Steve Johnson advanced in the Newport ATP tournament on Friday afternoon, moving into the semifinals with a clean and convincing victory over Dudi Sela. After the match, Tennis With An Accent founder and publisher Saqib Ali caught up with Johnson to discuss other forms of advancement in his game and the sport of tennis.
Let’s start with the adjustment ATP pros have had to make on a grass surface Johnson called “old-school.” This transitional period in the tennis season underscores some of the more essential truths professionals have to deal with on tour.
“You gotta be quick to change surfaces,” Johnson said. “It’s something I’ve gotten better at over the years. You don’t overhaul your game — you make adjustments and hope to transition quickly,” whether in the process of going from one surface to the next, or in terms of going from one kind of grass at Wimbledon to the different grass in evidence at Newport.
One of the tricky adjustments Johnson has had to make at Newport relates to his world-class slice backhand.
“These guys are getting smarter when they play me,” Johnson said. “They try to avoid it or take that shot away from me, it’s a cat-and-mouse game.” It is easy to think that players can readily impose their game on opponents, and to be sure, they try to do so whenever they can, but a lot of Johnson’s insights reinforced the idea that the process of improving as a tennis player is based on making a counteradjustment to opponents’ primary adjustments.
It is widely known that Johnson shares a coach with fellow American Sam Querrey. Craig Boynton coaches both players. How does this work? It also requires adjustments, as do so many other facets of Johnson’s tennis life.
“You gotta be comfortable with sharing,” Johnson said. “Sam and I are very close, we’re both really good buddies, we live in L.A., we’ve grown up together. The way he coaches Sam is completely different than the way he coaches me. Players have to be okay with changing their schedule a little bit, day to day — gotta be just a little more flexible. Sam and I, that comes easy for us.”
Johnson noted that he will play Washington later this summer while Querrey plays Los Cabos. They had already talked about this situation and mapped out their plans well in advance, replicating what they did last year with the same schedule. Querrey won the Los Cabos title, beating Thanasi Kokkinakis in the final.
Speaking of Querrey, he and John Isner have made their first major semifinals at Wimbledon in the past 53 weeks — Querrey in 2017, Isner last week. What does it mean for Steve Johnson?
“It’s so good to see two really good buddies on the late stages of Grand Slams with chances to do well, especially at Wimbledon,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in how those guys do. Hopefully, I can be the next one to break through.”
It is easy to imagine Johnson wanting to make a major semifinal or attain a top-10 ranking, but he chose a different path when asked about his primary goal on tour:
“Just to get better as a tennis player, get better as a person, get better as a competitor,” he told Saqib. “Hopefully I got a long career still ahead of me — I feel I still haven’t reached my prime. I know I have a lot of tennis left in my body. I don’t want to worry about ranking goals — that can bog you down mentally.”
Johnson also addressed the adjustment of playing professionally in an age when American players aren’t the popular draws at the U.S. Open, with the ATP’s superstars coming from Europe.
“It’s a different time,” Johnson said. “The sport has become more global. Those champions (Sampras and Agassi) were my idols… they helped me get into tennis. But now, when Roger (Federer) steps on a court, he’s the (crowd) favorite. The crowd loves him. He’s earned that. He is our face of tennis and the ambassador for the sport.”
Speaking of each of the Big Three — Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic — Johnson said, “We couldn’t be luckier to have those guys leading our charge as tennis players, because what they do for tennis and outside of the tennis world is really incredible.”
Saqib also asked Steve Johnson about the United States’ upcoming Davis Cup semifinal. Johnson noted that if the U.S. wins, it will have a home tie in the final, regardless of who takes the other semifinal tie between France and Spain.
Having a home tie in the Davis Cup Final “would be incredible, special, and something I know we all want to do,” Johnson said. “Hopefully after the Open we can take care of business, go to Croatia, and get a win.”
Adjustments and advancements. Advancements and adjustments. So much of Steve Johnson’s tennis existence revolves around those two actions. The advancement of his own career and the advancement of American tennis are closely linked to Johnson’s ability to make adjustments. That ability will be tested this weekend in Newport. It will be even more severely tested in the coming weeks and months.