By Steve Galluzzo, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Winning was practically all Steve Johnson knew at the University of Southern California, where he ended one of the most successful collegiate tennis careers in history by earning his second consecutive NCAA singles title in May.
Since then he has been adapting to life on the ATP World Tour where the wins are fewer and farther between and where he is no longer the favorite every time he steps on the court. The 22-year-old from Orange, Calif., was playing on "enemy" territory Tuesday night at UCLA in the first round of the Farmers Classic but felt right at home despite his 7-6 (4), 6-3 loss to Igor Sijsling of the Netherlands.
"It's fun playing somebody for the first time... it's a new challenge and I'm up for it," said Johnson, who was spurred on by a supportive crowd that included his friends and family. "Pro life is definitely different. No, I didn't lose much in college but you have to stay positive because only one guy wins every week. Players are solid from top to bottom because this is what they do for a living."
This was the third straight time Johnson made the main draw at the Farmers Classic. He won three qualifying matches to earn a spot in 2010, then lost to Somdev Devvarman in the first round. Last summer he was given a wild card and lost his first-round match in three sets to Gilles Muller of Luxembourg.
"It's special to come back because I used to come with my parents to watch Pete [Sampras] and Andre [Agassi]," Johnson recalled. "I'm still looking for my first win here and I feel like I'm right there. It came down to one service break today and it was frustrating not to come out on top."
Johnson, who signed a sponsorship deal with ASICS the day before, is moving out of his apartment this week and plans to move in with longtime friend and fellow pro Bradley Klahn in September while they hone their games at the USTA Training Center West in nearby Carson under national coach David Nainkin, who also works with two-time Farmers Classic champion Sam Querrey.
"David's a well accomplished player and coach and I'm excited to be working with him," Johnson said. "We've been talking about it for awhile and it's all fallen into place the last few months. It'll be nice to travel with a buddy like Bradley and he's a great player. I'm glad we're staying in Los Angeles."
Klahn, who won the 2010 NCAA singles championship at Stanford and lost to Johnson in the semifinals in the spring, was ousted by Italy's Paolo Lorenzi earlier Tuesday and Johnson was on hand to cheer for his future roommate. He had to wait until almost 10:30 p.m. to take the stadium court against Sijsling because James Blake and Germany's Tobias Kamke went to a third-set tiebreaker before Kamke prevailed.
In his four years at USC, Johnson helped the Trojans to four team championships in a row while compiling a 112-21 singles mark, including a record 72 straight victories over his last two seasons. Many players of his ability opt to leave college early to pursue a pro career, but Johnson has no regrets about his decision to stay in school.
"Not at all," he said. "I wanted to stay all four years, that was my plan all along and it was good preparation for where I am now. I have so many memories from USC I can't even name them all."
Day by day Johnson is learning what it takes -physically, emotionally and mentally - to be a top-notch pro and he is soaking everything in and heeding the advice of his contemporaries and the players he emulated as a kid.
"I got to hit with Sampras a few years ago and that was a thrill. He was a pro on the court and off the court and that's how I want to be," he said.
As for his immediate plans, Johnson will head to Washington, D.C. for next week's Emirates Airline US Open Series event and then to Cincinnati after that in preparation for the US Open. He entered the Farmers Classic ranked No. 362 in the world.
"I want to see what I can do [on tour] before I set any serious goals," Johnson said. "After the US Open I'll assess where I am and go from there. Pro life is definitely different but it's just as fun and I'm excited for the future."