You’ve read enough of these stories. You know how they go. A world-class athlete, struck by personal tragedy, finds solace by returning to the playing field. Sport is escape. Sport is distraction. Sport is a way to move on.
That’s not how this story works. Steve Johnson plays pro tennis, perhaps the most solitary major sport, an occupation in which you spend hours locked inside your own head. And he plays because of his father, a longtime Southern California coach who introduced his son to the game when he could barely walk, who was part of every step of his career, whose life revolved around the sport. The elder Steve Johnson died suddenly this spring at age 58, and when his son returned to the court a couple weeks later, it wasn’t an escape. At times, it was the opposite.
“I mean, maybe if he was a doctor, or something else, my escape would be tennis,” Johnson, 27, said in Washington this week, as he prepared for the Citi Open. Instead, he spends his workweek surrounded by people his father knew, at venues his father visited, doing something his father taught him to do.
“When I get out there and it doesn’t go so well, in the back of my mind I’m thinking of me as a 5-year old kid, an 8-year old kid, a 10-year old kid, out on the courts with him,” Johnson said. “He was 58. I mean, he should be right here. He should be in the stands. I should be able to look up in New York in four or five weeks and see him there. It’s just like, something doesn’t seem right.”
Johnson has grappled with these feelings over the last two months, and it’s led to some of the most wrenching scenes you will ever see in pro sports. There was Johnson in Paris, sobbing on the court after a French Open win. There was Johnson in Wimbledon, breaking down during a loss. He’s cried during video interviews and he’s cried during print interviews. He’s landed on sports blogs and in tabloids, not his usual haunts. And he has attracted attention from people who never followed his career, but who suddenly couldn’t look away.
"I just knew he was looking down on me on that last point and gave me the strength to finish it off."
— Tennis Channel (@TennisChannel) May 31, 2017
“It’s really bizarre, you know? I’m not somebody that needs or wants the spotlight, that I need to be in the news or I want to be in the papers. I just like to go out there and do what I do on a tennis court,” he said. “I think the craziest part was getting all these people reaching out, talking about how they had lost a loved one, or they had lost a father or a brother, you name it. And at the end of the day, all their messages were the same: It makes me feel okay to break down in public, or to show emotion in public. Because you want to be strong and you want to kind of move on, but when you get by yourself, that’s when things hit you. The message was pretty clear, and it was pretty remarkable: that it’s okay to be emotional, it’s okay to be a person, and it’s okay to show people that you can cry.”
Johnson’s career had been humming along before this spring’s emotional avalanche. He won the Nottingham Open last June, his first career ATP title. He advanced to the Citi Open semifinals last July, boosting him to No. 21 in the world rankings, a career best. He went on to win bronze in doubles at the Rio Olympics, teaming with Jack Sock. He overhauled his diet in the offseason, dropping about 12 pounds from his playing weight in an effort to elongate his career. He won in Houston in April — his first pro win on U.S. soil — and then pulled out of a tournament in Madrid to spend time at home. That put him in Los Angeles International Airport on a Thursday morning in mid-May; he had already checked in for his flight to Rome when his mom called with the news that his dad died in his sleep.
“It really rocked all of our worlds,” said Southern Cal Coach Peter Smith, a longtime friend of the older Johnson, who coached the younger Johnson during his record-setting NCAA career. “He just was the greatest.”
Johnson spent about 10 days at home, but was in France before the end of the month with his mom and sister and fiancee, who had long planned that French Open trip. The next month brought Wimbledon, an event his dad had never missed.
“I was not quite present mentally, just because every time I looked to my coach in the box, in my mind I should see him sitting there,” Johnson said. “It was just so hard for me to look over at my coaches and not see him, and it just kind of takes its toll on you emotionally.”
Johnson said at his worst moments, he considered stepping away from the sport, thinking, “I don’t know why I’m here, there’s more to life than this.” He has sought comfort from fellow players — “they’re basically like brothers to me,” he said — and from coaches and family members. But he has also found relief in all those people telling him it’s okay to break down, even when you’re doing so in front of a worldwide audience. This is new ground for a player who was never known for being especially emotive, and who has almost never had to deal with heartache.
“I don’t think Steve lets a lot of people in,” said Smith, the Southern Cal coach. “I think he guards his emotions. But when he plays tennis, he plays tennis with his heart. And you can’t go out and play tennis like he does without opening your heart, and when you open your heart and your heart is aching, it’s gonna cry. I mean, in some ways I think it’s great that the world saw that, because Stevie has a huge heart. He’s a lot like his father: very loyal, and a superb guy. … All of us, sooner or later, you lose somebody close to you. I think it’s a huge help for a lot of people to see someone like that let it all out. I think that’s very endearing, and it should be.”
Amid his mourning, Johnson has recalibrated his goals for the rest of this season. He said he has “no expectations” about what will happen next, that “I don’t know what this week holds in store for me, I don’t know what next week or any week holds.”
He has learned more about his father’s impact over the past two months. There was a memorial service last week, former students have reached out with kind words, and even though Johnson “knew my dad like the back of my hand,” he said he didn’t realize how many people the elder Johnson influenced.
The U.S. Open figures to be another roller coaster. That was another event his father never missed, a place where he had speaking engagements and caught up with friends. It’ll break your heart, listening to Johnson talk about how he’ll “never get to share those dinners with him in New York again,” how “I still think I’m going to wake up from a bad dream and everything’s going to be back to normal, but it’s just not the case.” He isn’t sure when the emotions will hit next, but he’s sure they will. “I mean, I know there are still tears to come,” he said.
So tennis isn’t an escape for Johnson. It’s where he’s fighting through his grief, in front of all of us.
“And I don’t know if this is something I’ll ever get over or something I’ll ever be able to work past or something I’ll be able to get through,” he said. “But I just think about all the great times that we had, and what we shared, and what we’re going to continue to share. And hopefully I can keep living out both of our dreams.”
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