For Steve Johnson and Pablo Andujar, it felt like the right player won

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Steve Johnson defended his title in Houston, while Pablo Andujar captured a long-awaited trophy in Marrakech. (AP)

Tennis is a cruel sport, we often hear. But there are times when it can be kind, too. Steve Johnson and Pablo Andujar, and any fans who have followed their ups and downs over the last year, found that out again on Sunday. The American and the Spaniard rediscovered that, with its never-ending schedule, the sport always offers a second—or 10th, or 100th—chance for a player to triumph over his or her troubles at least for a week. They also rediscovered that, on the tour’s long and winding road, some places really do feel like home.

On Sunday in Marrakech, Andujar became the first player to win the Grand Prix Hassan II for a third time, with a surprisingly one-sided 6-2, 6-2 victory over Kyle Edmund. Andujar also became the lowest-ranked man since Lleyton Hewitt in 1998 to win a title. As of Sunday, Andujar was 355th in the world; as of two months ago, he was lost in the ATP ether at No. 1,824.

CHAMPIONSHIP POINT: Andujar vs. Edmund, Marrakech

More significant than any of the numbers, though, was what Andujar had triumphed over. The 32-year-old, who has been ranked as high as No. 32, has undergone three elbow surgeries in recent years, and he missed eight months of 2017. When he returned earlier this season, he immediately hurt his shoulder. But in Marrakech, Andujar was healthy and in control; he used his trademark relentlessness from the baseline to plow his way through the draw with the loss of just one set. When the last point was over, Andujar lay down on the clay, and stayed there.

“I always believed I could come back,” Andujar said. In tennis, it only takes one person to believe.

CHAMPIONSHIP POINT: Johnson vs. Sandgren, Houston

Over the last 11 months, Johnson has had moments when he struggled to believe in himself. He has asked himself why he was playing and who he was playing for.

A year ago, Johnson celebrated his biggest tour victory, at the U.S. Clay Courts in Houston, with his father, Steve Sr., who was also his first coach and his best friend. A little less than a month later, Steve Sr. passed away suddenly at age 58. The Houston final was the last time he saw his son play.

For 11 months, Steve Jr. pressed on, but he often broke down after matches and in interview rooms. His results became more erratic and his climb up the rankings stalled. Last week, though, when Johnson returned to the River Oaks Country Club in Houston, he was inspired to keep pushing. He was the brink of defeat against Ernesto Escobedo in the first round, but he escaped. He survived a third-set tiebreaker against John Isner in the quarterfinals, and spirited comebacks from Taylor Fritz in the semis and Tennys Sandgren in the final.

Steve Johnson's championship speech in Houston:

Each day, it seemed, Johnson had to fight off a friend. And each time he did, his friends were happy for him. They were all fellow Americans, they had all known Steve Sr., who was a fixture in California tennis, and they all likely felt the loss themselves. After the last point of the final, Johnson looked to the sky, and then shared a long embrace at the net with Sandgren.

“It means a lot to win here,” Johnson said. “It’s one of the best tournaments of the year.”

Later, he remembered calling his father after winning the title in 2017.

“He was just so excited,” said Johnson, who is marrying his fiancée Kendall Bateman next weekend. “He’s somebody I’d still like to call today. He’d tell me he was proud of me, and be ready for the wedding.”

Only one player can win a tournament and end the week happily. Sometimes—and this goes double for Andujar and Johnson—it feels like the right one.


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