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Joel Drucker: Stevie Johnson – Now He Can Play

Imagine walking on to a tennis court knowing you’ve already won. That is the situation Stevie Johnson will face today when he enters Court One at Roland Garros – the 3,802-seat court informally known as “The Bullring” -- for his third round match versus Dominic Thiem.

What is victory? What is success? More pointedly, given all Johnson has been through these last three weeks since the May 11 death of his father, what does it truly mean to lose?

It is intriguing how we engage with world class athletes. On the one hand, we cherish how extraordinary they are at their craft, that they can perform their tasks not just with talent, but with skill, precision, power, sustainability – and do so in front of large audiences for big money. In Johnson’s case, that specifically applies to his excellent serve, forehand and ability to compete well under pressure.

But our appreciation of an athlete grows even more when humanity is revealed; as it were, publicly vivid dramas of the feelings each of us has had. Easy as it was to respect Pete Sampras’ tennis, not until he broke down in tears while playing Jim Courier at the 1995 Australian Open did fans take him into their hearts.

Until May 11, Johnson’s humanizing factor was his kindly manner and, in tennis terms, his backhand, a shot he often struck less with the forceful two-hander that’s integral to contemporary tennis and more with the slice that’s a prevalent part of recreational tennis. The pragmatic and limited dimensions of Johnson’s backhand made watching his matches an intriguing experience: his effort to escape side and find refuge in the other, liabilities and assets all on the table at once. But always, Johnson persevered – persistently true to his own spirit and the manner in which he was raised.

Versus Thiem, in theory, Johnson will have a tough time of it. Thiem, seeded sixth here, is one of the major contenders to win the title. His powerful strokes took him to the semis here last year. No doubt he will be going after Johnson’s backhand with the sustained focus of a dentist drilling a cavity.

But the picture looks different for Johnson, at least today, at least during this Roland Garros. To be in the middle of such suffering, to attempt to find meaning and redemption each minute of the day, to carry in his heart the care and pain of his loved ones; compared to all that, what Thiem throws his way is meaningless. Let us hope that after a five-set first round match and a second rounder that ended in a tight tiebreaker, Johnson feels liberated. He has honored his father beautifully – taking in what he learned in all those lessons on warm Southern California afternoons, all those drills, all that sustained tenacity, all that care and love. Today, in the circled cocoon of the bullring, Johnson has the chance to merely play. “In the depth of winter,” said Albert Camus, “I finally learned that within me is an invincible summer.”

Read more articles by Joel Drucker

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