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Pro Tennis

Johnson, U.S. young guns ready for Roland Garros after qualifying

May 24, 2013 02:48 PM
23-year-old Steve Johnson was among a trio of Americans who qualified for the main draw of the French Open on Friday.
Denis Kudla will play in his first men's singles draw at Roland Garros in 2013.
20-year-old Jack Sock has impressed in recent years at the US Open and now takes his talents to the red clay.
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
PARIS -- When USTA General Manager of Player Development Patrick McEnroe came out of senior staff meeting on Friday and heard that three young American men had qualified for the main draw at Roland Garros, he was thrilled.
"This is the start of the turnaround for us," said McEnroe on the feat which had not been equaled since Charles Strode, Craig Wittus and Derek Tarr qualified back in 1982. 
The three for 2013 are Steve Johnson, Dennis Kudla and Jack Sock -- none of them born-and-bred clay courters, but all of them guys who have been working hard on the surface to put their weapons to good use. Since Andre Agassi won the Coupe des Mousquetaires in 1999, no U.S. men’s player has reached the singles final at Roland Garros. Agassi was also the last U.S. male to reach the quarterfinals at the French, which he did in 2003.
Yet this younger American trio showed a lot of gumption on a cold and rainy day Paris. They didn't mind trudging through the mud to make shots, and were patient enough when contracting longer points when necessary.
Johnson, the former two-time NCAA champion who dominated hard-court play in college but rarely played on clay, bested Romanian Adrian Under, 6-3, 6-4. The 23-year-old had a tough time on the green Har-Tru surface in tournaments this spring but found it easier to play on red European clay, where the bounces are truer. Feeling greater confidence, Johnson decided he could assert his attacking game.
"It takes a little longer, but I want to slice and get a guy in an uncomfortable position and start winging forehands," said Johnson. "On clay you have to work the points a little longer and be a little more patient, but it’s good."
Kudla, 20, won his second straight marathon match, taking down Belgium’s Arthur De Greef, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (3), 6-2. Another 20 year-old, Sock, crushed Argentine Facundo Arguello, 6-2, 6-3. 
Two other Americans, Rhyne Williams and Wayne Odesnik, both lost in the final round of qualifying, but Williams made it into the main draw as a lLucky Loser.
Johnson, Kudla, Sock and Williams have all been working with USTA Player Development coaches during their time in Europe, specifically with Head of Men's Tennis Jay Berger and Director of Coaching Jose Higueras. The USTA also recently hired veteran coach Craig Boynton (one-time coach of John Inser, among others) to help them properly slide into shots, a key element of success and one that cannot be learned overnight.
Johnson believes he is improving in that department after seven weeks of sliding. With movement being a critical part of his game, he doesn't have the unnatural skill down to a science yet but finds he is becoming more instinctive.
"It’s getting easier to find my way out of it, and you can take returns on different spots on clay," said Johnson. "It’s definitely fun to be learning how to do it, rather than having a negative attitude about it." 
As the U.S. men in the post-Agassi, Jim Courier (two Roland Garros crowns) and Michael Chang (one French title) era have struggled on dirt, they have become targets for players from other countries who might think are easy pickings.
"I guess that's what the world thinks: That if you are playing an American on clay, regardless of who it is, you have a good chance," said Johnson. "But I think that’s something we can change in the next few years. John Isner has had some really good results on clay and Sam [Querrey] has been doing well and they are at the top for us -- and if they can make the push, that would really help us as well."
Querrey is the top-seeded American at the tournament at No. 18, with a reasonable early draw where he begins against Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko – a path which could eventually line the California native up with No. 15 Gilles Simon of France in the third round.
No. 19 Isner, meanwhile, has a very tough opener against Argentine Carlos Berlocq. He could face another young American, Ryan Harrison, in the second round should Harrison get past Russian Andrey Kuznetsov.
After his NCAA Championships win last May, Johnson has only been on tour about 11 months. He is on the verge of cracking the Top 100, feeling that he has learned a lot during the past year. He has mostly avoided being results-oriented.
"Some days I’m impatient," said Johnson. "I want to be where I was in college when I was on top but it takes time. I still have to figure this game out. Everything at this level is a little higher. The way they approach their tennis, matches, fitness. But what have is a great group of guys coming here from the States. It’s nice to see three guys come here and qualify."
Johnson said that the U.S. men would like to be where the U.S. women are, with a tour-high 12 American women in Top 100.
Seven-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic come into the tournament as pretty substantial favorites, but there is room for other players to make their marks. A guy like Johnson could sneak up on some people. He’ll face Spain’s Albert Montanes in the first round.
"For someone to beat me they are going to have deal with my game rather than push me around because I’m not a clay courter," said Johnson. 
To learn more about up-and-coming U.S. players and to receive the latest US Open news and information, as well as exclusive merchandise offers to the US Open Shop, sign up to become a US Open Insider.
And for more Pro Tennis coverage, including coverage of Americans at the 2013 French Open, go to the USTA.com Pro Tennis page.


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