For Steve Johnson, the 2017 French Open was as much an emotional battle as a physical one. The 27-year-old USC alumnus, ranked No. 25 in the world, showed up to Roland Garros this year with a heavy heart following the passing of his father. Johnson’s father, a respected tennis coach in Orange County, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 58 less than a month before the start of the tournament.
“I know it’s going to be emotional for quite some time,” Johnson said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times ahead of the French Open. “Who knows how long it’ll take? I just know he’s with me. He raised me to be a competitor and a fighter to the last point, and that’s what I try to do with my tennis.”
In his first match at Roland Garros, Johnson took on Japan’s Yuichi Sugita in what proved to be a tough first-round matchup. Ranked No. 78 in the world, Sugita trailed 2-1 when the match was delayed due to weather. After it was all said and done, Johnson prevailed in a five-set, 3.5 hour-long match by a score of 6-3, 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-7(3), 6-3. Johnson broke Sugita’s serve twice in the fifth set to send him to a matchup with Croatia’s Borna Coric in the next round.
Johnson’s second match was another grueling test of the American’s will. In a four hour-long emotional roller coaster, Johnson topped Coric 6-2, 7-6 (8), 3-6, 7-6 (6). But Johnson’s triumph didn’t come until after four lost match points and a controversial ball abuse call. Coric was one point away from forcing a fifth set twice until Johnson hit a forehand winner.
Overcome with emotion, Johnson dropped to his knees in triumph, while Coric smashed his racquet on Roland Garros’ famous clay court. In an emotional post-match interview, Johnson, with tears in his eyes, admitted, “Physically, I’m OK. Emotionally, I’m a mess.”
“[My father] always wanted me to be a fighter and a competitor so that’s what I’m going to do, day in and day out,” Johnson said. “That’s the only thing I can do.”
Johnson said it was impossible to hold in his emotions any longer against Coric.
“The other days, I was able to kind of get to the locker room and kind of compose myself a little bit,” he said. “Today was just such an emotional match — a long match, up and down. Just to get through it was something that I know I’ll be very proud of.”
Physically and emotionally drained from his matches against Sugita and Coric, Johnson then lost to
sixth-ranked Dominic Thiem of Austria 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-3. Johnson put up an honorable fight after a slow start, but he was unable to upset the talented Thiem.
Johnson, now ranked No. 26 in the world, won the admiration of not only fans, but also his competition. After the match, Thiem complimented his opponent.
“It’s really [a] tragedy what happened. You wish it on nobody, especially him,” Thiem said. “It was, of course, very emotional for him. It also shows that there are way more important things than tennis. I think it was unbelievably tough for him to even play here.”
Johnson is making waves in professional tennis after an outstanding Trojan career. He departed USC with a 72-match win streak to close out his collegiate record, and he won the NCAA Singles Championship in 2011 and 2012 in addition to winning national team championships during all four seasons. He was also a seven-time All-American and won a host of ITA and conference awards. Since his graduation, Johnson has made more than a dozen Grand Slam appearances and secured his first trip to the Summer Olympics for Team USA in 2016.