Cincy’s stars shine in 2022
Day seven of the 2021 Western & Southern Open at the Linderer Family Tennis Center in Mason, OH on Sunday August 22, 2021. (Ben Solomon/Western & Southern Open)
Since playing at the Western & Southern Open in August, Cincinnati’s trio of pro tennis players have enjoyed a memorable close to their 2022 seasons, with each achieving a career high ranking during the final three months of the campaign.
For two of the three – JJ Wolf and Caty McNally – the strong finish has earned them entry into January’s Australian Open, the first time both will play a Grand Slam on the strength of their ranking. The third, Peyton Stearns, found quick success just six months into her pro career after winning the NCAA singles championship in May.
Wolf was ranked outside the Top 200 as late as March of this season as he battled back after missing half of 2021 with injury. On the eve of the Western & Southern Open, he reached the quarterfinals in Washington, D.C., and broke into the Top 100 for the first time.
“Washington was unbelievable,” Wolf said. “I felt like I did a good job kind of coming into my own that tournament and tried to ride it out throughout the rest of the year.”
At the US Open, Wolf reached the third round for the second time in three years, defeating No. 18 Roberto Bautista Agut in the opening round before falling to Nick Kyrgios.
“I had never fully felt the energy of the New York crowd, and I think I got it firsthand this year,” Wolf explained. “Not even just the Kyrgios match, which was a bigger stadium. But playing on Court 5 for (Bautista Agut). It was wild. People were so into the match and pulling for me hard. I just kind of felt the passion that they had, it really helped me.”
Wolf’s season got even better after that US Open run.
“Highlight of the fall was my first ATP final in Florence (Italy),” he explained. “I played very well there, had some tough matches and some good wins. And a great learning experience losing that final to Felix (Auger-Aliassime). I really want to get back there. I think it kind of made me hungry for more.”
While McNally’s W&S Open ended in a tough loss, she now looks back and finds positives from pushing World No. 2 Ons Jabeur, the Wimbledon and US Open runner-up, to a third-set tie-break.
“That definitely hurt at the time,” McNally said. “But looking back, seeing photos of the crowd, it was packed. It was an amazing atmosphere. And I had everyone behind me, supporting me, pulling for me. So that’s something really special. And it also shows me that I’m up there with the best players in the world. It’s literally one point here, there. So that gave me confidence that I’m doing the right things. I just gotta keep doing them. And you know, hopefully, one day those matches will go my way.”
A bout of COVID last winter slowed McNally’s season preparation, and she credits a training block during the French Open for getting her game back on track for a strong second half of the season. In the fall, McNally reached the quarterfinals at the WTA 500 event in Ostrava (Czech Republic), where World No. 1 Iga Swiatek bested her 6-4 6-4.
“I came through qualifying and I had to beat some really tough players to get to that main draw,” McNally said. “(Iga) is probably the best player of the year. I knew that going out there, I had to go after everything. It was a pretty high-level match, pretty close. But I think it kind of goes to show where my level’s at and that I’m not far off. I just gotta keep working.”
McNally returned to the Midwest in early November to post her best result of the season, winning the title in Midland, Mich., for her first trophy at a WTA 125. The result pushed McNally into the Top 100 of the rankings for the first time.
“To cap off the year with a win was really special,” she said. “My ranking belongs where it is. I think this is only the beginning of being in the Top 100. I want to work my way up. I don’t want to just be here for a little bit, then bounce back out. I want to be here to stay. It was really nice to have that weekend to be where I am now.”
It was also another successful doubles season for McNally. She reached the US Open final for the second time (this year with Taylor Townsend) and picked up two more WTA titles to bring her career tally to a half dozen.
“I love playing doubles,” McNally said. “I’ll continue to play it throughout my career. And I think it has helped me a lot with my singles and just getting the repetition, the returns, the serves, the pressure moments that you can’t really get in practice.”
Her strong play extended her season as McNally was asked to join Team USA in the Billie Jean King Cup finals.
“It was a really special experience,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to play for my country. So hopefully that was just the first of many.”
Representing a team is very familiar for Stearns, who won a pair of NCAA team titles in her two seasons at the University of Texas. This year, after an injury had her in a boot last Christmas, she also added the NCAA singles title.
“I think the fact that my record \ was much better than my freshman year was kind of crazy, especially coming off an injury that quick,” she explained. “And then to win Big XIIs, after the team itself had been struggling compared to what we did the year before. To come out of that to win a team national championship was insane. \ And then, to win the singles title to individually was just not expected.”
Early in the summer, Stearns announced she would turn pro, a decision she made prior to the Longhorn season.
“I actually made that decision in November, December of last year, crazy enough, while in the boot,” Stearns said. “There was the unknown of, you’re injured, why are you making this decision? But I remember talking to my parents at the time and saying, I’m either committing to it or I’m not doing it. And everyone needs to be on board. And we were all on board, no second guesses. I think that helped a lot, too, during season because it was like this is what’s happening. No matter what I’m leaving at the end of this year. So, I can lay an egg or do really well, and did really well.”
After playing ITF events through the summer – including reaching a final in Columbus and semifinal in Lexington – Western & Southern Open qualifying was her first WTA Tour experience as a professional.
“I knew growing up watching it, I wanted to be out there,” she said of the Western & Southern Open.
Her ITF success continued in the fall, including a run in October of 12-straight match wins and back-to-back titles.
“It’s pretty crazy, just doing so well in the fall,” she said. “I felt like I was on a high for sure. I had a lot of confidence. I felt like I was playing very freely. It was really cool to win that much. It gave me a boost of confidence and a feeling that I belonged there. I deserve to be here. I’m not just a college player. I’m also a professional player. And I think a lot of times people mix that up.”
Wolf, McNally and Stearns are looking forward to spending some of their offseasons back home in Cincinnati, eager to reconnect with family and friends who support them from afar during the tennis season that takes them all over the globe.
Each remains loyal to their roots in many ways, including keeping a close eye on the local sports scene. All three recently weighed in on the championship prospects of the area’s football teams. WATCH
While the downtime is welcome, they are also very focused on training hard as they look to carry momentum from their falls into the 2023 season.
“I’m wanting to crack the Top 100,” said Stearns. “I know it’s going to be tough, but it’s doable.”
While Top 100 has been achieved by Wolf and McNally, as they have said, they aren’t stopping now.
“I’m pumped for the year,” Wolf said. “I actually got a little hurt in my last match in Vienna, so I haven’t played for about a month. So, I’m getting back into playing now. The body feels good, getting ready to go. Just going to try to stay healthy again. And then keep improving on certain things and keep my head right.”
“I just want to keep doing what I’ve been doing the second part of the year, honestly,” said McNally. “I’m trying to enjoy myself off the court and on the court. I think that’s extremely important to find that balance on the tour, and just continuing to take accountability for myself. But, more importantly, just keep working hard and just have a great year.