J.J. Wolf On His Way to Prove that College Tennis Can Be a Path to Glory

J.J. Wolf
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Just three Americans remain in contention for the 2020 US Open Men’s Singles title. One of them is Taylor Fritz, seeded 19th, looking to advance to the fourth round at a Grand Slam for the very first time, following three consecutive losses at this stage. Frances Tiafoe is no debutant heree either, having reached a quarterfinal at the 2019 Australian Open. The other one is Jeffrey John “J.J.” Wolf, who had never even won a tour-level match before the US Open. He also joins Great Britain’s Cameron Norrie as the only former college players who made the third round this year.

Career Path of J.J. Wolf

Great years in the NCAA

Wolf was World No.18 on the junior tour. However, never made it further than the third round at Grand Slams. It was then when he had to make the decision of whether to go professional or play in the NCAA college tennis divisions. As a quite talented yet not spectacular prospect, Wolf decided to commit to playing college tennis for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

This career path is often regarded as something of a delay in the development of a young talent. The list of players who never really achieve much professionally and became Challenger level journeymen after their college careers is long. There aren’t that many that really made it–John Isner, Steve Johnson, Kevin Anderson. Will Jeffrey John Wolf soon join this elite group? It appears that the 21-year-old has a great chance to do just that.

The college years were when Wolf really developed his raw talent and turned it into something else. The American was a standout playing for the Ohio State Buckeyes, reaching the no.1 ranking in the U.S, and named the Best Men’s Tennis Athlete of the Year in the Big Ten Conference his senior year. Interestingly, his sister Danielle played four years at the same college and will be looking to go professional soon.

Going pro with intent

Still as a college player, Wolf scored his first top 100 win in qualifying for the 2018 Western &a Southern Open. Playing with a wild card there, he defeated world no. 85 Jozef Kovalik. In January 2019, Wolf won his first ATP Challenger Tour title by beating Mikael Torpegaard, another former Buckeye and a very successful college player.

Wolf turned professional in July 2019 and went on to perform great on the Challenger Tour, finishing the year with a 23-8 win/loss record and another title at Champaign. That, however, was just the foretaste before the explosion of his talent in early 2020. The American won further two events of the circuit in Noumea and Columbus, scoring another top 100 win in the process (over Roberto Carballes Baena).

Despite all that Challenger Tour success, Wolf was yet to make a main draw appearance at a tour-level event. His campaigns to qualify for the 2019 US Open and the 2020 Australian Open turned out to be unsuccessful. But he did just enough to impress the United States Tennis Association and grab a wild card for the 2020 edition of the US Open.

Success at the big stage

Wolf preceded that start with a victorious qualifying campaign at the Western & Southern Open. In the first round at “Cincinnati,” he lost to Richard Gasquet 4-6 4-6. However, the luck of the draw was a lot more kind to him at the big event. 29th seeded Guido Pella had been quarantined and left without the ability to practice just a couple of days before the event. The lack of rhythm was visible throughout for Pella, who wasn’t able to get into the match and left it all on Wolf’s racket. The American had a huge dip in level in the second set, but ultimately found a way to break through Pella’s defense in a 6-2 0-6 6-3 6-3 win.

The second round saw Wolf face Roberto Carballes Baena again and it was yet again a good indicator of how much the American has improved, even since their meeting in January. Sporting a mullet reminiscent of the one Andre Agassi had in the early ’90s, Wolf ended up blasting 21 forehand winners and never really gave his opponent a chance in a match that only lasted a bit under two hours.

Facing a top-tier opponent for the first time

Wolf’s third opponent at the 2020 US Open will be Daniil Medvedev. The Russian is currently ranked No. 5 in the ATP Rankings (133 spots above Wolf) and was the runner-up at this tournament last year. He has also stormed through the first two rounds against Federico Delbonis and Christopher O’Connell.

Medvedev plays a style mostly focused on counterpunching and baseline consistency. The Russian sets up an impenetrable wall in front of his opponents and his game should naturally match up well against Wolf. The American plays a much more aggressive brand of tennis, using his explosive footwork to keep hitting off his stronger forehand side and finish the points quickly. It will be very hard to keep up this style against Medvedev, but it should be a great opportunity for Wolf to present himself to a big audience (in front of the TV, as there are no crowds at the US Open this year). Even a third-round appearance will allow Wolf to reach a new career-high ranking and keep pushing forwards towards the dream of a successful career in professional tennis.

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