Tennis is crawling back, but Peter Smith is staying busy.
The famed University of Southern California coach, now guiding former Trojan great Steve Johnson, says practicing during this pandemic poses new challenges for players.
“We're practicing on a private court. He just started hitting," Smith says. "It's been very hard for a lot of people to understand, all these guys have had a tough time firing up to play because they don't know when they will play. It's such an open thing. They usually back into things, like 'Okay, I play this tournament on this day, I'll prepare, I'll do this.' It's kind of easy, their approach is just game plan for it.
“And now people are saying, we don't know when you're going to play, we don't know if you're going to play this year.”
Smith would give those players some simple advice, saying: “You don't want to get to the point where your hand's covered with blisters. So just keep the calluses fresh. Strike some balls two times a week, three times a week.”
Steve Johnson, at the 2020 New York Open. (Getty Images)
Smith, who played on the ATP tour for 15 months, found himself a college coaching gig while he was still a college player.
“It was a funny story. I lost against Michael Chang and it was a bad loss, so I went back to school to graduate,” Smith says. “I was planning on going back and playing, I had just started. My coach, Larry Easley, quit and they gave me the job while I was still in school taking 21 units. I fell in love with coaching right away. Helping the kids get better, and that was very rewarding.”
Smith has coached at Long Beach State, Fresno State, Pepperdine and at USC for a total 17 years, winning five titles. But when Johnson called and asked him to be his coach in 2019, he agreed.
“In the mornings I get to work with Sam [Querrey] and Steve. In the evenings, I get to work with juniors. That's very enjoyable,” he said.
Smith also coached Johnson at USC, where the Orange, Calif. native went undefeated for a year and a half in NCAA competition before turning professional.
“That hurt him on tour, because he had to get used to it. And it's one thing Steve is not good at,” he says. “In some ways I think it's still hard for him to get used to, because he loves to win. So Stevie is a perfectionist and that mentality can hurt him.”
Since coming on tour in 2012, Johnson has reached a career high of No. 21, winning four singles titles. The 30-year-old has dropped to No. 85, but started to climb again by winning two Challengers this season, including at the Oracle Challenge Series at Indian Wells. There, he defeated Jack Sock in the final contest before the suspension of the tour.
“He's a much better tennis player than he was five years ago. But he's way better in this year packaging things correctly. It's very important, packaging glass half-full, half-empty,” Smith said. “But for sure he can be Top 30 again.”
Getting to the top of the men's game isn't easy with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic so dominant. Smith saw the difference when Johnson played Federer at the Australian Open.
“It was amazing," he says. “Stevie had won a Challenger the week before, and was averaging one or two aces a game. And then he played Federer first round. And it wasn't a great day serving. It was some incredible stat, like Federer didn't get back [only] one return in the first two sets. And it's such an aberration... to go from getting all these free points to getting zero.”
Johnson against Federer at the 2020 Australian Open. (Getty Images)
Nadal's improvement on all surfaces has also been notable for Smith.
“I remember that first year Nadal played Wimbledon,” he said. “Robert Kendrick, [he] had him says. I coached Robert, so I was watching. And now to look at him, so good. His volleys. He's probably the best doubles player on tour. He's got such a good return, serving, he's got such a complete game.”
That hasn't left a lot of room for others. The last time that an American won a Grand Slam was 2003, when Andy Roddick won the US Open.
“That weighs on those guys. I think it's weighing on them,” Smith says. “They've all been very successful, but our standard of success is so much higher than that. So it's a tough gig. That's what it's like when you're from the U.S. We have a history of champions and it's like coaching at USC. You've either got to be very successful or you feel, I shouldn't be doing that.”
Still, he thinks the newest group of U.S. players could eventually break through.
“But I do feel like we're going to have a Grand Slam champion,” he said. “The barn door will open, and somebody better crash it down. But yeah, all those guys—Frances Tiafoe, Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul, Taylor Fritz, they all have that in them. So they've got to realize that it's having the right opportunity.”