By Chris Starrs, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
After leading Southern California to its second consecutive NCAA Championship and winning his second straight singles title (not to mention collecting 72 consecutive singles victories) in late May in nearby Athens, Ga., Steve Johnson is now making the transition to the professional ranks.
On Monday, Johnson defeated Donald Young, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, at the BB&T Atlanta Open to record his first ATP victory after dropping his first four pro matches. He’ll face his good friend Jack Sock in the second round on Wednesday and will team with Sock Tuesday to face Alex Bogomolov Jr. and Gilles Muller in doubles.
After his victory on Monday evening, Johnson talked about going pro, recovering from a variety of injuries and missing his USC Trojan family.
Q: Georgia has been pretty good to you this year, hasn’t it?
JOHNSON: Georgia’s been good to me for a few years. I have so many great memories coming back here. I don’t have any family or coaches here. I’m kind of on my own this week, and to have a couple of buddies from the Georgia tennis team (Matt Jackson and Ignacio Taboada) here cheering and rooting me on gave me kind of a spark out there. It shows that we can play against each other as hard as we want but we’re all good friends and we want what’s best for each other. We’ve battled for four years, and to have them come out here and watch and support me is special.
Q: Talk about the transition you’re making from being the top dog in college to coming to the professional ranks and having to work your way up the ladder.
JOHNSON: It’s different. In college the last couple of years, I had this cloud around me of being No. 1, and I had this streak that I never wanted to talk about. We were the defending champions, and we walked around like we were the guys, and then I come out here, and I’m around my idols. It’s surreal that four or five weeks ago I went from being the top guy at a tournament to now, when I walk down to breakfast and see Andy (Roddick) and James (Blake) and John (Isner). Those guys have careers I dream about. To be on the same stage as them is something really special.
Q: Did you think this streak would ever end?
JOHNSON: It’s funny. Last week I was in Newport with (USTA Collegiate Team coach) Bo Hodge, who’s a great person and will help me the rest of the summer. After I lost in qualifying, I was joking and said, 'I thought this would be just like college -- I’d come out and win every match and dominate.' He just kind of laughed and said, 'Get used to losing. There’s one guy who wins every week, and it’s not going to be you.' But I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge. It’s what I’ve dreamed about my whole life, and I’m really ready to take the next step.
Q: At the end of the NCAA Championships, you had a variety of injuries – shoulder, arm, stomach and shin splints. Did you think you’d be able to come back so quickly?
JOHNSON: For the longest time, I didn’t want anybody to know – it’s something you wanted to keep to yourself. The doctors and our physical training staff at USC really did wonders. We took every precaution with rehab all day, every day. The only part that made me nervous was, what happens? I played (12) straight days of tennis in Athens, and it was hard on the body with no easy matches, and I came home, and it didn’t get any worse. I didn’t pick up a racquet for three weeks, although I did all kinds of fitness. I’m healed for the most part, and it’s great to have that family at USC. Whenever I go back home, I go there, and they help me out. It’s a special bond there, and I can’t thank the people enough for keeping me on the court.
Q: You’ll play Jack Sock in the second round on Wednesday, and you’ll play with Jack in doubles. What’s your history with him?
JOHNSON: I played him last year indoors in a Challenger in Charlottesville, and I won, but it feels like a lifetime ago. Unfortunately, he got hurt earlier this year, but he’s back and stronger than ever and won a match last week and really played well (Monday). He’s a good buddy of mine. I hope we’ll go out and battle Wednesday and leave it all on the court, and hopefully we can get a doubles win.
Q: Do you think you’ll miss the college atmosphere when fall rolls around?
JOHNSON: I don’t know if I’ll miss it that much in the fall. I took the fall off last year, and I missed the guys. To have 12 of your best friends out there every day, it’s hard to be away from them. I haven’t seen any of them since we won the title. They’re like family, and I wish nothing but the best for them.