By Matt Cronin, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
Steve Johnson has taken what’s become an unusual path for a standout young player to the ATP Tour – he stayed in college and played a full four years, even though last spring, after winning the NCAA Championships, the USC Trojan clearly had enough game to go join the big boys.
"I felt like I was ready to turn pro last year, but to have the special opportunity as a team to win four in a row, I didn’t want to pass that up. I thought about it for awhile, and life is about memories, and I didn’t want to look back at life and not have gone for a fourth national title. I felt it was something I needed to do, and it worked out in the end, as we won. I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to create another great memory."
Those memories will not only stay with the Southern California native for a long time but in the collegiate history books. Johnson ended his college career with 72 consecutive victories, finishing the 2011-12 season 32-0. He won back-to-back NCAA Singles Championships and helped lead USC to four straight NCAA Team Championships.
"He's special; we all know that," USC coach Pete Smith. "He's just different, and that's how he was raised. Steve's a great example. I think in a lot of ways he's changed college tennis. I think he's going to show that it's OK to stay four years; that's what John Isner told him. John said, 'It's OK to stay four. Don't let anyone tell you it's not.' Steve has a heart."
On Tuesday, Johnson won his first main-draw match at an ATP Tour event, when he defeated Donald Young, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, in the first round of the BB&T Open in Atlanta. It was a long time coming.
"It was a great feeling," said Johnson, who lost a five-setter to Alex Bogomolov at the 2011 US Open. "I had a few chances in the past, and to have an opportunity to serve it out and win it, I’ll never forget it. I was on my own without my coaches or team around. It’s a new opportunity and new journey in my life. I want to be a successful and have a long pro career."
Johnson is not only a fierce, attacking player, but he’s also tough, playing the NCAAs with a strained abdomen, shin splints and having to overcome a bout of food poisoning. A standout junior, he shares the same first name as his father, a notable Southern California teaching pro. His dad taught him to be a sportsmanlike player, and he’s well mannered, as well as well spoken.
One of the reasons why some younger players turn pro before they graduate is because they aren’t getting the same competition in college that they would on the pro tour. But Johnson feels like his group was special, hard working and constantly improving, which is why he didn’t feel a need to leave the Trojans early.
However, he did take the 2011 fall semester off to play USTA Futures and Challengers and did quite well, winning two Futures in Florida, as well as qualifying and winning matches at both the Charlottesville and Knoxville Challengers.
"If someone [at school] was having an off day, there was another guy to pick him up, but the level is different on the tour," he said. "This is what guys do for a living, day in and day out, and they come with their best stuff, and you have to be ready to compete every day."
Johnson feels if he gets enough matches under his belt and begins to learn who plays which style, he will get the hang of ATP life. He had to do the same when he first entered college, and he worked his way into the elite mix pretty fast.
"It’s going to take a few months to feel comfortable. You are on your own and away from the team, but it’s a challenge I’m willing to take on."
Whether Johnson can compete with the tour’s top 10 remains to be seen, but he can take inspiration from former Georgia Bulldog Isner, who did manage to reach the top 10 this year. Last summer, he hit a bunch with Roger Federer and also practiced with Rafael Nadal at the US Open. He was impressed but not overwhelmed.
"Those guys are incredible, and the top three are worlds apart from anyone else, but they are just tennis players, and on a given day, anybody can beat anybody," said Johnson, who will also play in next week’s Emirates Airline US Open stop in Los Angeles, the Farmer’s Classic. "To have watched guys like that your whole life and now to be on the same page with them is pretty special."