By Arthur Kapetanakis
The Hall of Fame Open was set to kick off the 2020 US Open Series this week in Newport, R.I., until COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the tournament. Held annually since 1976, the event joined the US Open Series for the first time this year. While there will be no tennis on the prestigious lawns this summer, USOpenSeries.com was able to catch up with former Newport champion Steve Johnson to discuss the tournament and the state of tennis in this new normal.
Before the tennis world came to a halt in March, Steve Johnson finished on a high note by winning the Indian Wells Challenger, his second Challenger title of the young season. The 30-year-old, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 21 in 2016, is a four-time champion at the ATP level, with his most recent Tour-level title coming in Newport in 2018. Johnson has played on the Rhode Island lawns six times in his career, reaching the quarterfinals twice in addition to his trophy run.
An Olympic doubles bronze medalist at Rio in 2016, Johnson's most recent ATP final appearance also came in the US Open Series, at the 2018 Winston-Salem Open. The 2019 season was a bit of a down year for the California native, though he never dropped out of the ATP's Top 100. In fact, Johnson has not been outside the Top 100 since 2014, spending a majority of that time well inside the Top 50.
Johnson is one of the best NCAA tennis players of all-time, winning two NCAA singles titles and four NCAA team titles at USC from 2009-12. Looking to bring back some of that magic, Johnson reunited with Peter Smith, his former college coach, in October 2019. The immediate results were promising, with Johnson rising from a low of world No. 99 up to his current position at No. 63. He will look to pick up where he left off when ATP tennis returns with the US Open Series next month. Johnson is planning to play all three U.S. tournaments this summer—the Citi Open, the Western & Southern Open and the US Open.
Read on for a Q&A with the American, who recently announced that he is expecting his first child—a baby girl—with his wife this December.
Q: I'm sure you've gotten this question many times, but I have to ask... how did you spend your time during the last few months, with quarantine and everything going on?
Steve Johnson: I spent a lot of time at home with family. I didn't really play tennis for more than two months. The last month or so I’ve been practicing quite a bit, just to kind of get back in the swing of things since we have a few things on the horizon. It’s been fun to get back and compete a little. We’re just hopefully getting back some normalcy.
Q: What has it been like getting back on the court and competing again, and how do you feel your game has been so far in your return?
SJ: Getting back to competing is always fun. My first couple of days I played in Atlanta, my game wasn’t quite there, but I feel I’m not as quick of a starter as some guys, so it takes me a couple of days to get back in the swing of things. But it feels good to get back and compete—win, lose, whatever it may be. You’re out there trying your best, and that’s the fun part of being a competitor.
Q: You've played Newport six times in your career, and won the title there in 2018. What makes that event special for you and the Tour, in general?
SJ: Newport is a great stop for us. We’re in Rhode Island, it’s the Hall of Fame, the prestigious lawns of Rhode Island. The event’s great, the people are great that run it. The city is phenomenal. It’s a great first stop in the U.S. after Wimbledon. It’s kind of a quiet town—you can walk, have great dinners. It’s definitely low-stress compared to Wimbledon. So it’s a great stop. I was bummed that it wasn’t part of the US Open Series this year, but hopefully in the years upcoming it’ll stay the same.
Q: Can you share your plans for the summer schedule, with the Citi Open, the Western & Southern Open and the US Open coming up?
Steve Johnson: I'm definitely going to play those three events, assuming they all happen in that way. I’m going to play those and maybe reassess my schedule after that in Europe. As of now, I’m going to play D.C., Cincinnati and New York, back to back to back, and really try and hit the ground running as fast as possible and get back to competing.
Q: Is that pretty much the consensus among any other American players you've talked to?
SJ: Yeah, I think so, unless they have some type of issue or family emergency, or if someone is high-risk, that obviously comes first. But I think we’re all excited to get back to playing tennis. If we can do it in D.C., and then in New York, it’s going to be fun for us. Those are two cities where the American players generally do well, and we enjoy playing those events.
Q: Are there any concerns about the quick turnaround from the Western & Southern Open to the US Open?
SJ: It is what it is, but at this point you can’t be picky. You’ve got to make do with what the sport gives you and the world gives you; you’ve got to make the best of every situation and get the most out of it. For us to be in New York with no spectators, it’ll be different, but if that’s what it takes for right now to get tournaments back going, that’s what we got to do.
Q: How do you feel about the extensive safety protocols and the "bubble" that will be in place in New York?
SJ: It’s a new normal for us. I think everybody needs to trust that the tournament and the organizers are doing the best thing for us. It's obviously not what we want to do, but if that’s what it takes for us to go play tennis and get back to whatever normal is, I think we all need to buy in and get to it. Without players' commitment to safety, our sport is not going to happen. We all need to buy into this together.
Q: To the extent that you can look ahead in these times, what goals do you have in mind for 2020?
SJ: At this point, I’m just trying to get better. We don’t even know what’s going to happen, how many events we’re going to play, when we’re going to play. So when we do get into an event, you’re going to want to hit the ground running as fast as possible. So that’s kind of the plan. Whatever events come up and we get to play, make the absolute best preparations you can to go out there and be the best you can from the start of the event. That’s the only thing we can do at the moment.