By David Zakhodin
When the new ATP rankings came out in the wee hours of Monday morning, American tennis acquired a new leader. For the last three years John Isner has been responsible for holding the mantle that represents the best that American tennis has to offer the ATP World Tour and its computerized ranking system. With no deep runs in Grand Slams or signature Davis Cup or Olympic victories, it is safe to say that John Isner’s reign as the top ranked American has been disappointing. Aside from two impressive runs to the final of Masters series events in Indian Wells and Cincinnati, Isner’s one-dimensional game has peaked and fallen short of bringing American tennis what it has missed for the last thirteen years: a Grand Slam title.
Since Andy Roddick’s retirement during the 2012 U.S. Open, John Isner has shared the spotlight of being America’s top player with Sam Querrey. However, as Querrey was often set back by injury and inconsistent play and Isner rarely impressed us with anything outside his serve, it became an anathema to even mention them in the same sentence. Instead of dwelling on the known quantity that was Isner and Querrey, we let Jack Sock steal some of the attention with his explosive forehand, big serve, and cocky attitude. Not only did Sock play some of his best tennis in 2015 and capture his first career singles title in Houston, but he also broke into the top 30 and was poised to become the next star for a country whose tennis desperately needed youth, fire, and potential. Despite all the hype surrounding Sock, his recent plateau has opened the door for another American to fill the void left by John Isner’s drop in the rankings.
Entering the ring as the next top ranked American is Stevie Johnson, a four-year college player and two-time NCAA singles champion from the University of Southern California. One of four players to ever defend his title in the Open Era, Stevie has become the highest ATP ranked NCAA singles champion since the days of Sweden’s Mikael Pernfors who reached number ten in the world and won back-to-back in 1984 and 1985 for the University of Georgia. My first recollection of watching Stevie play came at the 2012 U.S. Open, one of his first events after officially going pro. Having received the USTA wild card into the main draw as a result of winning the NCAA title his senior year, Stevie advanced to the third round after defeating Rajeev Ram and upsetting Ernests Gulbis. In that third round match he battled on the raucous Grandstand court in a very tight match against Frenchman Richard Gasquet. While he did not win the match, Stevie showed on that very day that he had weapons capable of hurting not only college level but also professional players.
Unlike the style of play employed by Isner and Querrey, everything starts with the forehand wing for Stevie. Whereas Isner and Querrey rely on their forehand if the serve fails to finish the point for them, Stevie primarily uses the forehand to open the court and force his opponents outside its dimensions. Once he is able to get inside the court, Stevie’s mid court forehand is a killer shot and can set up a comfortable put-away approach to the net if needed. What else sets Stevie apart from Isner and Querrey is the way he uses his serve to his advantage. Because he does not have the lanky figure that simply allows him to reach up and pop a serve, Stevie channels the extra power in his lower body to exercise a deeper knee bend and find a way to match the serve speed of his American counterparts.
Having the attacking ingredients to make himself a force to be reckoned with on Tour, Stevie has relied on one final component to rise to the position of top ranked American in the rankings: his backhand chip. While guys like Isner, Sock, and Querrey use their topspin backhand to keep the point going until they can find a forehand to attack with, Stevie has come to the conclusion that he cannot afford to hit over his backhand and hope the next ball comes to his forehand. Therefore, he has chosen to make a strict commitment to slicing his backhand as much as possible. Not only has the slice become a knifing shot that stays low and makes it difficult for opponents to attack, but it has also given Stevie even more flexibility and incentive to run around the backhand side and find the inside out forehand that will allow him to take control of the point. Whether or not the backhand chip improves to the point where it will be able to withstand a constant barrage of groundstrokes from Djokovic or Murray remains to be seen, but it is safe to say that Stevie has found a winning solution and made big strides to improve both the offensive and defensive facets of his game.
Perhaps the moment where Stevie asserted himself as the new top ranked American in waiting was during his quarterfinal match at the Rio Olympics against Andy Murray. Even though there were no ranking points at stake during the week-long event, Stevie brought Murray to the brink in a third set tiebreak and showed the kind of heart that American tennis has been missing since the days of Andy Roddick and James Blake. While John Isner was playing a 250 level event in Atlanta, Stevie Johnson was pumping it up on the world’s biggest stage and showing immense grit through long grinding rallies against the man who ended up winning the Gold Medal. Early in the third set Stevie was up a break on Murray and looked to be in control of the match thanks to his aggressive mindset of playing to win as opposed to playing not to lose. When he lost that break lead later in the set, Stevie responded by bouncing back and taking Murray to a tiebreak in a situation where many others would have simply gone away. Even when he was down multiple mini breaks in that tiebreak, Stevie continued to display his winning mentality after he ran down a Murray approach and hit a miraculous one-handed backhand flick passing shot winner that sent both Stevie and the crowd into a frenzy. The heart and fire exhibited by Stevie in his deep run at the Olympics, which included a Bronze Medal in doubles, is ultimately what earned him the title of becoming the highest ranked American. Not only was he the most successful American in the singles draw, but the way he represented our country on court was what made him stand out as the new alpha dog of American tennis.
While the title of number one ranked American in 2016 is hardly as significant as it was in 1990, we are proud to see the torch passed on to a man who fought for four years after being the best at the collegiate level to now become the best at the American professional level. Despite all the strides that Stevie has made, there will be many who say that he has peaked. His backhand slice may not be able to hide his backhand in the second week of a Grand Slam, and he hasn’t had to back up many big results. It is very possible that Stevie will not be able to keep up the consistent play that has elevated him to the status of number one ranked American, but history has taught us that the guy knows how to figure things out. If his backhand chip strategy isn’t enough evidence, then maybe it’s the 2012 NCAA singles final where he found a way to defend his title in spite of having a strained abdomen and dealing with shin splints and food poisoning.
One thing that cannot be underestimated is that qualities of perseverance and adaptability simply cannot be taught. A player like Stevie, thanks to his experience as an NCAA individual and team champion, has the winning pedigree to continue taking his game to new heights. His determination to attack forehands and implement his style of play in the Olympic quarterfinal against Murray in the biggest match of his life is only a small snapshot of the strength of his competitive DNA. With a combination of heart and smarts on the tennis court, there is no reason why Stevie Johnson won’t be able to maintain his standing as the top ranked American and make us prouder than the men who most recently held that title.