JJ Wolf has always been an elite tennis player. But something changed in his feelings toward the sport in the past year.

The Ohio State junior went from liking tennis to loving it.

“Something just clicked,” Wolf said before the start of the NCAA tennis championships, in which the top-seeded Buckeyes play No. 8 North Carolina in the quarterfinals Thursday in Orlando, Florida. “It’s turning into my life, and not just a hobby or something you just do.”

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As Wolf’s passion for the sport increased, so did his work ethic. And so did, unsurprisingly, his confidence and results. Last August, Wolf won a qualifying-round match at the ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Cincinnati, his hometown. In January, he defeated former Ohio State teammate Mikael Torpegaard in the Columbus Challenger for his first pro tournament championship. He is ranked 271st in the ATP rankings.

This season for Ohio State, Wolf is 31-1. He didn’t lose until the Buckeyes’ Big Ten tournament semifinal against Michigan on April 27. Ohio State is undefeated with Wolf in the lineup.

The Buckeyes have never won the NCAA men’s team championship — the only missing piece on coach Ty Tucker’s resume. They have come tantalizingly close in recent years, losing in 2018 in the final to host Wake Forest.

Ohio State believes this could be its year, with Wolf leading the way.

“I put it on myself to try to set an example and give it my all every day,” Wolf said. “A lot of guys on the team do that, not just me. The older guys — John (McNally), (Hunter) Tubert, (Martin) Joyce — are doing the same things.”

 Wolf and McNally grew up just minutes from each other. McNally marvels at the jump his close friend has taken.

“Last year he had a good year, but this year it’s a completely different level,” McNally said. “I think when he plays anywhere near his capability, he’s 10 percent better than every guy in college tennis. He sacrificed a lot of time last summer, played a lot of tournaments. He got a couple good wins and got confidence, and all of a sudden he’s the best player in college tennis.”

Wolf entered Ohio State as the No. 3 ranked player in the 2017 recruiting class. But Tucker has seen players flame out from the demands of the sport.

“When you’re out recruiting, you have to find people that love tennis,” he said. “Tennis is a tough, tough game. These guys are playing at a high level at 8 years old. By the time they get to college, a lot of guys are a little burned out.

"JJ is one of those guys who, whether it's because he’s doing so well or what have you, he has a passion to play tennis at this age. You don’t see that every day.”

Wolf was ranked No. 1 most of this season. The Michigan loss dropped him to No. 2 for the NCAA singles tournament, which will follow the team championship. A year ago, Wolf was a bit on fumes for the singles tournament after the grueling run in the team competition. He lost in the first round.

That early exit has provided extra motivation. So could the fact that this might be his last chance for an NCAA title. Though Wolf has a year of eligibility remaining, he could turn pro after this season.

“I think there’s definitely a lot that has to go into that decision,” Wolf said. “I honestly have no idea at this point. I’m just going to finish out the year and think about that when it comes around.”

For now, his focus is on Orlando and winning the team and singles tournaments.

“It’ll definitely be really hard to accomplish both of those things, but we as a team think we can win it all,” Wolf said. “We’ve been working hard all year. You definitely have to have that belief.

"I think I have a good chance against all the people I’m playing against. I’ve had a lot of close matches, so obviously there’s so many good players, but that’s my goal. I really want to win that tournament.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch