Sunday, August 11, 2019

Johnson wins Aptos again, this time without late father

Top-seeded Steve Johnson beat fourth-seeded Dominik Koepfer 6-4, 7-6 (4)
today to win the $81,240 Nordic Naturals Challenger in Aptos, Calif. Johnson
also won the title in 2012, six weeks after he turned pro. Photo by Paul Bauman
   APTOS, Calif. – It was practically a lifetime ago that Stevie Johnson won the Challenger singles title at the Seascape Sports Club for the first time.
   In 2012, he had been a professional for only six weeks after completing one of the most decorated careers in NCAA history at USC.
   Since then, Johnson has risen as high as No. 21 in the world, won four singles titles on the ATP World Tour, compiled a 5-3 record in Davis Cup singles and doubles, won an Olympic bronze medal in doubles and earned almost $6 million in prize money.
Steve Johnson, whose father/mentor died of a heart attack at 58 in 2017, says
a prayer before the final. " ... I don't know if I was meant to be a pro by myself,"
Johnson said. "I love the game of tennis, but sometimes I wish my partner
in crime was with me." Photo by Paul Bauman
   The biggest change, however, is that Johnson's beloved father is no longer with him. Steve Johnson, a tennis coach, died of a heart attack at 58 in May 2017. Three weeks later, Stevie captured the hearts of fans worldwide when he broke down on television after his second-round win in the French Open.
   Stevie has said his father "taught me pretty much everything I know."
   Before and after beating Dominik Koepfer 6-4, 7-6 (4) today to win the $81,240 Nordic Naturals Challenger, Johnson went through his usual rituals. Beforehand, he walked to the back of the court, squatted briefly while facing the wall and said a prayer. Afterward, he crossed himself, gazed at the sky and pumped his fist.
   "I've done that for a long time," Johnson said. "It's just a bit more meaning the last couple of years. He was here when I won in 2012, so I like to look up and see him up there, but that's the way life goes sometimes."
Steve Johnson's lethal forehand helped him beat Dominik
Koepfer in their first career meeting. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Johnson, who wears a cross necklace, has tumbled from No. 33 at the beginning of the year to No. 93. He will rise to No. 79 on Monday.
   "Mentally, it's just been hard to do it week in, week out," said Johnson, 29, of Redondo Beach in the Los Angeles area. "I don't know if I was meant to be a pro by myself. I love the game of tennis, but sometimes I wish my partner in crime was with me."
   The top-seeded Johnson, who didn't lose a set in his five matches during the week, collected $10,800 – pocket change for him – in his first Challenger since March 2018 and second since 2014.
   The fourth-seeded Koepfer, a 25-year-old left-hander from Germany now based in Tampa, Fla., received $6,360 after playing in the singles final of a Northern California Challenger for the second consecutive year. The Tulane graduate lost to Jason Jung, a Los Angeles-area native who plays for Taiwan, 7-6 in the third set indoors in San Francisco in February 2018.
   Johnson and Koepfer met for the first time on a gorgeous, 70-degree (21.1 Celsius) day in the 32-year-old tournament, the longest-running men's Challenger in the United States.
   Johnson, 6-foot-2 (1.88 meters), triumphed with his booming serve, lethal forehand and consistent slice backhand. He pounded 10 aces, committed only one double fault and won 85 percent of the points (29 of 34) on his first serve.
   "I served well when it mattered," Johnson said. "My serve has been an issue all year. This week, it was great on Day 1, not so good on Days 2 and 3, great on Day 4 and good when it needed to be today."
Dominik Koepfer, 25, will rise to a career-high No. 113.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   Koepfer, who has surprising power at 5-foot-11 (1.80 meters), had three aces and four double faults and won 68 percent of the points (28 of 41) on his first serve.
   Like everyone, Koepfer targeted Johnson's backhand during rallies.
   "That was the game plan, to approach to his backhand," said Koepfer, who will rise nine spots to a career-high No. 113. "He doesn't have a great two-handed backhand, but it's not a nice ball to hit off his slice. It stays low every time. You've got to be patient. I thought I did a pretty good job with it. It just wasn't enough.
   "He doesn't give you a lot of free points. Obviously, if you hit it to his forehand, he has you on the run. That's the danger playing him."
   Johnson raced to a 3-0 lead (one service break) in the first set against an admittedly nervous Koepfer, who won his first Challenger singles title in June on grass in Ilkey, England, before Koepfer rallied to even the set at 4-4. After Johnson held serve, he broke for the set on a spectacular forehand cross-court passing shot with Koepfer at the net.
   Both players held serve throughout the second set, although Koepfer saved a championship point while serving at 5-6 with an overhead smash.
   Johnson led 4-2 in the tiebreaker, but Koepfer leveled at 4-4 with a cross-court backhand winner after Johnson missed his first serve.
   After Johnson made a tremendous lunging backhand volley winner to lead 5-4, Koepfer sprayed a swinging forehand volley to give Johnson his second championship point. He capitalized with a runaround forehand passing shot set up by – what else? – an inside-out forehand to the opposite corner.
   "At 6-5 (in the third set), I thought I played a pretty bad match point," Johnson said. "I played really passively, didn't try to win. That's kind of the way my year has been.
   "I was thinking about that, so when I got to the 6-4 point (in the tiebreaker), I was playing to win. I was going to try to hit as many forehands as possible and go for it. That's the way I've got to play, and it paid off."
Left to right, top-seeded Marcelo Arevalo and Miguel Angel Reyes-Varela
beat unseeded Max Schnur and Nathan Pasha for the doubles title. Photo by
Paul Bauman
   In the doubles final, top-seeded Marcelo Arevalo of El Salvador and Miguel Angel Reyes-Varela of Mexico beat unseeded Nathan Pasha of Atlanta and Max Schnur of New York 5-7, 6-3 [10-8] to share $4,650.
   Pasha and Schnur, who split $2,700, played in the tournament only because third-seeded Leander Paes of India and Max Purcell of Australia withdrew after Paes strained a calf muscle.
   Paes, 46, has won 18 major titles, eight in men's doubles and 10 in mixed doubles with a career Grand Slam in each event.
   Here are the complete Aptos singles and doubles draws.

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