The 21 & Under Club, 2020 Edition: J.J. Wolf

The 21 & Under Club, 2020 Edition: J.J. Wolf

Armed with elite athleticism and extreme power, the Cincinnati native has skyrocketed up the ATP rankings and shows no signs of slowing down.

ATP Rank: No. 144
UTR Rank: No. 42
What he's done since last summer: Won the Champaign, Columbus, and Noumea Challengers

An ATP coach once told me that players armed with huge weapons will always outrank the weaponless. The point structure rewards a few fantastic results far more than consistent, steady ones.

An ATP 250 quarterfinalist receives just 45 points, while the winner and finalist receive 250 and 150, respectively. The same goes for ATP challengers. The highest grade (125) awards 45 points to their semifinalists, 75 to the finalist, and 125 to the winner. If you aren’t making deep runs, neither your ranking nor your bank account will change much.

Take Hubert Hurkacz and Miomir Kecmanovic for example, two young players around the same level. Hurkacz won 25 singles matches in 2019 while Kecmanovic won 24. Hurkacz, a 6’5” heavy hitter with a massive serve, suffered 15 first-round losses in 2019, but captured a 250 title in Winston-Salem. Kecmanovic, a rock solid baseliner with no real weapons to speak of, lost in the first round just eight times, but was unable to capture a a title (though he reached the Antalya 250 final). Hurkacz, despite having nearly double the first-round losses, finished the year ranked No. 37 in the world, while Kecmanovic finished at No. 59. Long story short: players that can get hot for just a few weeks a year have the deck stacked in their favor.

J.J. Wolf is one of those players. When the 21-year-old catches fire, he’s an unstoppable force. Take Wolf's 2020 season start at the Noumea challenger in New Caledonia, where he dropped just 19 games in his final four matches to win the title. His UTR ranking of No. 42 (despite zero ATP level wins to date) both reflects and projects his ability to blitz through draws on any given week. He hits his forehand and backhand like a frozen rope, but his most dangerous weapon is his extreme athleticism. 

Ohio State Men's Tennis

“I play more like an athlete than a tennis player,” Wolf says. “I wouldn't call myself a tennis genius.” 

Tennis is a complex game that typically requires specialization and total devotion at a young age, but Wolf played soccer, basketball, baseball and tennis until he was 16. What he may have lost in tactics and problem-solving ability, he’s more than made up for in explosiveness and agility. Soccer and tennis pair especially well for young athletes. 

“Soccer helped develop my footwork and quickness, playing basketball was good for my lateral movement and jumping ability, and baseball was great for keeping a live arm while serving and also strong hip rotation,” Wolf believes.

Wolf comes from one of the most athletic families in Ohio history. His grandfather Charley played football, baseball, and basketball at Notre Dame. Later on, he would coach in the NBA for the Cincinnati Royals and then the Detroit Pistons. Charley had six sons—each went on to play college basketball. All this athletic experience comes with wisdom. Wolf’s father Jeff coached him until he was 17, and built his game for the long run. 

“I probably would have burned out if I played only tennis growing up,” Wolf says. “My family never pressured me to pick a sport. I chose tennis because it came down to what I could control. On the court it’s all about you every point.”

Wolf began to hit his stride as the No. 1 player for perennial powerhouse Ohio State, where he relished the chance to represent his state. After posting a 35-2 record his junior year, Wolf turned pro. Winning the Columbus Challenger in 2019 on his home courts may have spurred that decision. He exploded from the starting line in 2020 and won two Challenger titles before March 1. In Noumea, Wolf eviscerated his opponents, winning seven of his 11 sets by at least a 6-2 margin. 

The American hasn’t won a match on the ATP stage but he also hasn’t played one. Despite four Challenger titles and winning 19 of his past 21 matches, Wolf has yet to be gifted an ATP main-draw wild card. Timing could have played a role in that, with Indian Wells, Miami and Houston canceling their events in the initial stages of the coronavirus shutdown.

“J.J. hits as big as anyone I’ve seen coming out of college in a long, long time,” says USTA Pro Circuit commentator Mike Cation, who has seen Wolf play up close and personal dozens of times. “At this stage, playing guys outside of the Top 50, he can overpower just about anyone at any time. To use a golf reference from another era, he is John Daly, grip it and rip it, except with a fitness level that is off the charts.” 

Wolf plays with no fear. When he loses, he goes down swinging. The Cincinnati native doesn’t sell himself short on any shot. Sometimes the magic isn’t there, but when it is, Wolf is a sight to behold. 

“Now it's about seeing how he will respond when he gets smacked in the face by some players who can match him shot for shot with pace,” adds Cation.

UTR’s algorithm has shown an uncanny ability to project future success. Before her 2019 Indian Wells breakthrough, Bianca Andreescu was rated inside the Top 20. A US Open title would enable Andreescu to become the highest-ranked Canadian in WTA history at No. 4 later that year. Alison Riske was inside the UTR's Top 30 long before a stellar 2019 season saw her crack the WTA's Top 20 for the first time at 29. Wolf is aware of his lofty rating but refuses to put much stock into it. If anything he completely agrees with it.

“I just want to see how far I can go and be the best I can be,” Wolf says. “If that’s 50 or 20 or 1 in the world it doesn’t matter to me. I’m just trying to maximize my ability.”

That’s exactly what he’s been doing during the hiatus. Wolf has been living in the gym, and is well on his way to becoming one of the ATP’s strongest players. He’s stacked. When (not if) Wolf finally appears on the game's biggest stages, you won’t want to miss this promising prospect.

The Class of 2020 is now on and Baseline.

Monday, July 27: Sofia Kenin | Monday, July 27: Elena Rybakina | Monday, July 27: Alex de Minaur, Dayana Yastremska, Casper Ruud | Tuesday, July 28: Stefanos Tsitsipas | Tuesday, July 28: Thiago Seyboth Wild | Wednesday, July 29: Amanda Anisimova | Wednesday, July 29: Brandon Nakashima | Thursday, July 30: Coco Gauff | Thursday, July 30: Caty McNally | Thursday, July 30: Jannik Sinner, Iga Swiatek | Friday, July 31: Felix Auger-Aliassime | Friday, July 31: Carlos Alcaraz | Saturday, August 1: Denis Shapovalov | Saturday, August 1: J.J. Wolf | Sunday, August 2: Bianca Andreescu | Sunday, August 2: Leylah Fernandez  | Sunday, August 2: Marketa Vondrousova, Miomir Kecmanovic