By John Delong, Winston-Salem Open
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Monday was a day that Steve Johnson has been waiting for – and hoping for – ever since he joined the ATP World Tour after a stellar college career at Southern California.
When the latest ATP World Tour rankings were announced, the 26-year-old Californian moved up to No. 21 and past John Isner to become the highest-ranked American.
It’s the result of a lifetime full of hard work and a reflection of a great summer season that has included his first ATP World Tour singles title and deep runs at Wimbledon, Cincinnati and the Rio Olympics.
Johnson acknowledged during a press conference leading into the Winston-Salem Open that he was very moved to become the top-ranked American.
“It means the world to me,” Johnson said. “It’s something that you dream about one day, but for it to become a reality is pretty special. To wake up and get a bunch of texts from people who helped you along the way, it’s just really fantastic. Hopefully this is just the beginning for me and I can continue to get better and better and keep moving up the rankings.”
Johnson comes into this week’s WSO as the No. 4 seed. He will make his debut in second round action on Tuesday against the winner of Monday’s first-round match between 2014 WSO champion Lukas Rosol and Victor Estrella Burgos.
He has played well here in the past, reaching the semifinals last year and the third round in 2013 when he also won three matches in qualifying.
He said he would love to make the Winston-Salem Open his first tournament victory on American soil.
“It would be awesome to win here,” Johnson said. “I was close last year, made the semifinals but unfortunately ran into (Pierre-Hugues Herbert) who was really hot. He played great and there was really nothing I could do toward the end of that match. You want to win on American soil as much as possible. I’ve been in the semis at D.C. a couple times, so I’ve been close. So maybe this is the week. I don’t feel any added pressure to win on American soil, but it would be fun to win obviously, so hopefully I’ll have a chance to be here at the end of the week and just keep it about the tennis and just try to go out there and play my best.”
It has been a great summer already, for sure. After a lackluster stretch in early 2016, he turned his year around at the start of the grasscourt season. He won his first career title at Nottingham the week before Wimbledon, and then went all the way to the fourth round at Wimbledon before losing to Roger Federer.
That success has carried over into the hard court season, as he went to the semifinals in Washington, the quarterfinals at the Rio Olympics, and the fourth round at Cincinnati. Among his victims in Cincinnati last week was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Johnson said that his entire season turned around in one match, against Richard Gasquet in the first round of the Aegon Championships in London the week before his Nottingham title. Down two breaks trailing 4-0, he rallied to win the first set in a tie-break and then breezed in the second for a 7-6 (2), 6-2 victory.
“That shows why you’ve just got to stay positive,” Johnson said. “It can turn around at any time. I got to Queens Club and about 12 minutes into the match I’m about to go down 5-0 to Gasquet. And to turn that around was, I mean, it’s easy to pinpoint now that was the turning point to my season. Deep down at that point, I believed I was capable of this.”
Johnson was one of the very first players to commit to this year’s Winston-Salem Open, and it’s likely he’ll be coming back for years to come.
“I love this tournament,” he said. “It’s no secret I’m not a big fan of the craziness of New York City (before the US Open). I grew up in California in a quiet town, now I live in Los Angeles by the beach so I don’t have to deal with the craziness. I love playing in New York, but sometimes it gets too busy. So I love coming here instead, because it’s a college town, I feel at home, I get a chance to rest, relax and play my matches. Just keep it about tennis. So I would like to stay here and get to New York late in the week, because that would mean I’m playing great tennis.”
The bronze medal he won in doubles with Jack Sock in the Rio Olympics, by the way, is here with him this week. He said he thoroughly enjoyed his time in Rio, and will be forever honored to be a medalist.
“It was a blast,” Johnson said. “I only got to see a couple other events because I was playing singles and doubles, and it was pretty hectic. But for me, coming from USC we had 44 other athletes that were there, so I was able to catch up with a handful of other athletes that I was at school with that won national titles. So it was great to catch up with them and really just enjoy the whole Olympic atmosphere.”