Joshua Ward-Hibbert: Ex-junior Grand Slam champion makes basketball leap

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Tennis player makes basketball switch

He had one of the biggest ever serves in junior tennis and even won a Grand Slam title, but Joshua Ward-Hibbert now wants to be a star on an entirely different court.

Less than five years after winning the Australian Open boys doubles alongside fellow Brit Liam Broady, the 22-year-old is suiting up for the Leicester Riders in the British Basketball League.

"When things come up, you run with it and try to make the best of it," Ward-Hibbert, who reached number 10 in the junior world rankings, told BBC Sport.

"This is a big opportunity for me and I've got a lot of aspirations - I definitely want to play a lot more and in the coming years be a star and big name for the club.

"I will put all the work I can into being the best I can be and see how far I can get with it."

Joshua Ward-Hibbert in action as a junior player
Joshua Ward-Hibbert reached a career-best 305 as a professional tennis player

'The 17-year-old with a 133mph serve'

Injuries, including a shoulder complaint, coupled with waning motivation and planning for life after professional tennis ultimately led Ward-Hibbert back to the hardwood and a second unlikely shot at professional sport.

As a teenager, the Nottinghamshire-born athlete was lauded as one of the nation's finest tennis and basketball prospects.

He represented his country in both sports, was named England's best Under-16 player in 2010 and a year later, aged 17, clocked the fastest serve ever recorded at Junior Wimbledon with a 133mph effort.

So when he enrolled at Loughborough University, studying sports science and management in 2016, he was easily enticed to lace up his basketball shoes again to join his childhood club, Derby Trailblazers, in the second-tier National Basketball League.

It proved to be a career-changing decision, leading to him to a deal with the Riders - a club that has won six pieces of silverware, including two league titles, in the past four seasons.

"It was a crazy process and happened really quickly," Ward-Hibbert said.

"I had a tough time with injuries and with it being such a tough sport, motivation kind of came into play. It was tough to take mentally and physically and was frustrating - especially when it was my go-to, my money maker.

"I decided to take some time out to further my education. I was back home so started playing again at Derby, it was good to be around familiar faces. From there it spiralled and here I am."

Joshua Ward-Hibbert in 2011
Joshua Ward-Hibbert was capped by England as a junior at Basketball

'One of Britain's finest'

While tennis took priority, basketball has always remained a theme in his life - with his other brother pursuing the sport with Minot State University in the United States.

On tour, Ward-Hibbert would likely be found shooting hoops if there was a basketball court nearby. And if Australia's Nick Kyrgios was around, going head-to-head with the now world number 15 was common place.

"Everyone would want to play him - Josh was known in the tennis world for his basketball ability," said Daniel Kiernan, owner of the SotoTennis Academy and Ward-Hibbert's long-time mentor and coach.

"I saw him plenty of times on the basketball court, that is for sure, and he always looked so comfortable.

"There was definitely a little more confidence about him when he was on a basketball court. You would see it in him when he played doubles tennis as well - it is not an arrogance, but a nice balance of self-assurance and confidence that wasn't always there on the singles court."

Standing 196cm tall and weighing 96kg, Ward-Hibbert turned heads as a fine physical specimen in tennis. Even from an early age, he stood out.

"Just looking at him, seeing him play grabbed your attention," said Paul Hutchins, the former Davis Cup captain who also previously worked as head of men's tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association.

"It is a loss to tennis because he is a young man that had promise. He must be one of the best athletes in British tennis - his size, speed and shape.

"Basketball is lucky to have him."

Flushing Meadows to Ho Chi Minh City

On the way to breaking into the top 10 as a junior player, Ward-Hibbert graced the courts of each of the Grand Slams in 2012 - finishing at the junior US Open at Flushing Meadows.

"When you are at the Slams, people are asking for your autograph, they probably don't know who you are, but it makes you feel important," he said. "I liked that."

At the same time, he was trying to establish himself as a professional - playing on the third-tier Futures Tour and flying 808 places up the world rankings in 11 months to reach a career-best 305 in November 2013.

But even though making the transition to promising professional was a demanding one - chasing ranking points in a globetrotting expedition from Casablanca to Ho Chi Minh City - Ward-Hibbert was very much living the dream.

"Growing up, I always had those aspirations to be a professional," he said. "At 19 I took that route.

"I'd love to have made a profession of it, been a top-100 player, it would have been amazing, I would have loved it.

"I gave it a lot of effort and a lot of time and I don't have any hard feeling about the sport. It is brutal. It is not like I fell out of love with the sport, I still love playing and will play when I can."

Getting a couple of serves down

Even after turning his attention to basketball and studies, he made the most of his first opportunity to get back on the tennis court - reaching the semi-finals of a Futures tournament at Loughborough.

"I will still be about," he said. "You will see me, if there is a tournament locally and I have some time on my hands, I will be flying to it to get a couple of serves down."

While Kiernan is convinced Ward-Hibbert is capable of having a playing or coaching career in tennis in the future, the sporting switch has filled him with "an overriding sense of pride".

Kiernan, who has run a tennis academy in Sotogrande in Spain since 2010, said: "It is fantastic that he has two sports where he is so accomplished and passionate about.

"It is about him being happy and finding something that he can really throw himself into."

Josh Ward-Hibbert playing for Derby Trailblazers
Joshua Ward-Hibbert averaged 20.4 points per game for Derby in the NBL Division One before joining the Riders and playing for their affiliate side Loughborough

'Raw talent'

Ward-Hibbert readily admits he has much to learn in basketball and a lot of catching up to do, joining a team that includes former Great Britain captain Drew Sullivan, but he insists his tennis background will hold him in good stead.

"Sure, it is a different sport but the mindset, the professionalism; all sports require similar qualities," he said.

Riders coach Rob Paternostro, who hopes his newest recruit will help him improve his own tennis game, is excited by Ward-Hibbert's talent.

"The potential is there and we are always looking for British talent to mould for the future," Paternostro said.

"He is a little raw at the moment, no question, but we see a lot of his skills are there. We need to polish him up a little.

"You see the athleticism there and to get to where he got in the tennis world, you know he is determined and willing to do what it takes to make it."

Watch the BBL and WBBL on BBC Sport
32 British Basketball League (BBL) and Women's British Basketball League (WBBL) games live on the BBC Sport website, app and connected TVs this season.

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