By Kimberley Cummins
The entire Wildey Gymnasium looked on in amazement and appreciation as the world’s no.1 road tennis player, Mark “Venom” Griffith, executed one terrific shot after the next over the weekend.
Agility, mental strength, control and great technique were the major hallmarks of his performance against young Shakeem Nurse in the new Barbados Road Tennis Open Championship final on Saturday. So, it was no surprise that many among the excited estimated 5,000 road tennis lovers inside the gym, stood to applaud his 21-10, 21-12, 21-9 thrashing of Nurse.
What they didn’t get to witness though was the sheer hard work and dedication that went into what Griffith described as a challenging game to defeat the youngster, even though the scores didn’t reflect that.
“Shakeem Nurse did tremendously well and he qualified a lot of balls last night,” Griffith told Barbados TODAY.
Going into the final, dedicated fans were already aware of the former Ellerslie Secondary School student’s prowess on the court. And with the hype behind Nurse due to his attacking style and fantastic display of good tennis in the preliminary and semi-final rounds, it is fair to say that the crowd support was thoroughly behind Nurse. However, Griffith said he wasn’t fazed because when he sets his mind to a task, anyone can expect him to give 100 per cent to ensure he succeeds.
This mindset applies to most things in life and even goes back to his introduction to the sport itself. One night in 2009, he was driving through Bush Hall Yard Gap, St. Michael when he just happened upon bright lights illuminating the hardcourt. Granted, he had heard of road tennis in his primary school days, it was nothing that really interested him ¬– not until that evening. What was supposed to be a quick peek through the fence simply to see what was happening, ended up with Griffith spending hours watching the guys scrimmaging. This resulted in Griffith returning to watch the action the very next day and every single night thereafter. Until one night, a gentleman by the name of Sam challenged him to take up a racket and play.
Laughing as he reminisced about the incident, Griffith admitted to Sam that he couldn’t play a stroke of road tennis but with his interest piqued, agreed on one condition. That if he did take up a racket Sam would have to teach him. Sam accepted.
“This was when I had plaited hair and low sagging pants. I was the average ghetto youth. I just continued scrimmaging until Sam told me I had potential and I should give it a try. I still wasn’t sure about it though,” he said.
He only started to take it seriously when, unknown to him, a guy named Mikey Jean entered him into a tournament because Jean thought Griffith was good enough to win a B-class tournament at that time.
“I asked Mikey why he would do that knowing I just started playing,” Griffith laughed.
In spite of his hesitancy, Griffith went into the tournament and ended up winning. He received a cheque and trophy and that was his ‘ah-ha’ moment. He reflected that he had not given his all to the tournament but if he had to, the possibilities would be endless. So, he did, and as the adage goes, the rest is history. In the short space of about ten years, the 37-year-old won roughly 29 A-Class championships including four Monarch of the Courts, three Silver Hill Road Tennis tournaments, three Island-wide and now the Barbados Road Tennis Open Championship with a $20,000 purse.
For Griffith, road tennis was a life-changing experience that has made him a household name and has taken him as far as Dubai. Admittingly, he doesn’t know where he would have been today without it.
“When I came out of school, the only certificate I came out with is my birth certificate. After getting involved in road tennis it forced me to speak differently, and conduct myself in a different manner since before I was brawling and very abrupt. It changed my whole entire character. You have to be very disciplined and it allowed me to look at my life in a totally different light . . . and it put me on a different path. I always knew I wanted to be the champ but I went into Bush Hall one day and I saw this junior’s cellphone and he had Mark ‘Venom’ Griffith as his screen wallpaper, not that you go out there wanting to be a role model for anyone but, I said if these kids look up to me in that light, then I must change my life. I would not drink at tournaments; they would not hear me using abusive language. For me, it made me look at my life differently,” he said.
Working closely with and mentoring young people is a trait that is very dear to Griffith’s heart and which he is very serious about. This was why the father of young Zayn Griffith, recently hosted an eight-week road tennis clinic for some 30-plus seven to 16-year-olds in Gall Hill, St. John, and why he is desirous of coaching full-time when he retires from the sport.
He continued: “Everyone may not always be academically inclined but sports is an opportunity for a lot of these youngsters, why not help guide them to be better sportsmen so they can sustain their lives and have a livelihood from the sports? I am a certified coach under the Barbados Olympic Association so that is just something I always wanted to do, plus I love working with the youths. So, any opportunity I get I am always there giving a few pointers, advice or whatever is needed of me. I don’t have any problem giving back of my time at schools, communities, or wherever. . . . We need more players going into the community and doing things like that as well. We need more coaches here in the schools if we want to export the sport. There is only one appointed coach right now at the National Sports Council and that is Peter Moore—for both primary and secondary.”
“As I said, road tennis and sports, in general, have a lot of opportunities and benefits and it can really change a person’s life. You can become a full-time athlete because of the prize money being offered now as long as you have that continuous [support] of tournaments coming in. Yes, you could maintain a livelihood from just playing road tennis but you would have to be at the peak of your game. For me personally, I looked at it in a different light. I said ‘look Venom you are only offered an opportunity and a window in sports for such a period of time’ and that is why it ended up with me making these other investments, just for the longevity of my own personal life to say that I would have something to fall back on as well to sustain me whenever I do retire from the sport. But basically, you have to dedicate your whole time and life to the sport. That is what I did in the beginning. I trained countless hours whether it was running, swimming, cycling, whatever the case was to prepare myself for what upcoming tournament there was, because your pay is basically based on your performance,” he said.
In an effort to build more professional athletes, particular in road tennis, Griffith however contended the need for more tournaments throughout the year and specifically outside of Barbados so that athletes could make a livelihood. Griffith suggested the introduction of a pro-circuit.
“You need to have a pro circuit, even if it is just regional for now, where you play in different islands. You have St. Vincent, Trinidad where you can go off and compete and then return home for other tournaments. That way you are guaranteed for sure to make a livelihood and a living from the sport. But just to have it here in Barbados, there isn’t that number of tournaments then it will be very difficult to do.”
Griffith believed there is an interest in road tennis in other regional territories, its push just needs to be sustained.
“In St. Vincent, for instance, there is the St. Vincent association as well that they take road tennis very seriously and also in Jamaica, have taken up road tennis and they are also looking to play and compete at a very high and competitive level as you saw in the last World Championships where the international champion came from St. Vincent and also the runners up was from Jamaica. In 2017, touring St. Vincent, where the professional Road Tennis Association had put on a tournament there, we had a Bajan leaving Barbados and going to St. Vincent to compete in that competition and losing in the final. At that stage, St. Vincent was only playing road tennis for about three years. So, if they can advance and defeat someone from Barbados in that short space of time, what says then if the entire world takes it up,” he argued.
Griffith’s immediate plans are to take a little two-week break from road tennis to recuperate and recover. (KC)