 1 industry is tourism, so a lot of people have been able to experience it. As a Bahamian, I don’t take it for granted. 

“I’m still amazed at how beautiful it is. To see people in jeopardy like that and so uncertain, knowing that devastation was on its way, was really concerning.”

Roddick (fifth from left) texted Knowles (third from left) within hours of Hurricane Dorian making landfall, leading to the creation of the Baha Mar Cup. “They have a wonderful tennis facility and they’ve put a lot into it,” Knowles says of Baha Mar. While unfortunate weather affected some of the event, it raised more than $100,000 for the relief effort. (Baha Mar)

Countless players who had crossed paths with Knowles reached out to help. The collective support led to the Baha Mar Cup, a four-day event held in November. Andy Roddick, James Blake, Tommy Haas, Bob Bryan, Coco Gauff and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario donated their time to support the cause. The event put 100 percent of its proceeds towards the relief effort.

The outpouring of support sincerely touched the 48-year-old, though he wasn’t surprised by it. While tennis can come off as an isolated sport, with one player surviving the wreckage each week, differences are quashed by a greater collective force: respect. It’s something the showy McEnroe and ice-cool Borg felt, even within a hurricane of emotions.

“I find that in moments like this, we really see tennis players come together. They know how challenging the path has been for everybody,” Knowles says. “Everybody was so quick to offer a hand in any way they could. I feel fortunate to be a tennis player in that regard.” 

As Knowles works to continue helping his nation recover, rebuild and strengthen its infrastructure, he’s carrying the same optimism toward the future of Bahamian tennis. There may not have been a player equipped to take the torch from the 55-time doubles champion when he announced his retirement in 2012, but there’s reason to hope the next export is already in the pre-production process. 

Knowles on The Bahamas as a training base for professional tennis players: "Not only do I think it’s beneficial for their careers. But it’s very quiet and private, with great weather for training, first-rate facilities, a lot of beauty and the best people.” (Baha Mar)

From Lleyton Hewitt holding an active role at the Albany Sports Academy to Nick Kyrgios, Kyle Edmund, Denis Shapovalov and Alex de Minaur establishing training bases in the country, future generations now have inspiration at their doorstep.

“Kyrgios has been especially good to the kids,” Knowles says. “He’s come out and hit with them, that’s incredible and invaluable. When I was a kid and first saw Borg, I remember it clear as day. He was walking right in front of me crossing the street. I was like, ‘Goodness, that’s him in the flesh.’

“For these youngsters to get an opportunity to hit with these pros goes a really long way. That’s really what’s behind this. The impact we can make on young kids’ lives is just incredible.”

On his journey, where Knowles first saw himself in Borg and later McEnroe, he maintained his identity as a Bahamian first, athlete second. With Dorian leaving behind an indelible impression, the next Mark Knowles won’t soon forget the soul of his nation: captivating, congenial, connected.