One of the best shortstops in Major League Baseball, J.J. Hardy grew up an Arizona kid who loved to play all sports.
© Todd Olszewski/Baltimore Orioles
Hardy and his fiancee, Adrienne, are often found on the court built on their Chandler, Ariz. property.
© Nicholas J. Walz
Hardy meets up with some kids in Queens before taking part in a 10 and Under Tennis hit around.
© Nicholas J. Walz
Hardy hits with the kids on a 36-foot court designed for players 10 and Under.
© Nicholas J. Walz
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. -- James Jerry "J.J." Hardy is enjoying life as a baseball player for the Baltimore Orioles, having recently signed a three-year contract to remain with the club through 2014. One of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) premier shortstops, the 29-year-old hit 30 home runs in 2011 and led all major leaguers at his position with a .994 fielding percentage (one of the prime indicators of a player’s defensive capability). Hardy has continued his power hitting in 2012, having already clubbed 11 homers with over three months remaining in the season.
Hardy’s abilities – his gift to hit a 95-mph fastball, and to play elite defense at one of baseball’s most demanding positions – were developed, in part, by his lifelong experience on the tennis courts in his hometown of Tucson, Ariz. J.J. and older brother Logan learned the game from their father, Mark, who today serves as head tennis pro for the Tucson-based La Paloma Country Club. The elder Hardy has been involved in the game for decades, having played professionally in his youth and ranking as high as No. 270. J.J.’s mother, Susie, was a decorated athlete in her own right as a golfer, playing collegiately at the University of Arizona and rising to No. 2 in the nation behind future LPGA legend Nancy Lopez.
Hand-eye coordination and lateral movement – commonalities that are crucial for baseball and tennis players – came naturally to the boys, who excelled with racquets in hand. J.J. continude to play competitively in both singles and doubles until he reached Tucson’s Sabino High School in 1998 and focused fully on his future as a baseball player.
Yet tennis remains a source of recreational fun during his downtime from the diamond, recently introducing his fiancée, Adrienne, to the game in Baltimore. The two are enthusiastic followers of the pro tour, as well, attending the US Open last year.
In town for an interleague series against the New York Mets, Hardy stopped by the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to meet up with some junior campers and to check out 10 and Under Tennis, the play format designed to bring in younger players to tennis with smaller courts, shorter racquets and lower-bouncing balls that make the game easier to learn to play.
He also took the time to talk to USTA.com to reflect upon his tennis life, being a fan, the state of youth sports and much more.
USTA.com: You were an active kid, playing almost every sport beyond baseball and tennis – basketball, soccer, golf. When did you know to decide upon just one?
J.J. Hardy: Once I got to high school, I figured that I had a future in baseball and it was time to put all my concentration on that to see it through. Before that, though, I really enjoyed tennis and would get really competitive in camps. My brother, Logan, was the same way. Though I didn’t stay with it in high school, he decided in his junior year to go out for the tennis team after trying other sports. He really just wanted to see how good he could get after not playing in years, and he became the team’s No. 1. Growing up playing like we did with our dad getting us involved real early helped.
USTA.com: Was it a hard decision?
JH: Baseball was where I stood out, and I knew it was where I had my best chance to make it as an athlete. Looking back at it, if I couldn’t have done baseball, then I would have liked to play tennis and make a run in an individual sport. I’m not saying that I could have made it in tennis professionally, but sometimes I wonder.
USTA.com: Your father took that different path. He decided to make a career of tennis.
JH: He also played a ton of sports growing up, but with tennis, he faced a lot better competition than I ever did. I don’t think he started as young as we did himself. My brother and I were lucky that we got to experience tennis a lot sooner than most kids do, but it was Little League baseball for him. Then he found tennis later.
USTA.com: And how old is he now?
JH: He’s 60… and he can still beat me! He’ll still beat my brother and me.
JH: And that’s that drive to be competitive. Thinking back, a couple off-seasons ago – might have been four or five years back – Logan and I decided that we would play as much tennis as we could. Again, it was really just to see how good we could get if we played a couple times a week. We would go out and see kids looking way better than us with their form, playing at local high schools, and challenge them. Then we’d beat them, and they’d come up to us and ask, "What college did you guys play at?" It was fun to see their reaction when we would say, "Umm… we didn’t play in college. Actually, until a few months ago, we hadn’t played much at all." Starting at such a young age, it’s a game where you can have it for life.
USTA.com: To that end, what do you think about youth tennis and what you experienced today? Do you like the idea of restructuring the game for kids?
JH: I do. You can get really frustrated if you’re a competitive person and try to play on a big court, only to find that you can’t do it. You might quit. I think with [10 and Under Tennis], you can grow with the game and keep going. Really, it’s the same thing with baseball. If I had to play on the big field from day one and couldn’t throw to first base, it doesn’t mean I’m horrible, but at that age I’d sure feel horrible. Who knows if I would have stayed with it? Who knows how many kids could have really been good at tennis and enjoyed the game but gave it up because they didn’t have this opportunity?
USTA.com: So you were the rare case of a kid who got on the courts around the age of four. Any early memories stick out?
JH: I don’t know if I actually remember doing this or if I later saw it on videotape, but we lived right by a park in Tucson, and it had everything – baseball fields, tennis courts, racquetball, everything. We’d go over and our parents would first pitch to us baseballs and we’d hit, then head right over to the tennis courts, where my dad would go ahead and give us a quick lesson or two. Those were my earliest experiences in sports. The tennis memories really are about my dad and watching him play. He stayed involved in the real competitive tournaments until he turned 40. I remember him winning a gold ball in one of his last matches that he won for being an over-40 champion, still one of the best players in the nation for his level.
USTA.com: Were you better as a singles player or in doubles with your brother?
JH: Doubles. Yeah, I’d probably say doubles. My brother is a better player than I am. We work together as a team because we know each other so well – sort of like what makes the Bryan brothers so successful.
USTA.com: What’s the strongest part of your game?
JH: Serving, for sure. My dad always told me that my serve checked out better than most people who play a long time. Right now, my groundstrokes, though, are below average compared to anyone who’s decent.
USTA.com: Do you play primarily to stay in shape in the offseason, or…
JH: Really its more for the fun of playing. I can’t play as much as I’d like because I have to take care of my arm for baseball, but we just recently put a court in my house in Chandler (Ariz.), and my fiancée is out there every single day hitting for hours, even by herself, with a machine and practicing. I might play her in a set sometimes, just to get a feel and run around the court, but right now she’s serious about developing her game. I think when I’m done with baseball, I figure I’ll try again to pick it up regularly and get as good as I can.
USTA.com: Amongst ballplayers, any other tennis enthusiasts?
JH: One of my teammates and good friends from my time in Minnesota, Drew Butera, and I used to talk about the game and our excitement to play. A lot of teammates have unique handshakes in the dugout. Ours was mocking a giant tennis serve with one another and then miming play.
When it comes to tennis, a lot of the guys in the clubhouse would talk about what would be harder to do – for a top tennis player to hit a major league fastball or for one of us to go in and just get a 140-mph serve back in play. I make that argument all the time. Just to get the ball back, you’re going to lose the point, compared to just making contact with maybe a swinging bunt for the tennis player, which might be easier.
USTA.com: Favorite players?
JH: I always liked [Andy] Roddick. Pete Sampras was the guy I got behind before Roddick came onto the scene, but I really like the fire that he plays with. When I play baseball, I often try to calm myself down, stay even-keel and mellow. I’ll look at him, though, and see that excitement, and I like that. I wonder had I played pro tennis if my temperament would be the same way in that individual sport setting. Ana Ivanovic – I’ve been a big fan of hers from when she was tops in the world. I’d like to see her get back there. Maria Kirilenko – she reminds me of a small girl that’s just feisty and has that heart to win. [Novak] Djokovic, [Roger] Federer – I’m fans of them all. I don’t think people realize how talented these guys are.
USTA.com: Speaking of people not recognizing how good someone can be, your team is really playing some outstanding baseball in 2012. Given the recent history of the Orioles, did you expect this team would be as far along as you are as we reach the halfway point of the season?
JH: Obviously, we believed that we could be, because if you don’t, then you really don’t have a chance. Last year we had some decent runs where we showed that we were a good team, but we weren’t as consistent as we should have been. This spring training, I saw some of the pitchers we brought in and took another look at a few we traded for and thought, "Man, these guys are pretty good." Considering our bullpen guys and some of our starters, I know that if I were on another team, I wouldn’t want to face them. They’re not comfortable at-bats. They throw hard and some from different angles.
As a team and in the locker room, we believed that we could be right here, if not better, when no one else in the world did (laughs).
USTA.com: In a town with a team in both leagues, you’ve had the chance to come to New York often, and playing in the same division as the Yankees, you’ll be in town in September and attending the US Open. Who are you impressed by most watching in live action?
JH: I’ve seen Federer a couple of times – once at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami and in a night match here in 2011. I’ll tell you, I would love to see John Isner play just to check out his serve. For the girls, I saw Caroline Wozniacki play here last year in a great match against Svetlana Kuznetsova, which was great.