By Sandra Harwitt
Steve Johnson is finding his way in tennis the old-fashioned way: he’s earning it by hard work and steady improvement.
At the French Open on Wednesday, Johnson accomplished another tennis notch by reaching his third Grand Slam third round. He achieved the feat with a 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6) win over Sergiy Stakhovsky of the Ukraine. Despite losing the opening set, Johnson kept his cool and stayed in the match. He showed particular poise when he squandered a 4-2 lead in the third set to have to close it out in a tiebreaker. Finishing the match in a fourth set tiebreaker in a set that featured no service breaks enhance the impression regarding who Johnson is these days.
Speaking of giving up the lead in the third set, Johnson said, “I think it’s just a sign of, maybe, I’m maturing a little bit. Maybe in the past I would’ve lost my cool a little bit.”
Last year, Johnson was one of the most improved players in the game, jumping 120 ranking spots to end the year at No. 37. The highlight of his 2014 was reaching his first ATP semifinal, as a qualifier, at Delray Beach. He earned five other quarterfinal spots. and scored four wins over Top 20 players: No. 20 Kevin Anderson, No. 12 Tommy Haas, No. 12 John Isner, and No. 13 Ernests Gulbis.
Prior to playing on the ATP tour, Johnson, a guy known for his big serve and power forehand, spent time climbing the ladder at lower-level Futures and Challenger tournaments. At the Futures he had a 23-10 record with two titles, and he was 53-35 with a 4-2 record in finals at Challengers.
In truth, all of this seems rather ordinary as opposed to extraordinary. But what this glance at Johnson’s rise in the game doesn’t indicate is that he came to the game in a fashion no longer considered the norm.
Steve Johnson went to college. At one time that was the natural course for players hoping to pursue a pro career. But in today’s world it is a rarity – Isner is another exception to the rule in also spending four years at the University of Georgia before joining the tour.
Unfortnately, most young players who are thinking the pros these days shudder at the thought of spending a little time combining good tennis with a good education. And many abandon school midway through the process if they bother to go.
That certainly wasn’t Johnson, who became the most decorated college player in history when at the University of Southern California. He was an integral part of four consecutive Trojan teams that won the NCAA team championships. Then in 2011 and 2012 – his final years at school — he won back-to-back NCAA singles titles.
“I was always going to play my four years of college tennis, so to me I was always going to come back and finish it out,” Johnson said. “You know, to some guys it’s not the right path. It’s just one of thos things that, yes, I love college tennis.”
Johnson knows that many people thought he would move on to the pros after his junior year when he won a third NCAA team title and his first NCAA singles trophy. But that wasn’t on his mind.
“I was kind of in a unique situation,” he said. “I just wanted to see it through. Now, hopefully what I’m doing now can help the next group of college guys or young pros [to] come out with confidence.”
Johnson’s endorsement of college tennis brings up that this past weekend while the pros were convening on Paris the college players in the United States were convening at Baylor College in Waco, Texas to play in the NCAA singles and doubles tournaments.
Two of those who competed at the NCAA’s have striking similarities despite not sharing the same gender. Jamie Loeb and Noah Rubin are two New York kids who trained in their formative years at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, chose the college route and landed in North Carolina schools – Loeb joined the University of North Carolina two years ago, while Rubin just finished his freshman year at Wake Forest.
Both just made it to the NCAA finals. Loeb became the NCAA champion with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-1 win over Canadian Carol Zhao, who plays for Stanford. Rubin lost to Ryan Shane of the University of Virginia 3-6, 7-6, 6-1.
No doubt, Loeb and Rubin are both confronting the same decision at this juncture: should they stay or should the go. Loeb has said she’s going to wait and see how her summer on the road plays out. Rubin hasn’t committed either way, but it is believed that while he’s enjoying college some of the team around him would prefer to see him go pro.
Johnson diplomatically wouldn’t endorse either decision facing these two young talents. But he did offer this comment.
“It’s kind of a sensitive subject, but I think everybody has to do what’s best for them,” he said. “Maybe it’s right for those people to leave and pursue a professional career. Maybe not. Every position is different.”
If this writer can add her two cents worth into the argument she would advise Loeb and Rubin, unless they set the tennis world on fire this summer, to stay put. The Futures and Challengers are not an easy road and having a little more college tennis, which clearly is a positive experience for both, can’t hurt. After all, what’s the rush?
If there’s the thought that somehow you’re missing out on valuable time in the pros, all I can say is Johnson answered that very question posed with a quick, “Nope, not at all.”