It was now or never for Steve Johnson in Houston final—he chose now

by: Steve Tignor | April 17, 2017

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The American defeated Thomaz Bellucci in three sets to capture his second career title. (AP)

“I was in deep trouble,” Steve Johnson said after his 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (5) win over Thomaz Bellucci in the final of the US Men’s Clay Court Championship in Houston on Sunday. “I was very fortunate to get out of that.”

By “get out of that,” Johnson may have been referring to winning the match, and his second career title. Or he may have been referring to walking off the court on his own two feet. It was a typically sweltering spring Texas day, and by 5-5 in the third set Johnson was suffering from wrist and leg cramps. When he grabbed his leg and briefly began to spasm, I thought, “This is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Anyone who has seen a player cramp probably imagined that Johnson would soon be writhing on the clay. And he might have been, if it hadn’t been for a timely assist from Bellucci. When the American, who could hardly move, rolled in his serve at game point, the Brazilian politely tapped his return into the net.

Granted that reprieve, Johnson had his leg rubbed down on the changeover, stayed upright through the next game and found a last reserve of energy for the tiebreaker. Up 6-3, with three match points, he still looked shaky. When Bellucci drew the score to 6-5, it was now or never for Johnson. He finished it off by pulling the trigger on the first forehand he saw. Bellucci could only watch it go by for a winner.

Even the even-keel, ever-unassuming Californian, who has never been known for talking himself up unduly, couldn’t hide how happy he was with his effort.

“To win on U.S. soil, and win when you’re not feeling great, is a testament to my willpower and competitiveness,” Johnson said. “My body has just physically run out of gas after this week.”

As of last Monday, it was hard to imagine that Johnson, or any of his fellow U.S. Davis Cuppers, would be holding the champion’s trophy in Houston. Jack Sock, John Isner, Johnson and Querrey were the Top 4 seeds, but they had just made a 20-hour flight back from Brisbane, Australia, after a losing effort in the Davis Cup quarterfinals. Despite that, Sock survived into the semis, and nearly survived a three-setter with Johnson there.

Johnson admitted that it wasn’t just physical exhaustion that caused his cramping. He was tight, too.

“Coming in from Australia kind of put me behind the eight ball,” he said, “and then the nerves of trying to close out the final—a lot of factors go into cramping.”

Johnson had looked ready to win the match an hour earlier. He won the first set and was up 4-3 in the second, with a chance to break. But he couldn’t push himself across the finish line. Soon enough, he found himself down 2-4 in the third and seemingly on his last legs. Not only was Johnson fighting his body, but he was starting each rally at a disadvantage, game-wise, against the left-handed Bellucci. The Brazilian’s topspin forehand naturally goes to Johnson’s backhand, which is his weakest stroke—how he can stay alive at the game’s highest level with just a slice from that side is another testament to his willpower, as well as the rest of his game.

Johnson’s title was the fifth for a U.S. man in 2017. As Jonathan Kelley pointed out in the tweet above, that’s the most since 2012, and the most before May since 2003. This level of achievement might not register among U.S. sports fans, whose general attitude is, “Wake me when the next Andre Agassi gets here.” The 27-year-old Johnson will never have Agassi’s talent, but, as he and his Davis Cup teammates showed last week, he is part of a committed generation of U.S. players.

People involved in player development at the USTA have been pleased with the culture of work that they’ve been able to establish on both the men’s and women’s sides in recent years, and it shows in the sheer number of players who are going deep at tournaments these days. There are 18 U.S. women in the WTA’s Top 100, and four different U.S. men—Johnson, Sock, Querrey and Ryan Harrison—have won ATP titles in 2017.

Winning on tour takes talent, but it also means not being satisfied with reaching the quarterfinals and moving on to the next event. With his recent schedule, Johnson could have thrown in the towel at any point in Houston, and no one would rightfully have been able to complain. Instead, he found a way to win from 2-4 in the third set. That’s a good example for his younger countrymen; and even if it doesn’t lead to Grand Slam titles or the No. 1 ranking, it’s something that U.S. fans should be happy to get behind. 

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