For two-time NCAA champion Steve Johnson, 2014 is already starting to have the making of a breakout season for the Southern Cal product.
After a strong showing in the lead-up to the Australian Open, the No. 155-ranked Johnson is proving to be one of the best young talents among a fast-rising group of potential American tennis stars.
He proved it again Saturday night by winning the Challenger of Dallas title at T Bar M Racquet Club with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Malek Jaziri of Tunisia to claim his third career Challenger title.
“It’s been a good year,” Johnson said. “I stayed pretty mentally strong this week and I’m pleased with how I stuck with it tonight.”
After exchanging breaks early in the first set, Johnson broke the No. 164-ranked Jaziri to go up 5-4 and wrapped up the first set with a strong service game that featured an ace and two service winners. Johnson jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the second set before a brief stumble when Jaziri broke and closed to 4-3. But Johnson stepped up again with a strong service game and after Jaziri held, Johnson served out the victory.
“I think six months ago, I might have folded [when Jaziri rallied in the second set],” Johnson said. “Tonight was a completely different story. … I stayed calm and just worked through it.
The victory is a nice boost for Johnson heading into the spring and the summer grind of his second full year on the tour.
“It was really up and down for me in the first year,” Johnson said. “The first year is easy. You’ve got nothing to defend, no points coming off the board. It’s easy to play tennis that way, knowing you can never really go the wrong way. But it was a wake-up call, also. Coming out of college, I wasn’t used to losing and I had to learn how to deal with it. I took them hard, for the whole year. Now I’m looking at it a little differently and looking to improve.”
In the doubles final, big-serving Australians Samuel Groth and Chris Guccione were unbreakable for four-time Grand Slam champion Mark Knowles and American Ryan Harrison.
Guccione and Groth, who has the fastest recorded serve on record at 163.4 mph, did not drop serve all week, including Saturday night, when they rolled to a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Southlake resident Knowles and the up-and-coming Harrison.
Groth and Guccione also returned well, breaking Knowles’ serve in the third game of first set, and that was all the Australians needed to win the set. Two more breaks early in the second set all but sealed the title.
Knowles and Harrison’s best chance to break the Australians came against Groth on a deuce point in the first game of the match. After that they were never threatened.
“Obviously, my serve is very big and it’s what I’m known for,” Groth said. “But I feel like I’ve improved in a lot of other areas of my game, and that’s why my ranking is moving forward. The serve is what people come to watch me for, but I’m hoping when people come to watch now they are seeing something other than that.
“To go through four matches not loose our serve, it’s what we build our game around. But I actually feel like we did a lot of other stuff well this week. As soon as we got that second break in the second set, they had to know they were facing an uphill battle.”
Winning the title against Knowles added the enjoyment for Groth, who is ranked No. 165 in singles and 89 in doubles.
“I’ve known Knowlesee for quite a while, and he’s a great bloke” Groth said. “Obviously, he was No. 1 in the world, so anytime you are on the court with someone who’s been No. 1 in the world … I think sometimes people underestimate who great of an achievement that it. For me, it’s an honor to play against him.”
The title meant a lot to Guccione, who is ranked No. 78 in doubles.
“It was huge,” Guccione said. “It helps the ranking, helps the bank balance a bit, and hopefully it’s a steppingstone to the next few weeks and maybe we can get some more good results.”
For the 21-year-old Harrison, the chance to play with Knowles was a highlight.
“There’s a lot you can learn from a guy who’s played so many matches and is so respected,” Harrison said. “It was a blast.”
Harrison came into the tournament ranked No. 121 in singles but has been ranked as high as No. 43. Hnjoyed his time in Dallas, which is about equal distance from his hometown of Shreveport, La., and his home in Austin.
“I’m out of the tour traveling all over the world, and playing here in Dallas is certainly almost as close to home has it gets,” Harrison. “It was a pleasure to play here. I had some family and friends come in from Shreveport, and that made it nice.”