Hats Off To Stevie Johnson

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Indian Wells

It’s easy to argue that Stevie Johnson was the best college tennis player ever. The USC Trojan won two individual titles, took 72 matches in a row and led the Trojans to four team titles – incredible!

But he never won Wimbledon or the Davis Cup. He didn’t crack the top twenty, and his backhand was an issue.

Still, everybody loved Stevie J. Is there anything better than that?

Plus, he and his dad, Steve Sr. (a legendary teaching pro who tutored him from early childhood but died suddenly seven years ago), had one of the most storied father-son relationships in the annals of American tennis.

Today Stevie J. lost in doubles with Tommy Paul, and then retired.

In a gut-wrenching press conference, I wasn’t certain whether to broach the sensitive topic of his dad. Then again, I knew I had to. “Your dad was a great tennis teacher,” I began. “A legend in Orange County. You had a magical relationship. If you could say something to your dad at this point, what would it be?”

Stevie replied, “There’s a lot of emotion there. This is the tournament where I came a lot as a kid with him. This has always been home…[It’s] my favorite tournament.

“That relationship with my dad was incredibly special. He was my coach forever, and sometimes in the sporting world parent-child coaching relationships do not always pan out.”

Stevie then became red in the face, his eyes teared up, and his chest heaved. Hardened reporters began to weep, too. It was the most poignant moment of the tourney so far. Still, Stevie soldiered on, saying his dad “was somebody that I could call regardless of the situation…[and talk about] tennis, life, whatever.

“Needless to say, it’s been a really hard seven years. I always wanted to be a tennis professional, but I never wanted to do it alone. I’m not saying that I didn’t have a lot of support [coach Peter Smith was like a second father to him]. Obviously I wish I could have looked to see my dad in the stands. But I know he’s watching and very proud of my career and family. He gave me a lot. I just wish I could have shared moments like this with him.”

Stevie said that if he could have changed one thing, “I probably would have learned how to hit a backhand a little bit better.” Speaking of strokes, Johnson said the toughest stroke he ever faced was John Isner’s serve. He joked, “He hit 17,000 aces and 2,000 of them were against me.”

He added that the favorite player he faced was “whoever I beat.” Steve particularly liked playing his fellow Americans, whom he’d battle fiercely and then go out to dinner with.

His toughest foe was Federer. “He’s just so far above pretty much everybody else…at not only being a tennis player, but tactically, too. He got me into situations where I was in big trouble.”

Johnson also found himself in trouble early in his career. The college boy who dominated campus battles was put in his place by ATP bullies. So, he called home and tearfully told his father, “I’m just not good enough.” But his dad insisted, “Just hang in there.”

Increasingly wise and battle-tested, young Johnson would go on to attain great self-awareness. Level-headed, composed and resilient, he won four titles and reached No. 21, while always showing great character.

Then again, Steve told us that the prime lesson he’s learned from the game is, “Tennis is a massive character-building sport. When you’re a kid, you call your own lines. In college you have to earn the respect of your teammates and coaches…In the pro locker room, you see people from all corners of the world have the same characteristics of what it takes to be a professional.”

Johnson was a fierce fighter, yet he was loved in the locker room. “From a player’s and coach’s view,” said analyst Paul Annacone, “Steve should be your model. He knows how to be professional. He takes what he has, maximizes it, and tries to get better.” Johnson added, “I didn’t leave any stone unturned. I leave with no regrets…I wouldn’t change a thing…I always felt like a competitor. Every time I stepped on court I hoped the other person knew that they were going to get a dogfight…I was going to be a bulldog.

“Hopefully, people will say I gave back as much as I possibly could. I saw a kid smile when I signed an autograph and hopefully I brightened people’s days.”

No worries, Stevie J. – you certainly did.

YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN INDIAN WELLS WHEN: The lines to get into practice courts are jammed by 10 AM, the queue to refill your water bottle is 50 people long, any kid who is half a fan has a huge autograph ball, the craggy Santa Rosa mountains amaze, sunsets aren’t to be missed and the happy place is very much a tennis theme park.

HURD AWARDS – TENNIS’ ANSWER TO THE OSCARS? One hundred and twenty miles from here there’s a little awards ceremony called the Oscars – maybe you’ve heard of it. But, eat your heart out Hollywood, tennis presented some very special awards of its own today. Ethan Quinn, 19, who learned to play at Fresno’s Fig Garden Club and then went to the University of Georgia, received a $100,000 Hurd/Universal Tennis prize to help him make the pricey transition to pro tennis. The University of North Carolina’s Fiona Crawley won the women’s prize. Quinn told Inside Tennis he was thrilled to receive the award and will use it to build his support team, including a physio. Past winners have included Danielle Collins, Mackie McDonald, Chris Eubanks and Peyton Stearns, who almost upset Aryna Sabalenka last night.

JUST WONDERING: Are the young Canadians Felix Auger-Aliassime, who’s No. 31, and Denis Shapovalov, who’s No. 131, underachievers?

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