Written by Dave Dulberg, USC blog contributor
While the last two weeks have been nothing short of a dream come true for USC tennis star Steve Johnson, mere days after capturing the NCAA Singles Championship (the school's first men's singles title since 1996), the junior is already looking ahead to his future.
Although in three short years Johnson has won four National Championships (three team titles and the individual one he took home after defeating Tennessee's Rhyne Williams on Sunday), Trojan fans can breathe a sigh of relief as he will return for his senior season before making the leap to the professional ranks.
In Johnson's eyes, a return to Troy next season gives both him and his teammates a unique opportunity to join elite company as the third team in NCAA history to win four straight men's tennis team national championships joining Stanford (1995-98) and George Toley's USC squads (1966-69).
"We have a very special opportunity in front of us right now, because there has only been one team in history (since the tournament scoring format changed in 1977) to win four in a row," Johnson said on trying to win the program's 20th National Championship next year. "It's such a special opportunity to have the chance to be the second team ever to do that. No one can really take that away from us."
While the goal in the year to come will undoubtedly revolve around adding two more titles to his already robust resume, Johnson believes another 365 days training with his teammates under USC coach Peter Smith provides him a chance to refine his game in an environment that is both competitive and comfortable.
"My fitness has gotten a lot better this year, but still there is a difference between being the best in college and being one of the best in the world," said Johnson. "That's something I am going to have to really keep pushing myself to get better at. I need to get quicker, faster and stronger."
Even as other aspects of his game came into form this spring en route to a 35-match win streak and the eventual NCAA crown, the native of Orange, CA admits there is still room for improvement.
"I spent a lot of time this year working on my serve, my backhand and my forehand," said Johnson. "It's the best they have ever been, but I feel as though they can continue to get better. I would like to try and get my backhand up to the level my forehand is at right now. For me it's all about continuing to go forward."
The forward-thinking Johnson, who became the first Trojan to win both the NCAA team and NCAA singles titles in the same year since the dual-match format was implemented to decide the team championships, will have a chance to showcase his pro-ready skills at the US Open in August. Every year, the NCAA singles champion automatically earns a ticket to Arthur Ashe Stadium to play in the grand slam tournament.
While growing up Johnson idolized the great Pete Sampras, the 2011 Pac-10 Player of the Year isn't quick to compare his game to stars who are currently taking the pro circuit by storm like Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. But with the lack of American presence on the men's side these days, Johnson hopes he can help his country grow the sport once he turns pro.
"It's an exciting role," said Johnson on the potential of improving the quality of tennis in the United States. "If I can continue on and be a successful tennis player, who knows maybe I can become the next face of American men's tennis."
Make sure to tune in tonight at 5:40 p.m. Los Angeles time, as the face of USC men's tennis will be profiled on KABC.