How to grasp the current heart and mind of Steve Johnson? Across present and past, towards the uncertain future, but then, back to the demands of the focus required not just to win a tennis match, but merely to play a single point.
Since age two, Johnson has lived, breathed and slept tennis. But until May 11, for him, this lonely sport was never one of solitude. That May 11 was the day his father, also named Steve, died in his sleep. The senior Johnson had been a prominent Southern California-based instructor and coach for nearly 40 years, aiding the tennis cause not just of his son but of hundreds of other players. He’d been a familiar presence at many of the tournaments that dot the Southern California landscape, from suburban rec centers and high schools, to college campuses and eventually, thanks to his son’s success, big-time venues such as Roland Garros.
The entire Johnson family had planned a trip to Europe this spring and summer, including his father, mother Michelle, sister Alison and fiancée Kendall.
Now, each and all feel the agony of loss. That Steve can even come to a tennis court – much less already win two tough matches on the clay – has rapidly become one of the most compelling stories of this year’s French Open. For reasons neither father nor son never desired or likely even imagined, the story of the Johnson family has become one of those tennis tales that go far beyond the lines.
We know, or at least think we know, much about how mothers love their children. But what about fathers and sons? It would be fascinating to learn about the interactions between Johnson father and Johnson son. There had been play and work, strokes and strategies, fitness and psychology. On the surface, it was all cognitive, father passing lessons on to son in a no-nonsense, nurturing manner. But of course it was also wrapped in love.
Johnson’s first two matches at Roland Garros took place on Court 6, a side court that holds just over 1,000 people. Tomorrow he’ll likely play on a much bigger court. He’ll also be a steep underdog, as his opponent is a major contender here, sixth-seeded Dominic Thiem. But that won’t matter.
“Physically, I’m OK,” Johnson told my Tennis Channel colleague Jon Wertheim yesterday shortly after his second round win. “Emotionally I’m a mess. I just know this is what he always taught me to just be a fighter, be a competitor so that’s what I’m going to do, day in and day out. That’s the only thing I can do.”
Here’s a thought on a lesson son might have learned from father: Winning is a desired outcome that can’t be controlled. But to compete – well, that is a process, a spirit of engagement one can control every minute, with passion and skill and, yes, love. Through tears and memories and all the pain he feels by himself and with his dear family, Steve Johnson is showing us much about what competition is all about.
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