by JAMES HENRY
CINCINNATI – Even after losing, you still can win.
During the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, American Steve Johnson lost in a third-set tiebreaker to England’s Andy Murray, the world’s No. 2-ranked player, in the quarterfinals of singles.
Dropping the first set 0-6, Johnson dramatically rebounded and claimed the second set, 6-4. Murray, a three-time Grand Slam champion and also the defending Olympic gold medalist, then prevailed in the tiebreaker, 6-7 (2).
Just an hour and a half later, Johnson was back on the tennis court with partner Jack Sock in men's doubles.
“It was emotional. I left a lot of heart and soul out there in the loss to Murray. He played great. To turn around 90 minutes later to come play doubles, if you lose that, you know it’s going to be even more heartbreaking and you leave Rio with nothing, essentially,” he said.
Johnson and Sock, however, defeated Canada’s Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil to win the bronze medal.
“I was in tears after the singles,” Johnson recalled. “It was pure joy after the doubles.”
Johnson said he was proud to represent the United States in the Olympics, as he did during his Davis Cup debut in the World Group playoff against Uzbekistan last September.
“Anything for a team, something greater than yourself,” he beamed.
The American men exceeded many expectations in Rio. In mixed doubles, Sock and Bethanie Mattek-Sands won gold, while Rajeev Ram and Venus Williams earned silver.
“It’s a positive sign,” Johnson said. “I think we take a lot of heat from the media, U.S. tennis, not a lot of it warranted, from our perspective. But that’s not up to us. We don’t write the stories.
“We believe in ourselves. We always have. We always will. Hopefully, people can get behind us. We’re not out there not trying. We’re giving it our heart and soul.
“To walk away with three medals, three guys on podiums, was a great week, and hopefully it can just be a stepping stone for Jack and myself to just continue to keep on pushing forward.”
At 26 years old, Johnson is not looking back.
Boasting a booming serve and a hard-spinning forehand, he currently is ranked 23rd among ATP World Tour players.
This summer, he won his first career title on the grass courts at Nottingham, England, and he reached the second week at Wimbledon, playing on Centre Court for the first time.
His confidence – as well as his ranking – is growing, especially now that he is competing back in the United States. This week, he is at the Western & Southern Open, a Masters 1000-level event, in Cincinnati.
“My confidence is definitely high. Anytime you’re in the States, even if maybe you’re not at your best, you feel better because you’re at home,” he said.
“Even though I’m not from Cincinnati, I’m from California, but this feels like home to me. I wake up, and I feel like I’m at home.
“Anywhere in the States, really, I have the same feeling. I know all of us Americans love competing in the States, and that’s why we try to stack up as many tournaments in the summer as possible.”
Johnson is one of the most – if not the most – successful college tennis player ever. He notched 72 straight wins.
While playing tennis for the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, he won the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Men’s Singles Championship in his junior and senior seasons, in 2011 and 2012, and his Trojan team won four consecutive NCAA Championships.
He became a professional and joined the ATP World Tour in 2012. It took him two years to make it into the top 100, but he has firmly stayed there, climbing up from No. 49 last summer.
Completing his college career before embarking on his pro career “was the perfect choice,” he said.
“Never a doubt in my mind,” he said. “That’s easier to say now because of where I am and what I accomplished at USC.
“But if I turned pro at 18, there’s zero chance I’m in the Olympics, and there’s zero chance I’m sitting at this table you guys right now.”
Johnson said he is grateful for his Olympic experience and believes tennis deserves its place in the Games. Just look at the final between Murray and Argentina’s Juan Martín del Potro, he said.
“I think tennis is, in my mind, the hardest sport. You look at every Olympic finals, just in general, across all the sports. You had Murray and Delpo out there for four hours by themselves, one on one, trying to solve big problems, how to win a gold medal. A lot of the other sports just isn’t as long or you have a team or you have coaches,” he said.
“I think tennis is one of the hardest sports just because you’re on an island 24/7, and you have nobody out there with you.”
Asked about the future of American men’s tennis, Johnson first praised 31-year-old John Isner and 28-year-old Sam Querrey, now ranked No. 22 and No. 29, respectively.
He then noted the potential of young Americans such as 18-year-olds Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe, ranked 54th and 123rd, respectively.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with American tennis. Hopefully, we can keep proving everybody wrong,” Johnson said.
“We have a great future. But as quickly as it comes, it could go. These guys need to realize that there’s a lot of work. Nothing in life is guaranteed. We’re not basketball, we’re not football with these big contracts, where you’re locked up and safe for a long time,” he cautioned.
“In tennis, you’ve got to prove yourself every day, every week, every year.”
Be patient, but stay determined, Johnson advised, knowing you may lose before winning.
“These boys have done a great job, but there’s still a lot of work left to do,” he said. “But they’re miles ahead from where I was at 18, 19.
“I just hope that they really continue to enjoy the game, enjoy the process, be OK with losing, maybe see themselves go backwards a little bit before really taking those big steps.”