Home-school legislation not likely to change star tennis player’s plans

Jelani Sarr, a Class of 2023 tennis player homeschooled and based in the Savannah area, is the No. 28 player in the country according to the USTA junior boys rankings.
Jelani Sarr, a Class of 2023 tennis player homeschooled and based in the Savannah area, is the No. 28 player in the country according to the USTA junior boys rankings.

Credit: Courtesy of Amanda Nord

Pooler’s Jelani Sarr, ranked No. 28 in the nation on the junior circuit, aiming to go pro

Jelani Sarr said he was pleased to find out about new legislation in Georgia that would allow home-schooled athletes to play for their local high school teams, but it probably wouldn’t fit with his tennis lifestyle.

Sarr, a 17-year-old home-school student-athlete from the Savannah area, is chasing a tennis dream that began at 3, when his stepfather introduced him to the sport. He has compiled a 749-337 record in USTA-sanctioned events since 2010, good for a No. 28 national ranking in the USTA boys’ 18-and-under national standings list.

It’s doubtful the state’s Dexter Mosely Act, a bill that Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law Thursday, will change things. The law stipulates that home-schooled students are now allowed to participate in high school athletic programs at school districts where they live. Sarr, from Pooler, is eligible at Groves.

“I didn’t even know that was an option,” said Sarr, who originally is from the Baltimore area, but moved to Pooler in 2019. “I know a couple of kids my age (whom Sarr competes with on the national circuit) who play in high school and they love it, even though they destroy (the competition).”

High school officials are not sure how many athletes will take advantage of the law. GHSA director Robin Hines doesn’t think there will be an influx of elite athletes, just girls and boys who want a place to play.

“By doing this, we’re providing more kids the opportunity to participate,” Hines said.

Sarr’s parents, Amanda Nord and stepfather Andre Miller, home-school Sarr so they can travel the country while he participates in USTA-sanctioned and other invitation-only events, both national and international.

“Jelani is trying to go pro,” Nord said. “Some of the higher-level kids home-school so that they can travel and play competition at a higher level.”

Sarr said he would look into playing high school tennis, but he admitted that his focus remains competing on the UTSA junior circuit.

“If you’re asking me what my priorities would be, it would be the bigger, national tournaments,” said Sarr, who is a member of the Class of 2023.

It’s hard to blame Sarr if he wants to keep his focus on the road. He and his parents are both pursuing their dreams — Sarr has tennis, and his parents are musicians who perform a country-folk-jazz blend at each of Sarr’s stops.

They’ve done a lot of traveling during the years, even during the pandemic. International stops included Canada, Norway, Sweden and Africa, where Sarr’s biological father was born.

“We have two cars,” Miller said. “One has 250,000 miles on it, and the other has 120,000. We’re like that Johnny Cash song — we’ve been everywhere, man.”

Miller has been coaching Sarr from the beginning, and it’s his hope that Sarr will carry his family’s tennis legacy into a new era. Miller’s grandfather, LeRoy Matthews, was arrested in 1948 while attempting to integrate the tennis courts at Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. Matthews, a standout tennis player, was denied the opportunity to play professionally because of segregation.

Sarr draws inspiration from Matthews, as well as from another African-American tennis player, Arthur Ashe. Nord said that Sarr plays Ashe as a kid in the documentary project, “Ashe ’68″.

From left; stepfather Andre Miller, Jelani Sarr and mother Amanda Nord on the set of "Ashe '68" in 2019.
From left; stepfather Andre Miller, Jelani Sarr and mother Amanda Nord on the set of "Ashe '68" in 2019.

Credit: Courtesy of Rex Miller

Credit: Courtesy of Rex Miller

“My grandpa’s story is with me when I play,” Sarr said. “And one person I always try to emulate is Arthur Ashe, because he really opened the game for African-Americans. I try to act like him on and off the tennis court. ... I always ask myself, ‘What would Arthur Ashe do?’”

Sarr’s road hasn’t been free of bumps. Soon after moving to Pooler in 2018, he suffered a serious left knee injury that put his long-term mobility — and his tennis career — in jeopardy. He spent six weeks in a brace that prevented him from bending his knee, and it took him nearly two years to recover. Now, he’s good to go.

“Right now, my left leg is stronger than the right leg,” Sarr said.

As Sarr’s days as a home-school student wind down, Miller is handing him over to former pro tennis player Tim Wilkinson, now a coach based in Charlotte, N.C. Wilkinson was ranked as high as No. 21 in the world in 1989.

The goal of working with Wilkinson is obvious.

“I want to go as far as I can on the ATP Tour and make a living playing tennis,” Sarr said.

Added Miller, “I see his ceiling as unlimited. Five years from now I would not be surprised if he’s the No. 1 tennis player in the world. If he sticks with it, if he stays healthy, and if it’s in God’s plan, then it’s unlimited where he can take his game. The key for him is staying out of trouble, especially as a young African-American man.”

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