Steve Johnson makes the case for seeing a college tennis career through to the end.
Steve Johnson didn’t miss his high school prom. He played baseball, basketball, football and, yes, tennis, though he didn’t focus solely on the latter until he was 16 years old. He doesn’t believe in attending academies in places far from home and he has never practiced seven to eight hours a day.
“I don’t need to practice all day to get better,” says Johnson. “Three to four hours is plenty. I want to work harder and smarter, and then get on to other things.”
Oh, and by the way, Johnson went to college, all four years (though he did postpone a semester last fall to try the ATP Tour as an amateur), before turning pro this summer. He ended his time at the University of Southern California on a 72-match win streak, going 37-0 his senior year and winning his second straight NCAA singles championship. He also led the Trojans to an incredible fourth consecutive NCAA team title, only the second college team in history to accomplish that feat. (The
other four-year winner was the Dick Gould–coached Stanford squad of 1995–98, a team that featured Bob and Mike Bryan.) Johnson ended his college career by being named the Campbell/ITA National College Player of the Year in 2011 and 2012.
Years ago, in the days of prepubescent professionals, Johnson’s path would have been frowned at, scoffed at or, at least, laughed at. If top American players went to college, and few did, they certainly turned pro after winning the NCAAs. There were notable exceptions, of course. Lisa Raymond won back-to-back NCAA singles titles at the University of Florida in 1992 and 1993 (and led the Gators to the NCAA team title in ’92) and is now, at age 39, still ranked No. 1 in the world in doubles. Swede Mikael Pernfors loved the University of Georgia so much that he returned after winning the NCAAs as a freshman and then, one year after turning pro following his NCAA win in 1985, he reached the final of the French Open, losing to Ivan Lendl. India’s Somdev Devvarman won the NCAAs for the University of Virginia in 2007, then went back and did it again his senior year in ’08. He played all four years for the Cavaliers before graduating with a degree in sociology and turning pro.
But in returning to USC for his senior year, Johnson did something admirable. His sole reason for going back, he says, was to help the Trojans win the team title one more time. Doing so, he says, was a career highlight.
“I could have left after my junior year, but I didn’t want to skip out on the memories,” says the 22-year-old Orange, California, native. “I felt like we had a unique opportunity to win four in a row, and I had things left to prove, some unfinished business. I didn’t want to look back at my life in 10 or 20 years and regret not going back.”
“What’s really special about Steve is his attitude,” says Intercollegiate Tennis Association executive director Dave Benjamin, who has been involved with college tennis since he first started coaching at Princeton in 1974. “He has always worked hard in order to find a way to win. But after four years in college, he has a new level of maturity. In college, everybody expected him to win, so he was always playing under pressure. That will make him better prepared to do well as a pro. I certainly think he has the potential to be in the Top 20.”
Joining the ATP hasn’t been a day at the beach for Johnson. In his first four events this summer he won just one match, a three-setter over Donald Young in Atlanta. Heading into the US Open, where he has a wild card into the main draw (as he did last year, when he lost a three-hour, 40-minute five-set first-round match to Alex Bogomolov Jr.), he was ranked No. 378 in the world, down from his career high of No. 352 last fall.
“It’s not that big of a jump from college to the pros, to be honest,” says Johnson, who is now working with coach David Nainkin at the U.S. Tennis Association’s training center in Carson, California. “I knew all along that I was going to lose every week, and that was something I would have to get used to. But I’m getting stronger every day. I’m working hard on my backhand, which isn’t a weakness, but it isn’t a strength, either. Guys on the tour have no weaknesses at all.”
A decade or two ago, it was virtually impossible to break into the Top 20 while starting a pro career at age 22. Michael Chang won the French Open at age 17, and Pete Sampras won his first US Open just after turning 19. Andre Agassi was traveling the world before (and instead of) entering high school. But now, with 31-year-old Roger Federer ranked No. 1 in the world, 26-year-old Rafael Nadal the reigning Roland Garros champ, 25-year-old Andy Murray an Olympic gold medalist and 25-year-old Novak Djokovic fighting to return to the top, there seems to be plenty of time for Johnson to forge his imprint on the game.
“The average age of the best pros is now mid to late 20s,” says Benjamin, who points to the success of John Isner, who played four years at Georgia—leading the Bulldogs to the 2007 NCAA team title—and is now, at age 27, ranked No. 11 in the world. “If you start playing the circuit at age 22, you still have at least four years to reach middle age as a tennis player. Given that the average life span of a pro player has proven to be about seven years, whether you start at 17 or 22, you’re still under 30 when you’ve hit the seven-year mark. That gives Steve plenty of time.“
And, in the end, Johnson will still have all the knowledge and wisdom gained from a four-year college experience.
Cindy Shmerler is an award-winning tennis writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared everywhere, in the Boston Globe and USA Today and on ESPN, Tennis Channel and USA Network. She is a contributing editor at Tennis magazine.