They have known each other as long as they can remember.
In the Cincinnati junior tennis world, it was always Wolf and McNally, McNally and Wolf. They dominated locally and were among the best in the country.
“We were competitive,” JJ Wolf said. “I think he beat me a couple more times than I got him in juniors.”
But their rivalry paled in comparison to their friendship.
“Like brothers,” Wolf said.
Now they are 19-year-old teammates at Ohio State, and they will be crucial if the No. 3 Buckeyes are to make a run at the NCAA team tennis championship.
Wolf is the No. 2 singles player for the Buckeyes and John McNally is No. 3. They have done for the Buckeyes this year what they did in their junior careers.
“All you have to do is look at their records the last six to eight weeks,” Ohio State coach Ty Tucker said. “They’re phenomenal tennis players who definitely have a chance to play major professional tennis.”
Neither has lost a match since March 30, but that’s also the rub. Their defeats came against Minnesota, which is Ohio State’s opponent in the round of 16 on Friday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Buckeyes prevailed in that match 5-2 and beat the Golden Gophers 4-1 in the Big Ten tournament. Wolf won his postseason match; McNally’s was unfinished when Ohio State clinched.
Wolf is 22-4 in dual matches, McNally 18-2. Though Wolf is two months younger than McNally, he is a sophomore athletically because he enrolled early and played for the Buckeyes last year. Wolf finished his freshman season ranked 50th and qualified for the NCAA singles tournament, which he has again this year.
“They both know how to win,” Tucker said. “They’ve won at such a high level for such a long time that they don’t get as nervous as some guys when it gets late in the set or late in the match. JJ is a super-athletic player. He’s got a very, very live arm. John is more of a cerebral player who tries to set up three-, four-, five-ball combinations, where JJ has the ability to hurt you right away.”
Because McNally’s points tend to last longer, he has had nine matches that were unfinished because the team match was clinched. That hurt his individual ranking, and he didn’t hide his disappointment that he didn’t get an at-large bid into the NCAA singles.
“It’s really frustrating, but it’s something I have to use to work (on as motivation) in the next couple years,” McNally said.
For now, it has given him extra determination to make his mark in the team tournament. That starts against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are ranked only 37th, but Tucker is wary of them, only in part because of the tough matches they have given the Buckeyes.
Even more than Ohio State does, Minnesota prefers to play indoors, given the weather in Minneapolis. Playing inside last week at Oklahoma, the senior-led Gophers upset both No. 19 Georgia and 14th-ranked Sooners, defeating both 4-3.
“Everybody always asks me if I’d rather be indoors or outdoors, and people know we enjoy playing indoor tennis,” Tucker said. “But come Friday, we’d much rather be in 85 degrees.”
The forecast in Winston-Salem for Friday? Rain.