Steve Johnson Continues to Fight On at the Collegiate Level
March 13, 2012
Written by Mark Patton
Before he takes a swing at the pros, Steve Johnson wants a collegiate Grand Slam: four NCAA team tennis championships.
Johnson, the defending NCAA singles champion, returned to USC this year for the chance at a four-year sweep of the team competition.
"I didn't feel I could've made a bad choice either way, turning pro or staying, but I have really good friends on this team -- and we could make the history books together," he said. "I didn't want to look back on my life and feel like I could've done something different. I want to give it my best, hoping to make a big run for us."
So far, so good. The Trojans are undefeated and ranked No. 1 after having won last month's ITA National Men's Team Indoor Championship, hosted by the University of Virginia at the Boar's Head Sports Club in Charlottesville, Va. It was their first title in the national event since 1991.
Johnson won his 48th straight collegiate singles match -- a streak that began in March of 2010 -- while leading unbeaten and top-ranked USC to a 6-1 victory at No. 3 UCLA on Feb. 29.
"Two guys have been the main guys for all three of our titles: Steve Johnson and Daniel Nguyen," Trojans coach Peter Smith said. "You don't win championships without great players who work hard and listen. The thing about Steve is that he's probably the biggest winner I've ever coached. He wants the ball, he wants the pressure of it, and he's the type of guy who's not at all afraid of the moment. Steve is determined to keep putting his heart on the line. "
Johnson was highly recruited out of nearby Orange High School in 2008, having been trained by his father, Steve Johnson Sr., at his own tennis academy in San Clemente. His mother, Michelle, a mathematics professor at Mt. San Antonio Junior College, helped get him ready for the academic side of USC.
Smith, meanwhile, took Nguyen onto his roster as a walk-on the same year from another Southern California school, Santa Barbara High.
"There is no way anyone could have predicted that we would have won three NCAA championships when they were freshmen," he said. "But they were mentored by some great leaders before them, and now it is their turn to mentor our freshmen and sophomores."
Can the Trojans complete their quest for four straight NCAA Team Championships?
Johnson and Nguyen were ranked fifth and 15th, respectively, in the Feb. 28 Campbell/ITA Singles Rankings.
"We talk about it all the time," Johnson said of the quest for a four-year title sweep. "Daniel has grown up playing with me my entire life. We started playing each other in the juniors when we were 11 or 12, and I can remember some of the matches we had with each other when we were 16 or 17. We just sit back and laugh sometimes about all the doubts that surrounded his career, and the likelihood of ending up in the same spot. It's really special for me and him to get to this point."
The journey included developing some complementary strokes to his powerful forehand.
"We've worked on his backhand, and we continue working on it, and we also work on him being more offensive-minded," Smith said. "He has a gifted right arm. I've been around a lot of great, great athletes, including Pete Sampras, and I've never seen a right arm like Steve's. He's also gifted with his mindset."
Johnson did have to make some mental adjustments.
"When I came into college, I was a little lazy off the courts, and maybe on them, as well," he said. "Coming to USC was a big turnaround for my work ethic."
He admitted that the first NCAA team championship in 2009 came as a surprise.
"That first year, at Texas A&M, we were kind of a Cinderella team that just kept going," Johnson said. "I always thought we had a chance but I wasn't sure I totally believed until we got there and started playing well. We had a really good team my sophomore year. I felt all year that we were going to win that, our confidence was still riding high from the year before. Last year we knew we were one of the best teams in the country, but that championship match (against Virginia) was definitely the toughest. The score was 4-3, and it came down to the last match with Daniel. He really put us on his back and won another title for us."
Johnson has already tested the pro waters in four ATP events, including last month's SAP Open in San Jose.
"Everyone at the next level is a great player," he said. "Looking back at those pro matches, I realize how important a couple points and shots here and there make. If I could've changed this one thing or another, it would've made such a difference."
But he wouldn't change his decision to return to USC.
"I wasn't surprised he came back, knowing who he is as a person," Smith said. "It's in his DNA. His parents are great people, too. And Steve wants a legacy. He's creating memories every single time out. When we were in Virginia, I was watching him hit some shots and was just laughing. I'm just trying to take it all in, this last year with him and Daniel, and just really enjoy it."