Another international talent has found a home in Fayetteville, not amongst the myriad of European players on the Razorback tennis team.
Joshua Howard-Tripp, a senior from Johannesburg, South Africa, has been playing tennis since he was a young teenager.
One day, Howard-Tripp went into his family’s attic, looking through some old belongings, when he came across an old tennis racket. He asked his father, who played professional tennis, if they could go play near some tennis courts that were five minutes away from their home.
“We started playing, and I really enjoyed it from day one,” Howard-Tripp said. “It was kind of like one of those things that I could always do with my dad. That’s how it began, and it kind of evolved from there once I started getting better, and I noticed that I had a little bit of talent.”
At the end of his high school career, Howard-Tripp was thinking about playing collegiate tennis, but was also wanting to go professional, he said. Nestor Briceno, a former assistant coach for Arkansas, visited Howard-Tripp in South Africa to discuss ways how Howard-Tripp could advance his career.
“I really liked his coaching style,” Howard-Tripp said. “He was almost like a mentor during those times. He opened doors for me and gave me an opportunity.”
After speaking with Arkansas head coach Andy Jackson, Howard-Tripp said he would like to play for the coaching staff. Jackson has coached top teams throughout his career, like Florida and Mississippi State, so Howard-Tripp thought Arkansas was a good place to go.
“I like having Josh around because he’s a very high-quality person,” Jackson said. “He’s a good guy and he’s a little bit quiet, reserved. He’s got a really classic game style, a very good athlete. He’s very strong and he’s very consistent with his backhand. His forehand, he can hurt you more with.”
In high school, Howard-Tripp participated in the Australian Open Junior Championships. He went 5-0 in singles matches at the Curro Junior ITF Week 1 and went 3-1 in doubles, falling in the finals.
Josh’s family hired a coach to improve his game, but it was tough because tennis had lost popularity in South Africa. Howard-Tripp was not able to improve at a high level because attention had shifted to other sports, like rugby and cricket.
“We don’t have the facilities (in South Africa) that we do here (at Arkansas),” Howard-Tripp said. “We had cracks in our courts and didn’t have the best areas.”
With rugby and cricket becoming the two main sports in South Africa, the tennis federations did not have much money to fund tennis events.
“Our government was kind of struggling,” Howard-Tripp said, “so they wanted to put all the money towards those two main sports. They took a lot away from the smaller sports like golf, tennis, sports that South Africans have done really well in the past, and they wanted to shift their attention towards something else.”
Despite receiving little funding, tennis has not died in Howard-Tripp’s home country. There is South African talent that is competing at the next level, who are simply being overshadowed by the multitude of other talent from countries all over the world.
“South Africa is, historically, one of the best tennis countries in the world,” Jackson said. “It has deteriorated in the last 20 years, but so has the United States, because more of the countries in the world have been playing tennis, and it is the second most popular worldwide sport.”
However, the South African tennis federations have been able to land more sponsors. The South African people are getting back into tennis again with hopes of having a national team, which Howard-Tripp wants to see and be a part of one day, he said.
Howard-Tripp said he would like to represent South Africa in the Davis Cup or ATP Cup. His dream is to graduate from Arkansas and then compete on the pro tour and eventually reach the Grand Slam level. Some of Howard-Tripp’s friends are already training to make it on tour.
“(My friend) has gotten his rank up to 80 in the world and he’s starting to do really well,” Howard-Tripp said. “It’s great motivation seeing him being able to do it, and it gives you hope that you have a chance of making it.”
With high hopes for the 2020 season, Howard-Tripp is looking forward to the team exceeding expectations and performing at a high level in conference play.
“I think we’re a really good team,” Howard-Tripp said. “I think we can do really well and bring a lot of fire in our matches with a lot of effort. I think if we can do that and put our hearts into it, I think we can do really good this season.”
Jackson said he thinks the team is undefined because of its diversity, with the majority of the players coming from overseas to play in Fayetteville.
“A bunch of guys here are playing that have never played before, like positions they’ve never played before,” Jackson said. “They’ve worked really hard and have a good team chemistry. They’ve got good competitiveness on the court.”
The Hogs defeated the No. 5 Baylor Bears in a massive upset Feb. 1 in Fayetteville.
Arkansas looks to build off the win with three months of tennis left to play.
“I want the fans to know that we really want them to come watch,” Howard-Tripp said. “We really want them to be loud and support us to the best of their ability. The more people we can get in here, I would really appreciate that.”
The Arkansas Razorbacks tennis team will face the Oklahoma Sooners in Norman, Oklahoma, on Friday, Feb. 7.