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Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Conversation with NCAA Champion Steve Johnson

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I was in Cincinnati Friday for the Western and Southern Open, which is now a ATP/WTA combined event, and one of the most significant tournaments in North America.

NCAA champion Steve Johnson of USC was given a wild card into the qualifying, as was NCAA finalist Rhyne Williams, and Johnson used it to earn his first ATP Top 100 win in the opening round, defeating France's Jeremy Chardy, who was No. 61 at the time, 7-6(9), 6-4. Johnson was given a wild card into the main draw of doubles (more on that below) and he and Alex Bogomolov beat James Blake and John Isner in the first round, and No. 2 seeds and Roland Garros champions Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor in the second round, both by 10-7 scores in the super tiebreaker. Yesterday Bogomolov and Johnson were up a set and a break on Colombian Juan Sebastian Cabal and German Florian Mayer before falling 1-6, 7-5, 10-7 in the quarterfinals. Were he not an amateur, Johnson would have split over $19,000 in prize money with Bogomolov.

After the match, I spoke with Johnson, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound righthander, about his experiences this summer and this week, the decision he faces regarding returning to USC for the dual match season in 2012 and his preparation for the US Open. Johnson, 21, was named a main draw wild card recipient for the US Open on Wednesday. Below is a slightly edited version of our conversation.

Q: What are your thoughts about receiving a wild card into the US Open main draw?
A: I've been preparing all summer for the pro tour, getting ready, and all the hard work on the fitness has been paying off, so I'm really looking forward to getting to New York and seeing that lifestyle again.

Q: What's your experience been like here in Cincinnati?
A: It's been fantastic. I've been here 10 days already. It's such good practice, guys to hit with. You kind of learn how to be a professional tennis player around these guys. They're all veterans, they all know what to do, how to take care of their bodies, practice with intensity. It's definitely been a very good experience for me this week, and hopefully I can take that into the Open and into the rest of my game.

Q: What are your plans for the next 10 days leading up to the Open?

A: As of now, my plan is to stay here and fly to New York on Monday, train for a week and get ready for the main draw in singles. I was planning on going to North Carolina (for the ATP Winston-Salem Open), but we did really well here in doubles, so qualies start tomorrow (Saturday), so it was too quick of a turnaround to go from one place to the next. And it's such good practice being here, and I can stay here with Mardy (Fish) and (USTA National Coach) David Nainkin and try to get better in the next couple of days. Being with these guys, you can learn so much.

Q: How did you and Alex Bogomolov get together? It was your first time playing together, right?

A: Yeah. I met Bogie about three weeks ago in LA (Johnson received a main draw wild card at the ATP Farmers Classic there) but other than that...I know who he is, but didn't really know him or anything. This week, since I was staying, Jay (Berger, head of USTA men's tennis) called me Sunday and said hey, you can probably get the wild card if you sign up with an American guy, except for Rhyne (Williams) because he had to go back for the wild card tournament. Sweeting's gone, Smyczek's gone, there's no other American guys in. Blake and Isner are already together, Mardy's not going to play, Harrison's not going to play, so he said let me call Bogie, and then called me back to say you guys are good, we'll see if we can get you in. We ended up getting in and playing James and John. That was quite an experience to say the least. We were on Court 9, it was a packed house, and both those guys were college guys, with so much knowledge on whether it's a good time to go pro.

Q: Did you talk to them about it?
A: Yes, I talked to John a bunch about it. He said you've got to do what's best for you. Set goals and if you exceed those goals, think about not returning, but if it's not going as well as you think, go back and go for the four-peat. He's gets it, he's very smart. The one thing he told me was, you're not going to be too old. Look at the guys now, the older guys are doing much better, so set goals, prepare and try to get better.

Q: Do you think your showing here helps your chances of getting a wild card into doubles at the US Open?
A: I think so, but you never know. I know Irina (Falconi) and I are going to sign in for a mixed doubles wild card, and we'll see what happens. Maybe if they think Bogie and I should play, then we'll play. I know about as much as you.

Q: Are your parents coming to New York for your singles match?
A: My dad's coming out this Thursday, I think, but unfortunately my mom can't make it the first Monday or Tuesday. She's a college professor and she has to teach her first day of classes or she gets dropped as a professor. So she either goes and watches my match or gets dropped for the whole semester. She says there will be plenty more, and I said I hope you're right, and you can come to the next one.

Q: You hit quite a few aces today. Does that help you believe it's good enough for this level?
A: Yeah, it's something that Peter (Smith, USC head coach) and I really worked on the last year since the US Open (qualifying)-- more free points on the first serve. Last year at the US Open, 95% of the balls were all coming back and he's (Noam Okun) getting an ace or two a game. It's mentally tough just to try to win four points every game, when he only has to win two. So we worked on it really hard, and throughout the college season I felt my serve was pretty dominant and I would go out there and hold every game. Out here it's a little tougher, but this week in doubles, guys have very good returns and we're not getting broken, so I look at it as another signal that I'm here and I can play with these guys. There's a little bit of a difference, but it's not big, and it's only a matter of time. I'm looking forward to next year this being my full-time job, working everyday for this.

Q: Do you think your perspective will change then? Right now it's not your whole life, it's still just a part of it.
A: It's tough, because I have a good win first round here in qualies and then in the second round...it's like I just want to be at this next level already. It's tough, I was more caught up in trying to hit too many good balls rather than just playing my game. But you can't take the wins and the losses too hard. You're going to play well, you're going to play bad, it can't be a life-or-death situation. You've got to be able to have fun. The more fun you're having, I think you're going to do better. That's how I look at it and how I'm going to go about it.

Q: How do you assess your performance this summer?
A: It's been an up-and-down summer. Mentally it was harder for me because I had such a successful year in college (ending it on a 35-match winning streak), didn't lose and now to be losing on a consistent basis, not that I'm not also winning, but in college it's one match, one match. So it's kind of hard to expect to win every tournament out here, unless you're Djokovic. But it's been a little mentally tougher, just because you have to deal with losses.

But that's all part of tennis and I've had that my whole life. When I played (Gilles) Muller in LA, I'm up a set and first game (in the second set), I'm up 40-love on his serve and I get into two of the points and he hits winners that clip the line. These guys have done this forever, and they know this is what they are supposed to do. It's just kind of a matter of time until I start to play the bigger points better at this level. I felt like in college, the big points, I would win every one. Now out here, the guys will come up with something good, or they're not going to miss and you've got to come up with something good. So it's different, but it's been a great experience, and I'm really looking forward to 2011.

Q: So nothing that's happened this summer has discouraged you?
A: Oh no. It's pretty much all encouraging. I'm right there with Muller, semifinalist at an ATP tournament the week before, here I beat Chardy, who is a top 100 player. I feel I'm here with these guys, it's just a matter of time until I get enough matches under my belt where I start playing the bigger points better. It's been awesome, so I'm just taking it all in.


tennisforlife said...

Hard to see how one more dual season will make Steve Johnson a better player at this point. Seems to me the risk is he digresses...

Austin said...

I love his game, but he needs to work on the backhand this college season and hit out on it more. If he develops that I think he is a Top100 guy very quickly.

Josh said...

Nice interview. Thx!