Towering at 6’3,” sophomore Joe Hoff ambles to the baseline, his head bobbing to the movement of his lanky limbs. As he fiddles with a tennis ball in his pocket, he doesn’t seem like a leading athlete. But as he starts to fire ball after ball across the net, it’s obvious why Hoff is considered one of the best junior tennis players in Eastern Iowa.
“The hours I’ve put on court have definitely been worth the time and money,” Hoff said. “But I’m working to be even better, even higher in the rankings by the end of my junior career.”
Hoff has been playing tennis since he was seven – along with basketball, soccer, and baseball. An all-around athlete, he was strong in each sport, but trying to keep up with all of them became too time-consuming. Attracted to the individuality of tennis, he decided to drop the other sports.
“[Dropping other sports] let me have two hours a day on the court instead of just four days a week. It’s just been every day, a lot of repetition,” Hoff said.
Hoff has grown five inches in the past year, and his game has grown right along with him. He had a winning record of (8-4) last year as a freshman playing at No.1 for City High. He is currently ranked No. 26 in the United States Tennis Association (USTA)’s Missouri Valley. Such achievements have come with the help of his private coach, former top British doubles star, Sarah Borwell.
“Before she came to Iowa City I didn’t know what hard work was. I just went and played,” Hoff said. “She’s taught me that repetition is one of the best things in tennis.”
Borwell came to the US for college, where she attended and played for the University of Houston and ranked as high as No. 8 in the NCAA. She turned pro in 2002 and four years later, she broke the top 200 in singles. In 2010, she became No. 65 in the world in doubles.
“[The pro tour] is a really amazing experience. Everyone thinks it’s really glamorous- you have Wimbledon and US Open, and that’s what everyone sees,” Borwell said. “I was lucky enough to have four years at the end of my career where I was at the very top. The first six years I was traveling, living out of a bag, in debt. I don’t miss it, but I definitely enjoyed it.”
After retiring from the pro tour in 2012, Borwell moved to Iowa City. She is now the director of Tennis Smart, a successful college sports placement company, and she coaches out of North Dodge Athletic Club- where she met Hoff.
“I was lucky enough to meet Joe when he came to one of my groups. He was a bit of a clown to begin with, but physically he’s got a great physique for tennis. You can tell he’s an incredible athlete,” Borwell said. “I could also tell that he’s a hard worker. So we’ve been working together and he’s really improved quite a lot.”
Over the past two years, Borwell has taken him from an average player to one of the best juniors in Eastern Iowa. Armed with a ferocious forehand and powerful serve, Hoff dominates the court. Over and over, he pulls his opponents out of bounds, then ends the point with the perfect kill shot. Whether at the baseline or at the net, he can hit each four corners of the court.
“Placement is more important than power. If you hit a really powerful shot right to them, it’s so easy to get the ball back,” Hoff said. “But if you hit with good placement you’re making them run and making them tired, which sets you up for the point better.”
The urge to hit the ball hard is something every tennis player struggles with, including Hoff. Placement takes patience and patience takes concentration. When Hoff loses his concentration, the ball goes sailing to the back fence, which usually elicits a yell of “God, I quit tennis!” from his side of the net.
“It’s just the fact that he can’t stay in the moment and process a problem,” Borwell said. “If he misses his backhand, he tells himself off and gets upset rather than just thinking, ‘Okay, why did I miss this backhand, what can I do to correct that?’ So that’s really his biggest weakness.”
Mental toughness is a key aspect to Borwell’s coaching philosophy, as it is one of the most important and hardest things to master in tennis.
“Control what you can control. You’re going to lose points in tennis. It’s all about being able to deal with losing those points,” Borwell said. “You have to focus on what’s important, what you can control. And you can control your work ethic and your mentality.”
Tennis is an individual sport; players are on their own with no teammates or coaches. With no outlet for negative thoughts or frustration, this solitude creates extra pressure. The winner of a match is usually determined by who is mentally stronger- which player not only has the ability to concentrate for the entire match, but the ability to force themselves out of their own head.
“Technically I had a huge serve, massive forehand, I can slice, I can volley. But you put that onto someone like Sharapova who is mentally incredible, with a world-class game – I couldn’t mentally cope at the highest level. [Mental toughness] is everything. If you don’t have it then you can’t succeed,” Borwell said.
Just like every other junior tennis player, Hoff is impatient and loses concentration. But his success in the USTA circuit and during high school season proves that these characteristics do not define his game – he excels despite them.
To test how far Hoff has truly come, Borwell secretly watched him play against a friend one night.
“[Joe] was playing at West and I walked over from my house and hid behind a bush,” Borwell explained. “I just wanted to see how he would act when I’m not there watching.”
She was not disappointed.
“His conduct was amazing, he worked hard, and you could tell he was trying to process things. Being able to do everything away from me is probably what I’m most proud of him for,” Borwell said.
Hoff’s biggest challenge this season will be West High’s No.1 Jiung Jung. Like Hoff, he is a sophomore who never loses, and Hoff just can’t seem to beat him.
“I want to have a good score against Jiung,” Hoff said. “That’s really my main goal because I have never beaten him. If I get to a super tiebreak with him, that will be a big achievement.”
“Jiung’s an incredible player and he works hard and he’s done very well. But I think at some point, Joe will beat him,” Borwell said. “Technically, physically, Joe has a bit more to offer, but mentally he doesn’t believe that he can do it. We need him to believe that he can.”
For Hoff, tennis is much more than a hobby – it’s his ticket for college scholarships. Setting his goals high, he is shooting for the University of Iowa, ranked No. 72 in Division I of the NCAA.
“It’s a very good tennis school. I’ve seen their practices and it looks like a fun but hard-working environment,” Hoff said. “Right now, my level of play is going to have to keep increasing, at an even higher rate than now. If I continue to practice as hard as I can during these next few years, I might have a shot at [Iowa].”
Until then, Hoff plans to exceed almost every expectation that Borwell and he put forth. So far, he’s ahead of schedule: in December, they made a goal to break the Missouri Valley Top 25 by June; he is now No. 26, just one ranking shy. But his rankings and records are not what makes Borwell proud; it’s his dedication and willingness to learn.
“I can be pretty tough. I know what I want and if you don’t do it then I’ll give you a few chances and then I’ll probably get rid of you,” Borwell stated. “Just the fact that when I text him at 9 o’clock at night and just say, ‘I need an answer to this,’ he’ll always respond. He’s willing to do what I say and buy into it.”