Stevie Johnson Still Carries His Grief Onto the Tennis Court

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — Before the start of every tennis match now, Stevie Johnson walks to the once more of the courtroom and squats down for a second or two. Sometimes he says barely prayer. Often he presents himself an abbreviated pep communicate.

Almost always he thinks of doing points the strategy his father wanted him to.

“I really just say a couple of words to myself to help me put everything in perspective,” acknowledged Johnson, 29, whose father, Steve, died of a coronary coronary heart assault at age 58 virtually two years in the previous. “I tell myself to do things the right way and to treat people with respect. And I remind myself that tennis doesn’t define me.”

Johnson has had a troublesome time holding tennis, and life, in perspective since May 2017, when his mother reached him by cellphone merely as he was about to board a airplane to Rome for the Italian Open and suggested him that his father had didn’t stand up that morning.

His father had not solely taught Stevie simple strategies to play the recreation, nonetheless he moreover sat in the stands for varsity matches at Southern California matches at Wimbledon and the United States Open. He witnessed his son’s first ATP skilled titles in Nottingham, England, in 2016 and in Houston merely weeks sooner than his demise.

Entering the Delray Beach Open, which began on Feb. 16, Johnson had not acquired a match since squandering a two-sets-to-one lead in direction of ninth-seeded Dominic Thiem in the second spherical of ultimate 12 months’s U.S. Open.

Johnson had misplaced 9 straight matches, along with one to Borna Coric in the Americans’ Davis Cup semifinal loss to Croatia in September. He fell in the first spherical in the end week’s New York Open to 154th-ranked Brayden Schnur, regardless that he served for the match and held two match elements (Schnur in the end was the occasion runner-up). After that loss, Johnson was despondent in the locker room.

When Johnson, seeded fourth in Delray, acquired his first match on Tuesday over his longtime buddy and Southern California neighbor, 131st-ranked Jason Jung, he acknowledged, “I’m just glad to get the monkey off my back and not lose 10 straight.”

He adopted that with a win over the Italian Paolo Lorenzi on Thursday, nonetheless then misplaced in the quarterfinals to 82nd-ranked Radu Albot of Moldova, 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5). In that match, Johnson raced to a 5-0 lead in solely 18 minutes, then led, 6-1, 3-1, sooner than Albot reeled off 12 of the subsequent 15 elements and 5 consecutive video video games. Johnson was two elements from worthwhile the match late in the third set, nonetheless Albot sneaked to the internet for a backhand stab volley after which Johnson hit a forehand giant on match stage.

“It’s embarrassing,” he acknowledged. “It’s frustrating. I was up a set and a break, and I got tight. Thought I was on a good path and then this. That’s the way life’s been going for me these days.”

Despite his five-month shedding streak, Johnson’s ranking should maintain near his current No. 34. He is the third-best American, behind No. 9 John Isner and No. 29 Frances Tiafoe, the defending Delray Beach champion who misplaced in the first spherical proper right here this 12 months.

Losing has been a bitter pill, significantly on account of he acquired right here so close to upsetting Thiem. But a rolled ankle midway by the second set contributed to the 3-hour-34-minute loss.

“I probably shouldn’t have even played after the U.S. Open,” Johnson acknowledged. “I merely didn’t have any tennis left in me. Just all the touring, from New York to L.A. to Croatia, once more to L.A., then Asia and Europe. The strategy the schedule is, you feel such as you wish to play all the time, and I purchased into that entice. But that’s what it’s essential to do everytime you play tennis, it’s essential to earn it.

“I’m not an N.F.L. participant who indicators a profitable four-year deal, after which can take 5 months off, have a nasty hunch after which flip it round. Every week you must show your self. If you’ve gotten a nasty six months, you’ll be able to go from No. 8 in the world to No. 78, or worse.”

Johnson has been clear about how powerful life has been since his father’s demise. He sometimes appears to be to his avid gamers’ discipline, solely to see a apparent vacuum the place his father used to sit. There are days when he nonetheless can’t carry himself to depart the house.

After a third-round loss to the eventual runner-up Marin Cilic at Wimbledon in 2017, he was so bodily and emotional spent that he developed a fever that lingered and landed him in the hospital. And after a three-set loss in the first spherical of the 2018 New York Open, he felt as if the ground was spinning, and he expert shortness of breath that was attributed to nervousness.

That experience led Johnson to hunt advice from Mardy Fish, a former top-10 participant whose career was marked by bouts of hysteria. At the urging of his mother, Michelle, Johnson moreover sought help from a psychologist, any individual he continues to see at any time when he is residence in Redondo Beach, Calif.

“Stevie’s mom has been instrumental to him,” acknowledged Johnson’s partner, Kendall, a former U.S.C. volleyball participant who has been with him for practically seven years. “She’s paved the way with her own recovery and helps him put things into perspective. Even through his grieving, Stevie knows his father wouldn’t want him to struggle and that he would want him to keep playing.”

Craig Boynton, who has coached Johnson by lots of his expert career, acknowledged he understood the hazard of being sucked down a losing-run rabbit hole.

“The funny thing about streaks is that when they snowball the right way, you stop thinking and have great clarity in your execution of your shots,” Boynton acknowledged. “But when the streak is going the wrong way there’s a tendency to overthink and doubt yourself. That takes away your focus from your execution. There’s no flow and it creates drought or a rut, and that’s what Stevie’s been going through. One match can change things in either direction.”

After two wins in Delray Beach, there was lastly a bigger hop in Johnson’s step. But it would not suggest he no longer has darkish concepts, no longer wonders whether or not or not he should even proceed to play tennis.

“Some days it’s easy to fight through and enjoy it,” Johnson acknowledged. “But those hard days have been outweighing the good days at the moment.”

“It’s hard to fake the passion,” he added, choking on his phrases and using a towel to wipe away tears. “I mean, my father was such a big part of my tennis life. Tennis is just a weird dynamic for me right now. Every day is different. I mean, he should still be here watching me.”

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