So Johnson’s emotions after defeating countryman Tennys Sandgren in a hard-fought physical battle were completely understandable. And they added an extra layer of pathos to his defence of the Houston title.
Afterwards, he told the media in Houston of the phone call from his father – also a tennis coach who laid down the groundwork for his game – after he won.
“He was just so excited. He’s somebody that I’d still like to call today,” Johnson said. “He’d tell me he was proud of me and be ready for the wedding next weekend.”
Johnson and good friend Sandgren, who was playing in his first career ATP Tour final just a year after qualifying for his first ATP Tour main draw at the same event, were friendly foes.
As Johnson pulled away following their hug at the net, another wave of emotion hit him. So he went back in for a little more love. It was a touching sporting moment between two players who had just gone toe-to-toe for nearly 2 1/2 hours, for a prize that meant everything to both of them.
After that, Johnson headed over towards coach Craig Boynton and his physio for some more love.
Johnson is marrying longtime girlfriend Kendall Bateman next weekend. And so, for the second consecutive year, he’s missing some of the big tournaments on the European clay-court circuit.
Last year, it was for a devastating reason. This year, it’s for a joyous one.
Sandgren had to get going tout de suite to make the long trip to Monte Carlo, where he is due to play Philipp Kohlschreiber in the first round.
For Johnson, defending his title is a load off. His ranking drops only one spot on Monday. Had the American, say, lost in the first round, he’d have been down to No. 75 and that changes the dynamic of an entire season.
Sandgren will make his top-50 debut Monday, debuting at No. 47.
The celebration of life for Steve Johnson, Sr., the beloved Southern California tennis coach and father of top American player Stevie Johnson, drew a full court Saturday morning at the Orange High School tennis courts.
The first twinge, likely noticed by only a few, came on the changeover at 3-4 when Steve Johnson was down a break in the third set of the U.S. Clay Court Championship final in Houston, Texas.
Johnson went to the cooler to get a drink. In the short distance back to his chair, his left leg buckled.
Later, after the leg went into such spasms Johnson had to stop play, he still managed to prevail 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (5) over Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil and win his first career clay-court title.
Johnson got a lot of help from Bellucci, who either failed to see Johnson’s distress early enough or, more likely, saw it and let it get into his head. A notorious sweater himself, Bellucci was feeling the effects of the heat and the occasion nearly as much as his opponent.
After Johnson went ahead 5-4, he tried to ingest everything he had at warp speed: water, sports drinks, gels and some substance that tasted so foul he had to spit most of it out. “I told you it was nasty,” his trainer said to him later on.
When the cramps hit …
At 5-all, 40-30, the big wave finally hit. Johnson had to back away from the service line. He got a time violation warning.
The chair umpire even had to come out of his chair, likely to explain to Johnson that if he didn’t get on with it he would face increasing penalties for going over time.
The only thing he could do was receive treatment for the cramping on the next changeover – but only for the regular 90-second break.
That’s where Bellucci essentially lost the match. After that long pause, Johnson managed to get a second serve in play. All the Brazilian had to do was put the ball in the court. From there, the chances of breaking and serving out looked pretty good.
He put the backhand return into the net.
Bellucci knew it, too; the rueful smile on his face as he walked to his chair said it all.
“I wasn’t cramping, but I was so tired that I couldn’t think to win the match. He was a little bit worse than me (physically), but he was playing unbelievably,” Bellucci told the Houston media.
Last, final bit of energy for the homestretch
At 4-3, up a mini-break in the third-set tiebreak, Johnson won it. After just spinning serves in the last part of the third set, his legs completely useless, he went for broke and cranked one 120 mph. Then he cranked another one at 127 mph. One final go-for-broke forehand down-the-line winner, and Johnson was the winner.
“I can think things through even when times are tough,” Johnson said. “I knew I just had to take a few deep breaths and just get enough going in my body to last another five to 10 minutes out there.”
Johnson, along with teammates Jack Sock, John Isner and Sam Querrey, went from the U.S. to Brisbane, Australia for Davis Cup last weekend. They flew to Houston right from there. That’s a lot of stress to put a body through – not to mention they had to instantly change surfaces to clay with no practice, and deal with the comedown from Davis Cup drama.
“To win on U.S. soil and win when you’re not feeling great is a testament to my willpower and competitiveness. My body has just physically run out of gas after this week. ” Johnson told the media. “Coming in from Australia kind of put me behind the eight-ball and then the nerves of trying to close out the final, a lot of factors go into cramping. I was very fortunate to get out of that.”
If anyone deserved the jump into the River Oaks Club pool, a tradition for Houston champions, it was Johnson.
When the top players point to scheduling issues when defending their lack of total devotion to Davis Cup, they’re not just whining.
The US Davis Cup players crossed the world twice in a week to defend their nation’s colours, first to Brisbane to take on the Aussies then back the U.S. to meet their commitment to the only American tournament played on red clay, this week in Houston.
All four played at the Miami Open, and may have had a few days at home before going all the way Down Under to Brisbane for a World Group quarter-final tie last weekend. The U.S. No. 1, Jack Sock, also got sick along the way.
The Americans went down to defeat at the hands of Nick Kyrgios and his squad. They then got right back on a plane Monday to return to the U.S., to the Houston event.
Sock, John Isner, Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey – luckily for them – are the top four seeds at the tournament. Even more luckily, it’s a 28-player draw so the top four seeds all received first-round byes.
Jet-lagged, disappointed but undeterred, the four all took the court Thursday for their second-round matches. All managed to pull out victories although none of them were routine.
Sock will play No. 6 seed Feliciano Lopez in the quarter-finals Friday. Johnson will play No. 5 Fernando Verdasco, Querrey No. 8 seed Thomaz Bellucci and Isner – who had the toughest one of all in his tournament opener – will play 20-year-old American wild card Ernesto Escobedo.
At some point, it’ll all hit them. But the tournament, which relies heavily on the Americans to generate interest and sell tickets, surely appreciates their efforts.
Late start on the terre battue for all
The American players don’t necessarily run over the Europe for the real clay-court season as early as they could at the best of times. Still, it’s no surprise that none of the four signed up for the Monte Carlo Open, set for next week and designated a Masters 1000 event (with the prize money and points that go along with that).
None of the four will play either of the two clay-court events the week after that, in Barcelona and Budapest the week of April 24. A little recovery time before the meat of the season through the French Open at Wimbledon is a smart move.
Ryan Harrison is the only American in the Monte Carlo main draw, as of today.