For Steve Johnson, and for many of us watching, tennis means family

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The American, who recently lost his father, won his opener in five sets over two days. (AP)

“Just the pain and you know, just trying to get through it,” Steve Johnson said at Roland Garros on Tuesday. “You know it’s just hard.”

An hour or so earlier, Johnson had won his first-round match over Japan’s Yuichi Sugita 6-3, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-7 (3), 6-3, after squandering a chance to serve it out the night before. But the emotion that was flowing from Johnson during his press conference, and which he said him “pretty hard” while he was playing, didn’t have a whole to do with his victory.

Johnson is still coming to terms with the sudden death of his father, Steve Sr., who passed away in his sleep on May 11, at age 58. Steve Jr.’s mother, Michelle, his sister, Alison and his fiancée, Kendall, are in Paris with him, but it’s going to be a while before anything fills that void.

“My mom and sister had this whole trip planned for years now,” Johnson said. “She graduated college, and they were going to come here and kind of follow me to Queen’s [Club] and then go back...It makes it easier and harder all at the same time to see them.”

“The last two weeks of tennis hasn’t been about tennis for me.”

For anyone who has followed the American game over the last 10 years, it’s difficult to imagine Johnson without his father alongside him. Steve Sr., a well-known coach in Southern California for three decades, introduced his son to the sport he loved by having him bat balloons and beach balls around when he was 2 years old. From there, he guided Steve Jr.’s path to USC and onto the pro tour.

Steve Sr. was a lifelong proselytizer for tennis, both inside and outside of his family. I talked to him last year for a story about U.S. college tennis, and it was hardly a surprise to hear him say that every young player, no matter how talented or promising, could benefit from playing the collegiate game. His son, who led USC to four NCAA championships in the four years he was there, was the ultimate example.

From Nick Bollettieri to Vic Braden, the best tennis coaches are salesmen and enthusiasts at heart—their biggest job is to sell their players on themselves. By all accounts, Johnson did this as well as anyone. In remembrances of Steve Sr., the most common refrain you hear is, “When you were talking to him, he made you feel like the most important person in the room.”

It was probably that skill, as much as anything to do with tactics or technique, that made his son the player he is today. In talking to Steve Jr. during his topsy-turvy 2016 season, what struck me most was how much he continued to believe, deep down, in his abilities, no matter what his latest results were. Some of that belief had to come from his father.

Many top U.S. players have had parents or family members who are coaches: Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, and Venus and Serena Williams are just a few who come to mind. But even among them, Steve Jr. was especially close to his father. When he’s asked what he liked to do as a kid, or what he loves most about tennis, he invariably talks about his dad, about all the time they spent “messing around” on a tennis court, just the two of them. Steve Jr. didn’t seem like he needed much else.

Hearing Johnson talk about his dad always reminded me that tennis, despite having a reputation as a rich person’s sport, is really a family sport, especially in the States. It’s not widely popular here, you don’t see it much on TV, it isn’t taught in schools, and kids don’t gravitate to it because it means being away from their friends. Most of us are introduced to tennis by our parents, and we share our love for it with our families our whole lives. The fact that we rarely meet other diehard tennis fans only makes the bond that much stronger and more personal. Steve Sr. and Jr. knew how strong it could be.

“At the end of the third set,” Johnson said after his match with Sugita, “the emotions kinda hit me pretty hard.”

You could see how hard it hit Johnson in the way he began to play: With the match on his racquet, he suddenly couldn’t put a ball in the court. The next day, though, with another chance to close it out in the fifth set, Johnson kept his emotions in check; only when he came off court did they overflow again.

Johnson has a tougher opponent in Borna Coric next. In Stevie’s words, it isn’t about tennis for him right now, it’s about family. For him, and for many of us, there’s no way to separate the two.

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