Count me among those longtime observers who admire the way Steve Johnson has conducted himself throughout his professional tennis career. The 27-year-old American is a fighter through and through, a dedicated craftsman who is now playing with a sense of self and an inner belief that he never had to this degree before. Johnson stands today at No. 25 in Emirates ATP Rankings, not far behind his career high at No. 21 that he attained last July. Moreover, Johnson is No. 17 in the Race to London. He seems increasingly aware of what he can do on a tennis court and what might be beyond his means. He has grown into a remarkably good match player, exploiting what he has to the hilt, figuring out regularly what it will take to get himself across the finish line in close contests fought out across long afternoons against worthy opponents.
But I have never admired Johnson's spunk, durability and fortitude more than I did on Sunday afternoon. He overcame a seasoned clay court competitor named Thomaz Bellucci in the final of the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships, securing the second ATP World Tour of his career, winning his first singles crown of 2017. He triumphed by scores of 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (5). He was victorious despite being severely handicapped near the end of the rigorous battle.
Johnson was cramping in the latter stages of this showdown, and many players would have lost at least a measure of their resolve under those circumstances, particularly when you consider that the American had gone from the Miami Masters 1000 event to Davis Cup against Australia right before heading to Houston. He was thoroughly depleted in Texas. But Johnson kept his composure, refused to panic, bided his time, and came away with an immensely rewarding and very improbable victory. Forget what he did in terms of tactics and execution; this was largely a triumph of the heart and the mind.
Let's examine what unfolded from the beginning until the conclusion of this suspenseful encounter. Early on, Johnson found himself in trouble against his left-handed adversary. Serving at 30-0 in the opening game, Johnson dropped the next couple of points and then lost control of a sliced backhand crosscourt, one of his bread and butter shots. At 30-40, Johnson's inside-in forehand lacked sufficient pace, leaving Bellucci with a considerable opening. The left-handed Brazilian connected with a crosscourt backhand into the clear to get the immediate break, and then he held at 30 for 2-0 with a backhand down the line winner.
It was 2-0 for Bellucci, but now Johnson went to work diligently. He held at 15 and then, after two deuces, the American broke back for 2-2, drawing an error off his adversary's forehand with a probing backhand crosscourt slice. Johnson was plainly thrown off guard by Bellucci standing so far back behind the baseline on his return of serve. The American would finish at 43% on first serves in that opening set, and that made holding an arduous task. After four deuces and despite two break points against him, a resolute Johnson advanced to 3-2 with back to back unstoppable first deliveries. Although Bellucci held from 15-30 on a run of three consecutive points for 3-3, it was apparent that Johnson now had the upper hand.
Holding at love for 4-3, Johnson released winners off both flanks. Although Bellucci held on for 4-4, Johnson took an overhead on the bounce at 40-30 in the following game and put it away convincingly, moving to 5-4 in the process.Serving to stay in the set, Bellucci faltered flagrantly. He reached 15-15, but served two double faults in a row to trail 15-40. On double set point, Johnson was not found wanting, making one of his better sliced backhands to elicit an error off the forehand from Bellucci. From a break down at 0-2, Johnson had taken six of eight games to seal the set 6-4.
But the complexion of the final was altered significantly not far into the second set. Johnson continued to struggle inordinately with his serving rhythm. At 1-1, he missed seven of eight first deliveries but escaped from break point down and held on. In the fifth game, the American was behind 15-40 but he saved three break points altogether, the last with an ace out wide in the ad court.
Tenuously or not, Johnson forged a 3-2 lead. Both players held through the next three games to make it 4-4, but Bellucci was now playing better tennis, both on serve and off the ground. In the ninth game, with his confidence seemingly evaporating and Bellucci applying a steady stream of pressure, Johnson was broken at 15, double faulting once and making three unprovoked mistakes off the forehand. Bellucci served out the set confidently in the tenth game, winning it deservedly 6-4 with more disciplined shotmaking and a clearer game plan.
Johnson was slightly rattled by the way he had lost the second set. Serving in the first game of the final set, locked at 30-30, the American double faulted into the net and then doubled faulted wide in the ad court. He had handed the break to Bellucci at the start of the third, and the Brazilian was driving through the ball precisely the way he wanted off both sides, keeping Johnson at bay with the weight of his shots. Bellucci served two aces and held at love for 2-0. Johnson replicated that feat, releasing two aces of his own and not conceding a point on his way to 1-2. Bellucci granted Johnson only one point as he bolted to 3-1. He was controlling rallies, cutting down substantially on errors, and marching toward victory.
But Johnson was not conceding defeat. Both players held to make it 4-2 for the Brazilian. By then, Johnson seemed to have started cramping in his legs. He was "arming" his serve and seemed unable to use his legs to put more weight behind it. Strategically, though, he played it just right as he held at love for 3-4, dictating easily and getting through that game comfortably. Yet Bellucci was only two holds away from the fifth clay court title run of his career. He had captured four consecutive three set matches en route to the final, toppling Frances Tiafoe, Maximo Gonzalez, Sam Querrey and Ernesto Escobedo. Now he was poised for a fifth straight win in a match going the distance.
Or was he? Serving at 4-3, 15-15, Bellucci carelessly netted a forehand drop shot that simply wasn't in the cards. On the following point, a determined Johnson sent a dazzling forehand passing shot down the line for a winner. A deep return from Johnson at 15-40 was too good. He had broken back at 15 for 4-4. As he served in the ninth game, with the cramping becoming even more apparent, Johnson bluffed his way to 40-0, lost the next point, but held on for 4-3 with a blazing forehand winner up the line. Bellucci answered persuasively, holding at 30 for 5-5.
Johnson somehow reached 40-0 in the eleventh game, but dropped the next two points. At 40-30 his second serve was weak but Bellucci inexplicably failed to put a backhand return in play. Johnson was hobbling around in agony leading up to that point. He was then treated by the trainer, who rubbed both legs at the changeover. But the American conserved energy in the following game. Bellucci held at love with four consecutive aces as Johnson hardly made a move to get those serves back. When Bellucci established an immediate mini-break by taking the first point of the tie-break, Johnson's prospects looked entirely bleak.
But the 27-year-old angled a short, low backhand slice return to set up a forehand passing shot. He then took the next point as well with surprisingly good movement from the back of the court. Johnson served his way to 3-1 but lost the next point. With Bellucci serving at 2-3, the Brazilian was out maneuvered by the American once more. Johnson went to the low, short chipped backhand return again. Bellucci's forehand approach was ineffective. Johnson stepped around for an inside out forehand passing shot winner, extending his lead to 4-2.
Bellucci took the next point on his own serve with a scintillating backhand down the line winner, and so Johnson served with a 4-3 lead. A first serve down the T drew an errant backhand return from Bellucci, and then Johnson summoned the strength for a 127 MPH first serve down the T that was too much for Bellucci to handle. Astoundingly, Johnson had reached 6-3, and triple match point. Bellucci, however, was imperturbable at this stage, saving two match points on his own serve.
On the third match point, however, Johnson succeeded as stylishly as possible. Bellucci's return was directed near the sideline, and designed to make the compromised American play a difficult running forehand. But Johnson was up to that task, lacing his forehand on the stretch with accuracy and remarkable control, connecting beautifully for an outright, down the line winner. Johnson had come through 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (5) despite playing the second half of the third set in unmistakable physical discomfort.
It was an outstanding tournament for the prideful American. He cut down top seeded Jack Sock in the semifinals from a break down in the final set. That set the stage for his duel with Bellucci. The way he dealt with the cramps in the title round contest was extraordinary. What it told me was this: Steve Johnson is one extraordinary fellow, a competitor of the highest order, and a player who is bound to make 2017 the most memorable year of his career. Here is a man of strong stock, unwavering determination and a growing sense of who he is and what he might become. I look forward to witnessing the way Johnson performs over the next couple of years as he explores the boundaries of his potential.