Stevie Johnson Still Carries His Grief Onto the Tennis Court

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 back of the court and squats down for a moment or two. Sometimes he says a little prayer. Often he gives himself an abbreviated pep talk.

Almost always he thinks of doing things the way his father wanted him to.

“I really just say a couple of words to myself to help me put everything in perspective,” said Johnson, 29, whose father, Steve, died of a heart attack at 58 nearly two years ago. “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 hard time keeping tennis, and life, in perspective since May 2017, when his mother reached him by phone just as he was about to board a plane to Rome for the Italian Open and told him that his father had failed to wake up that morning.

Not only had his father taught Stevie how to play the game, he also sat in the stands for college matches at Southern California and for pro matches at Wimbledon and the United States Open. He witnessed his son’s first ATP pro titles in Nottingham, England, in 2016 and in Houston just weeks before his death.

Entering the Delray Beach Open, which began on Feb. 16, Johnson had not won a match since squandering a two-sets-to-one lead against ninth-seeded Dominic Thiem in the second round of last year’s U.S. Open.

Johnson had lost nine straight matches, including one against Borna Coric in the Americans’ Davis Cup semifinal loss to Croatia in September. He fell in the first round at last week’s New York Open to 154th-ranked Brayden Schnur, even though he served for the match and held two match points (Schnur was the eventual tournament runner-up). After that loss, Johnson was despondent in the locker room.

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

He followed that with a win over Paolo Lorenzi of Italy on Thursday but then lost 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 only 18 minutes, and then to a 6-1, 3-1 lead before Albot reeled off 12 of the next 15 points and five consecutive games. Johnson was two points from winning the match late in the third set, but Albot sneaked to the net for a backhand stab volley, and Johnson then hit a forehand wide on match point.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “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 losing streak, Johnson’s ranking should stay 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 lost in the first round here this year.

Losing has been a bitter pill, especially because he came so close to upsetting Thiem. But a rolled ankle midway through the second set contributed to the 3-hour-34-minute loss.

“I probably shouldn’t have even played after the U.S. Open,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t have any tennis left in me. Just all the traveling, from New York to L.A. to Croatia, back to L.A., then Asia and Europe. The way the schedule is, you feel like you need to play all the time, and I got into that trap. But that’s what you have to do when you play tennis; you have to earn it.

“I’m not an N.F.L. player who signs a lucrative four-year deal and then can take five months off, have a bad slump and then turn it around. Every week you have to prove yourself. If you have a bad six months, you can go from No. 8 in the world to No. 78, or worse.”

Johnson has been transparent about how difficult life has been since his father’s death. He often looks to his players’ box, only to see a glaring vacuum where his father used to sit. There are days when he still can’t bring himself to leave the house.

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

That experience led Johnson to seek advice from Mardy Fish, a former top-10 player whose career was marked by bouts of anxiety. At the urging of his mother, Michelle, Johnson also sought help from a psychologist, someone he continues to see whenever he is home in Redondo Beach, Calif.

“Stevie’s mom has been instrumental to him,” said Johnson’s wife, Kendall, a former U.S.C. volleyball player who has been with him for almost 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 through much of his professional career, said he understood the danger 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 said. “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 finally a greater hop in Johnson’s step. But it does not mean he no longer has dark thoughts, no longer wonders whether he should even continue to play tennis.

“Some days it’s easy to fight through and enjoy it,” Johnson said. “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 words 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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