Steve Johnson showed that he has the talent to hang with the top players on the ATP Tour in his 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-2, 6-7(6), 6-2 loss to world No. 11 Nicolas Almagro in the first round of the Australian Open.
The former USC Trojan and NCAA champion came out of the gates firing in his first-ever Aussie Open, and he proved that he was not afraid of the big stage.
Johnson used his big serve to hit nine aces in the first set and easily hold in the early going. He found himself up 30-love with Almagro serving at 4-5, but the veteran Spaniard was able to rally from behind with solid baseline play and capture the next three games.
Dropping a close first set did not faze the American qualifier as he quickly broke Almagro in the second set and jumped to a 3-0 lead. Almagro was able to break back later in the set and send it to a tiebreaker.
The fiery competitiveness of Johnson was on full display in the second-set tiebreaker, and he ended it with an exclamation mark with a huge ace on set point to even the match at one set all.
In the third set, the first signs of fatigue were visible from Johnson. He had to win three matches this past week to qualify for his third Grand Slam, including a 6-4, 6-7(5), 17-15 battle over Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis. Almagro took advantage, cruising to a comfortable 6-2 third set in which he had zero unforced errors.
Instead of throwing in the towel against the highest-ranked player Johnson has ever faced, he showed the heart and grit in the fourth set that allowed him to end his college career at USC with a ridiculous 72-match winning streak, including two NCAA singles championships. Fighting off two match points in the process, Steve Johnson was able to somehow pull out an incredible 8-6 tiebreaker and capture the fourth set.
The Grand Slam experience and physical fitness of a Top 15 player in the world helped Almagro rise to the occasion in the fifth set and break Johnson's first two service games en route to a convincing 6-2 victory to pull out the match.
Although Johnson walked away from the court without a win, this is the kind of match that is going to give him all the confidence in the world as he begins his first full ATP season as a professional.
Johnson proved that he has the weapons to compete with a top seed in a Grand Slam with his huge serve and heavy forehand.
Quite possibly the most decorated tennis player in NCAA history—four NCAA team titles, two NCAA singles titles—Steve Johnson proved that his success in the college game is most definitely going to transfer over to the ATP Tour.
Currently ranked No. 175, Johnson has no ATP points to defend until July, since he did not turn professional until his senior season at USC was finished last May.
What Johnson proved on Monday in Australia is that he is not afraid of the big boys and relishes competing on the toughest stage possible.
No matter the importance of the tournament or the rank of the opponent, Johnson believes he can win. That competitive spirit will drive him up the ATP rankings in the coming months.
You can expect a big 2013 from the 23-year-old. It would be a mistake not to.
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