Right smack in the middle of last week, during the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston, at a time of transition for the ATP World Tour as the players left Indian Wells and Miami behind them and headed out onto the dirt, the third highest ranked American player among the men recorded an opening round triumph over compatriot Denis Kudla. He has improved markedly in the Emirates ATP Rankings over the course of this season, climbing from No. 160 on January 6 all the way up to No. 68 currently. At 24, he is gaining a much larger understanding of what it takes to thrive in the world of big time tennis, to win matches he once might have lost, to navigate his way through arduous territory on the competitive battlefield.
Steve Johnson is making serious inroads as a player of growing prominence. We spoke by phone after his Houston win over Kudla, and before he lost in three sets to eventual champion Fernando Verdasco. Johnson sounded earnest, upbeat, and entirely realistic about his current status and what might be in store for him in the months and years ahead. I asked him to explain the primary reason why he has fared so well in 2014 across the last couple of months.
Johnson responded, “There isn’t any one reason. I put in a lot of hard work this year and at the end of last year in the off season with my coach Craig Boynton, and Rodney Marshall, my strength and conditioning coach from the USTA. We put in a lot of hard work and hard hours. At the beginning of this year, I sat down with Craig and I kind of laid it on the line that I was nervous about the year and about expectations and everything. We decided not to worry about that and just go out and play tennis and lay it on the line, to try to just get better. Fortunately, it has been working out this year.”
Clearly, that has been the case. Johnson has achieved across the board on the ATP World Tour this year, in Challenger events as well as those on the main tour. He made it to the quarterfinals of the ATP 250 tournament in Auckland, toppling Marcos Baghdatis and Kevin Anderson back to back. In early March, he won the Dallas Challenger, and then he went to the final of Irving, Texas at another Challenger before losing to Lukas Rosol. Johnson was victorious at Guadeloupe, collecting that Challenger crown. Meanwhile, back on the main tour, Johnson had an impressive run in Delray Beach, Florida, defeating Tommy Haas and Feliciano Lopez to reach the penultimate round, falling in the semifinals to Anderson.
I mentioned to Johnson that perhaps the biggest benefit of succeeding so much in Challengers and picking up so many ranking points is the fact that he will now not have to play as many tournaments at that level, and in addition he can avoid having to deal with playing qualifying so often in ATP tournaments. He responded, “For me it is a mentality of being there at the Challengers. I think guys look at it—and I looked at it in the past—as kind of a step in the wrong direction because you want to be playing ATPs and doing well there. But winning this last Challenger in Guadeloupe gave me 110 [ranking] points and that is pretty much like semi-ing or finaling at ATPs like here this week in Houston. So it is very good points at the Challengers. You have very tough matches and with the right mentality and the right goals, you have got to use that to your advantage. I played well in the Challengers and now it had given me the opportunity to play well in ATP events.”
Asked to address the role of Boynton in more depth, Johnson elaborates, “He is very accomplished. He coached John Isner and got him to the top ten, coached Mardy Fish and got him high in the rankings, coached Courier back in the day. I trust Craig, which for me is very important. I trust that what he is telling me will take me to the next level. And it is showing itself. I feel very comfortable with him as a coach. He knows when it is time to lay the hammer down and he knows when it is time to maybe take a few days off. The stuff we have been working on and the stuff Craig has been preaching can take me to the next level. I have bought into his goals and I am very happy he is coaching me.”
Johnson believes that Boynton has helped him to recognize that simplicity is the essence of succeeding in professional tennis. He explains, “It is pretty simple. He wants made to go out there and play tennis not to win, but to execute my skill set and let the winning some with the execution and not get overwhelmed with the moment of being in the finals of a Challenger of the first round of an ATP. Win or lose, I am going to walk off the court and ask myself, ‘Did I execute, did I do what I want to do, did I compete to my full capability?’ If I can say I did all three of those things and the guy beats me, then that is too good. You go out there and lay it on the line, and try again. Sometimes you lose and you just have to take the positives from it.”
Speaking of positives, we moved on in the discussion to Johnson’s first rate work in Delray Beach. Was that tournament an eye opener in terms of realizing what he can accomplish when he is at his best. Johnson answers, “Absolutely. When you can beat a guy like Tommy Haas who has been No. 2 in the world before getting knocked down with injuries and how at 34, 35, 36 he put it back together to be in the top 15. That is really impressive. And for me to go out there and beat him kind of shows me that I am ready to compete with these guys and I just need to go out there on a daily basis and want to have it happen more. When I beat Baghdatis and Anderson on the same day in Auckland, that was a special day that kick started my year in the right direction.”
With the way he has played this season, Johnson has made his own kind of breaks, moving into the top 70 in the world entirely based on merit, working his way up the ladder judiciously. Does he have a specific goal in mind concerning his place in the rankings at the end of 2014? “I want to improve,” he replies. “And I want to get better doing the right things. Where I see myself at the end of the year is up in the air. I feel like at any point a successful year could be ending the year at 70. Or let’s say I keep playing this way—a successful year could be top 40 or top 30. So I don’t really like putting a number on it. Success is kind of determined not by winning and losing but the preparation you have and leaving it all out there.”
The thin line between victory and defeat can be determined by which player is sounder. How does Johnson feel about the state of his game at the moment? He answers, “I want to say I have no weaknesses in my game. I want to close up the backhand wing and not let guys pick on that. We have put a lot of work in on that. It is not just an easy weakness on the backhand that guys can go to now. I have really closed that hole up but there is also room for improvement. Any day that you say you are done getting better at tennis is not going to be a good day. You can always get better.”
That is fundamentally true. But as crucial at it is to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses, it is perhaps even more important to have the right mindset on the court. Johnson realizes the significance of presenting himself as a competitor of the toughest ilk. He says, “It can make a big difference how you handle things tactically, playing certain guys a certain way, playing the big points a certain way. Winning the big points is what it comes down to at the end of the day. After any given match, you can look out through the year and say to yourself, ‘If I would have won those two big points’, or ‘If I would have done something different on those two points’, maybe the match is different. Being tactical on the court makes a real difference in matches.”
Johnson, of course, is a player who has worn success almost incessantly in recent years. He is one of the great college players to ever step on a court, leading USC to four NCAA Team Championships in a row (from 2009-2012), collecting back to back NCAA individual singles titles in 2011 and 2012, concluding his collegiate career with a remarkable 72 match winning streak. That was dominance of the highest order. He became almost invincible in that forum, and stayed the four year course despite hearing a chorus of skeptics who kept chiming in that he should leave college tennis and turn pro earlier.
As Johnson recollects, “A lot of people thought I was crazy for coming back after my junior year. We had won [the] Teams three years in a row, I had just won the individual and at that point had won 35 or 36 matches or something like that in a row. But at the end of the day I sat back and realized I didn’t want to be 40 years old and regret not going back to USC and seeing it through. Win or lose, I did want to see it through. It is easy now to say it was the best decision of my life to stay in college tennis because we won the team event, I didn’t lose a match [all season] and I won singles again. But if we had lost the team championship and I would have lost the singles, I still wouldn’t have regretted for a day going back because that was something I really wanted to do.”
Had Johnson done anything less than winning a second NCAA individual singles crown in a row and leading USC to a fourth team title in succession, it would have been regarded as a failure on his part by many in the know—fair or unfair. Johnson knew that was how it would be perceived in many quarters. He says now, “Of course, I thought about that almost daily. The coaching staff at USC, Peter Smith and others, were unbelievable. I could talk to the staff about the burden of being in that position. We had that conversation at least once a week and pretty much every day at the end of the year around the time of the NCAAs because to me anything less would have been a failure. But they really put it in perspective for me and they told me it is about choices you make. Some days you win, some days you lose and you have to be happy with your choice either day. At the end of the day, I was.”
Meanwhile, he is delighted to be among the very best players in his country these days. Could he have envisioned even a few years ago being the third ranked American in the world? He says, “Probably not. I probably thought about it, but not as a realistic goal. We have so many great players in the States and it is tough. We have John Isner and Sam Querrey, and we have all these guys who are looking for a breakthrough. As soon as Bradley Klahn [ranked No. 65 in the world], myself and a couple of guys do it, I think we will skyrocket through the rankings. Winning is contagious I feel. I am never going to be satisfied and will always want more, but I am pretty happy right now.”
In turn, Johnson is glad to be surrounded by other Americans who are attempting to make the same strides as he is on the worldwide stage of the sport. Asked about the likes of Klahn, Donald Young, Jack Sock and others from the U.S., Johnson proclaims, “I think we are headed in the right direction. It is tough because the Americans get a lot of criticism for not winning Grand Slams [Andy Roddick was the last American man to secure a Grand Slam singles title back in 2003 at the U.S. Open] and that kind of thing, but at the end of the day it is tough because there are three or four guys winning Grand Slams and it is tricky. These guys at the top are so good. But I feel guys like Young, Sock, Kudla, Klahn, Harrison and myself have all been there in the top 100 the last couple of years and now that we have seen Bradley do it, we think if he could do it, what is stopping me?”
Last week in Houston, Young, who lost to Verdasco in the quarterfinals, took apart Harrison by the barely credible scores of 6-0, 6-1 in an early round. Harrison has struggled inordinately as of late. How does Johnson look at his fellow American’s plight? “We are all humans,” Johnson asserts. “If you look back at the end of last year, I lost six, seven, eight matches in a row. It is tough. You get into mental spots and there is only one way to get out of it, and that is digging deep and getting into yourself. Ryan is a great player and everybody has a bad stretch of the year, but I know that these guys like Ryan will get back in the top 100 in no time.”
Over the last couple of years, since he concluded his sterling college career, Johnson has been largely under the radar in the pro game, although his recent surge into the top 70 may change the way people look at him. How does he feel about the public paying more attention to him and could that be an inspiration?
“It would be great,” he says. “I don’t play tennis to have the spotlight on me. I just want to go out there and compete. Hopefully as I keep trying to get better, I will be just as grounded. I dealt with it in college tennis, being the top guy with everybody gunning for you. I think I can deal with it again.”
Johnson is a young 24 in many ways, and his pro career is only now beginning in earnest. As he points out, “I do feel very young to be out there. This is my second full year on the tour. It is not like it used to be where guy were top 100 just like that, and winning Grand Slams and dominating tennis, and by 26 or 27 they were done. The average age now of the players in the top 100 is about 27 or 28, something like that. I have got a lot of time to improve and I am excited about the future.”
So, too, is Johnson’s father, who runs the Steve Johnson Tennis Academy in San Clemente, California. His Dad has been with him every step of the way, and he remains a critical guiding force. “I have had an unbelievable relationship with my parents,” confirms Steve. “They are the reason why I am where I am today. They made me who I am. My Dad was my coach until I pretty well went to college and he taught me everything I know. He knows me probably better than anyone else. He has a good relationship with Craig Boynton. They are not on the phone talking every day. My Dad kind of stays away but he knows if I ever need help he is the first phone call for me. I am in a lucky spot to have a family like mine and a coach like Craig.”
Growing up with great aspirations, Johnson was a big admirer of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and other leading Americans, who inspired him in a multitude of ways. Johnson says, “In that time period in my life, Sampras, Agassi and Courier were the top Americans. What they did for the country and for the United States in tennis was remarkable. I looked up to those guys and was impressed with how hard they worked and the time they put in. They showed me the work ethic it takes to be at the top level. Then at 19 and 20, playing with the top Americans like Andy Roddick, it was eye opening for me to see their work ethic. It made me realize I had to bring it to a whole other level.”
The interview is just about over. Johnson has spoken expansively about himself and his game for a good while. Now, he concludes, “I am very excited. Where I am now in the game is great but I want to keep going forward and doing the little things every day just to make my case to stay up here in the top 100 and the top 50 and onward.”
That wish is inevitably going to be granted.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.
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