By John Delong
Steve Johnson has done most of his best work on college tennis courts.
That was the case again on Tuesday afternoon as Johnson pulled the biggest upset yet in this year’s Winston-Salem Open.
The 23-year-old former two-time NCAA singles champion ousted the tournament’s No. 2 seed, Andreas Seppi, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-5 before a nice Center Court crowd at the Wake Forest Tennis Complex.
"It’s nice to be back on a college campus," Johnson said. "It feels more like, I guess, a home even though I never played here or anything. But it’s nice to be on a college campus and see the colleges and see how they’re represented. It’s definitely special."
The victory was his fifth in the past four days – he won three matches in qualifying on Saturday and Sunday, then beat Bobby Reynolds in the first round on Monday. It was also far and away the highest-ranked player that he has beaten in two years on the ATP World Tour.
Seppi came into the tournament ranked No. 21.
"Hopefully it’s just another step in the right direction," Johnson said. "I definitely played really well today. I felt that everything I’ve been working on the last five or six months kinda came together. So it’s nice to see the hard work kinda pay off in big situations."
Johnson was actually up a break in the first set before losing the tiebreak. He broke Seppi at 4-4 in the second set, then broke again at 5-5 in the third set and then served out the match.
He had 15 aces for the match, served at 59 percent, and won 82 percent of his first-serve points.
"The second set I felt like he had a couple of chances on my first and second service games to get up a break and run away with it," Johnson said. "But I was able to hang around and played a really, really good return game at 4-all in the second and 5-all in the third.
"I just played well today. If I’d have lost that match, I would have taken a couple of big positives away regardless, just the way I was playing."
Johnson, who won NCAA titles as a junior and senior at Southern Cal in 2010 and 2011, came into the Winston-Salem Open ranked No. 121. He has been as high as No. 97 in July, shortly after he won a grass court Challenger event in Nottingham, England.
He had not been playing particularly well coming to Winston-Salem, though. He didn’t make it out of qualifying last week in Cincinnati, lost in the first round of a Challenger event in Aptos, Calif., before that, and lost in the first round at Washington the week before.
His best showing since turning pro was a trip to the third round of last year’ s US Open.
"I think I had expectations when I got out here, but I think they were unrealistic, just from the success I had in college," Johnson said. "It’s taken me a year to realize that these guys are where they are for a reason, and to just go out there and respect everyone and give it your best shot and hopefully get the win, and most importantly keep getting better."
Johnson will now face Yen-Hsun Lu in the third round on Wednesday.
"You go out there every match thinking you’re going to win," he said. "That’s why you play tennis. That’s the way I’m going to take every match from here on out as well."