Two years ago, American Steve Johnson made history at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship, defeating Tennys Sandgren to become only the second player since Jose-Luis Clerc in 1980-81 to retain the Houston title. The only other man to do so was Andy Roddick — who later reached World No. 1 — in 2001-02.
“My hands were on my knees as I stood bent over behind the baseline… I was choking back tears,” Johnson recalled in a My Point first-person essay. “I looked to the sky and pumped my fist as I walked to the net to embrace my opponent… a first-time finalist, who I knew wanted to win his first trophy badly. When I put my head down on his chest, Tennys said something I will never forget: ‘I know our Dads are watching in the crowd.’”
Johnson wasn’t the first player to retain an ATP Tour trophy, not even in Houston, but his victory had plenty of emotional strings attached.
The American won his first title on home soil in 2017, when he triumphed in Houston. Twenty-five days later his father, Steve Johnson Sr., passed away in his sleep. Returning to Houston and winning the title again led to plenty of emotions.
“I was doing my best to hold it together. But when Tennys, who lost his father a number of years ago, said that, I let it all out,” Johnson said. “I had just fulfilled a dream we shared — earning a trophy in the United States. But that was the last match he ever saw me play. Suddenly, Dad was gone.”
Johnson Sr. was there in-person when his son won his first ATP Tour title at 2016 Nottingham, but he wasn’t in Houston in April 2017. However, they spoke on the phone after that match.
“He was just so excited. He’s somebody that I’d still like to call today,” Johnson said after retaining his crown. “He’d tell me he was proud of me and be ready for [my] wedding next weekend.”
Watch: Emotional Johnson Repeats In Houston
It hasn’t all been easy for Johnson since his father’s passing. The World No. 63 has been open about the anxiety that has come with being a professional tennis player while trying to grieve the loss of his father. But in that championship match against Sandgren at the River Oaks Country Club, he found something special.
“Through the toughest moments, I’ve found a sense of unity. In Houston, I know it couldn’t have been easy for Tennys to lose his first final in front of his fantastic Mom, brothers, and others close to him. But he knew how I was feeling,” Johnson wrote. “I’m forever thankful that he was there for me that day.”
Johnson has won two of his four ATP Tour titles in Houston, where he owns an 11-5 record. The home favourite has won 50 per cent of his tour-level clay-court matches, but that would drop down to 42.9 per cent without his Houston success.
Besides Roddick and Johnson, only two other Americans have won multiple titles at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship: Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi, both of whom have climbed to No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings.