Saturday, August 8, 2015

CITI OPEN: READY OR NOT, STEVE JOHNSON'S COMING FOR YOU

Let's be honest - his is not the most aesthetically appealing game in tennis.  Not many will watch him play and wonder how he does it because it is as obvious as his game.  An outstanding first and second serve that serves him well whether or not he's under duress, a heavy forehand that clears the net with plenty of margin, but still pushes his opponent behind the baseline, and the option to hit a two-handed backhand for penetration, or a slice for defense, gives Johnson a lot of options to compete.  And competing is what the man does best.  Just ask Bernard Tomic, Grigor Dimitrov and Jack Sock - three celebrated and talented opponents this week at the Citi Open whose heads rolled off the block of his guillotine.

You might not know it from watching him play, but Johnson, is a two-time NCAA singles champion from USC.  In 2011 he took care of the much heralded Rhyne Williams of the University of Tennessee, and in 2012, Eric Quigley of the University of Kentucky.  Both of his opponents play a style which is more in line with what one might associate with an ATP tour-ready game - and neither has been heard from since.  That's because neither of them has the one element in their game that Johnson has in spades - 100% pure American steel.

If Johnson struggles coming over the backhand, he can slice it deep pushing the ball through the court and force his opponent to generate all his own pace while retreating.  This is a skill that few players possess, even in the professional ranks, and it has been the one element of his game that has taken Johnson further up the international ladder in the last two years, than any of his more illustrious contemporaries.  The serve is by far the strongest part of his game, if not for the pure pace of it, then certainly from the spin, accuracy and reliability.  Aside from the occasional blip, like the double fault that cost him the first set against Australia's Bernard Tomic, Johnson's serve is as difficult to attack as any in the game.  Hit with an exceptional amount of spin, giving him the option to attack from the baseline, or follow it to net, it is laboriously constructed, but it is a labor of love.  The options available to him with the serve mean that even if a player gets a beat on one delivery, there are three or four other reliable ones that he can go to to keep the returner honest.

But most significantly in his arsenal, Johnson doesn't suffer fools when it comes to competing - unlike some players who seem to find solace in putting in a good effort, he's not here to play the straight man to someone else's punchline.  The number next to his name in the draw is a meaningless to Johnson as it is deceptive to his opponents.  A talented European who thinks that he might have an easy time of it with Johnson's gripping an groaning with every shot, will find himself on the wrong end of a junkyard dog's bite.  And while others may prefer the streamlined grace of a greyhound, gliding about the court looking for space between the rain drops to place their shots, Johnson would just as readily put a hole in your chest, as the back fence...either way, as long as he wins the point.  And boy, is he winning a lot of points lately.

An oddity of his career is that he is currently coached by a player with whom he might have teamed at USC, had they been born two years closer to each other.  In the brief period that Peter Lucassen has worked directly with him, Johnson appears to have come to terms with the likelihood that success as a professional will depend less on his ability to dominate his opponents, than his ability not to be dominated.  "Go ahead and try", he says, "it ain't gonna happen - not today, not tomorrow...not ever."  And in a game driven towards homeostasis, Johnson's margin, athleticism, and dogged determination not to concede even the least significant of points, gives him the edge over the litany of pampered former junior phenoms who are learning the hard way that talent will only get you so far.  Johnson does not appear to suffer from such delusions, and it is the strength of that acceptance, and the game he has constructed to make the most of it, that has left him one of two Americans left standing at the Citi Open.

I was struck by Johnson's match with Bernard Tomic the other day - though most were there to catch a glimpse of l'Enfant Terrible of Australian tennis, Johnson won the majority of the crowd over, not just because he is American, but because he plays with such American values:  nobody cares how you get to the top, as long as you get there.  With support from the crowd irrelevant to him, we probably felt better for giving him support than he did for receiving it - such is the depth of his concentration.  Time and again, as Tomic tried to engage the funny bone of the intimate audience of Grandstand 1, and even on occasion his opponent, Johnson responded the only way he knows how - with a glare that would make Josie Wales do a double take, and a ferocity of resistance that might have saved Cassidy and Sundance.

The loose fitting clothes, the ever present baseball cap, and the simultaneously stiff and languid gait, belies a physical force to his game that leaves audiences and his opponents shaking their head in admiration.  What drives someone to fight, scratch and struggle as he does?  He doesn't appear to enjoy it.  His is a frosty disposition, which seems to have no patience for even a single point lost, and if you didn't know any better, Johnson's resolute competitiveness almost appears masochistic.  The truth is something more pleasantly sinister - he is, in fact, a sadist, prepared to put his opponent through the most miserable two hours of his life, if he wants to prevail.  In doing so, he may find himself with nothing left in the next round, and if the roles are reversed, and Johnson wins, he'll do it all again to the next sucker who takes him for granted.

Perhaps two years of winning the NCAA championships has prepared Johnson in a way that breezing through the junior circuit, and earning the easy money that comes to so many of the Bolletieri brethren who show promise and turn professional before their fruits have ripened, has not.  Perhaps, the education he received in college, including the commitment to learn from those who know more than him, the sense of independence that living on your own with nobody to tell you to go here and there or eat this and that, and the physical strength to break his body down every day, and build it back up the next (just a little bit better-stronger-faster each time), is exactly the kind of education that all of his contemporaries who eschewed the pursuit of knowledge for the pursuit of early glory, are missing out on.

I don't know how good Steve Johnson will be - he may win some tournaments, he may reach the top 20, and he may be a part of the hallowed US Davis Cup team.  But one thing is for certain about Steve Johnson - the most admirable thing about him - if there's a stone unturned, he'll find it...and fire it right between your eyes.
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