Johnson wins Houston
for second career tour title
E.J. Crawford | April 16, 2017
Steve Johnson is now officially a man for all surfaces.
The 27-year-old American, best known for his work on grass and hard courts, captured the title at the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Houston on Sunday, overcoming third-set cramps and a long, tiring trip from last week's Davis Cup tie in Australia to top Thomaz Bellucci, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6, in the final.
American men have now won an ATP-best five titles on the season, going 5-0 in finals, with Johnson joining two-time champion Jack Sock, Ryan Harrison and Sam Querrey in the 2017 winner's circle.
“To win on U.S. soil and win when you’re not feeling great is a testament to my willpower and competitiveness,” Johnson told atpworldtour.com. “My body has just physically run out of gas after this week. Coming in from Australia kind of put me behind the eight ball, and then the nerves of trying to close out the final, a lot of factors go into cramping. I was very fortunate to get out of that.”
The victory was the second career tour title for Johnson, who also won on grass in Nottingham last year, and his third career final, to go along with the 2015 tournament in Vienna on hard courts.
Johnson’s title capped a strong week for the U.S. contingent, which advanced five players to the quarterfinals (Johnson, Querrey, Sock, Ernesto Escobedo and John Isner) and three to the semifinals (Escobedo, Johnson and Sock).
The 20-year-old Escobedo, in particular, was a revelation in advancing to his first career tour semifinal. He upset Isner to register the biggest victory of his young career and will move to a career-best No. 72 when the new rankings are released on Monday.
“I competed hard this week. It was a great tournament, great atmosphere out there. I learned a lot and can't wait for the future,” Escobedo told atpworldtour.com. “I feel like I belong on the ATP Tour. My game is there. I just have to work harder and stay disciplined.”
Discipline served Johnson well on Sunday. The fourth-seeded American battled cramping throughout the final frame. To combat the disadvantage, he shortened the points with his dangerous serve-forehand combination and worked his way back into the match, bouncing back from 2-4 down in the third set to take the title over his more experienced clay-court opponent. All four of the 29-year-old Bellucci’s tour titles have come on dirt.
Johnson controlled the tempo throughout with his serve, winning an impressive 79 percent of his first-serve points and denying six of the nine break-point chances against him, and opportunistic on his returns, converting all three of his break-point opportunities. The former USC star ended the two-and-a-half-hour, seesaw affair with a forehand winner on his third match point to take the tiebreak, 7-5, and seal the victory.
“I can think things through even when times are tough,” said Johnson, who at times struggled to stand during the final few games. “I knew I just had to take a few deep breaths and just get enough going in my body to last another five to 10 minutes out there.”
To advance to the final, Johnson defeated the always-dangerous Dustin Brown, noted clay-court performer Fernando Verdasco and, in the semifinals, his in-form countryman, the top-seeded Sock., who is up to No. 6 in the 2017 ATP singles race.