Being separated from family during times of crisis is excruciating. Steve Johnson learned that the hard way this year in Australia.
The American’s wife, Kendall, gave birth to their first child, Emma, on 31 December 2020. Johnson was “50-50” on travelling to Australia to begin with. But just more than a week into his two-week quarantine, he received a phone call with bad news.
“Emma had a routine pediatric checkup and they sent her right to the hospital, because her oxygen levels were extremely low. She was in the ICU for five or six days,” Johnson told ATPTour.com. “That’s hard. We’re new parents obviously, it’s our first. There are COVID protocols at the hospital. Just my wife was in the room with her. She couldn’t have the support of family because she couldn’t leave Emma’s side. All this stuff just snowballed given the circumstances.”
Johnson, who was set to play an ATP 250 at Melbourne Park and then the Australian Open, immediately decided he would not play those events. The 31-year-old was going to fly home as soon as Australian restrictions would allow.
“I didn’t want to be in Australia. As soon as I got that phone call, I was mentally on a plane back to Los Angeles,” Johnson said. “It just took time, unfortunately. I got back and was able to support my wife as much as possible. I wasn’t able to go to the hospital to see Emma, but Kendall was able to come out.”
Emma received a few different treatments. About a month later, she had surgery.
“So far, everything looks like it’s trending in the right direction. It’s definitely taken a weight off my shoulders [while I am] here knowing everything is healthy and looking like what normal should be,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely taken a lot of stress off… That’s why I think I was definitely struggling at the beginning when I came back, because my heart and my mind were at different places than the tennis court.”
The four-time ATP Tour titlist played five tournaments at all levels this year before Roland Garros, and he only won one set in those matches. But he has claimed back-to-back five-setters in Paris to reach the third round for the fourth time.
Although things are doing better with his daughter, Roland Garros triggers emotions for Johnson that date back to 2017. On 11 May that year, Johnson’s father, Steve Johnson Sr., suddenly passed away. “Stevie” wrote a first-person My Point essay for ATPTour.com detailing the struggles he faced on and off the court as he tried to cope with that devastating loss.
In the second round at Roland Garros that year, Johnson beat Borna Coric in a four-setter that lasted three hours and 53 minutes. As he walked off the court, the American stopped for an interview with Tennis Channel’s Jon Wertheim, during which he couldn’t hold back his emotions. Johnson has asked the ATP and French Tennis Federation to avoid that court because of the raw memories from that match.
But in the years since, Johnson has increasingly found it easier to deal with his loss. A lot of that improvement has come from opening up about mental health.
“The key I think for everybody is the stigma that surrounds it. Normalising it is the most important thing. You see the other athletes do it and that creates the conversation and people’s awareness,” Johnson said. “It’s something that not everybody goes through, but a lot of people go through at all times of life, whether it’s good or bad. There’s no rhyme or reason to why things happen. I’m definitely always open about it and I think that’s not going to change any time soon.”
Johnson began speaking to a professional, which helped. He has also talked with fellow athletes including Mardy Fish, who has battled through mental health issues himself.
“I was a stubborn individual at the beginning… If you’re stubborn, you think you can do things on your own,” Johnson said. “But there are just some things that are out of your control that you just need somebody who knows what they’re doing and who has dealt with it or seen other sides of things that can help put things into perspective. Sometimes when you’re so close to the issue, it’s hard to see.”
Not only has grieving gotten easier for Johnson, but he is getting to enjoy life as a father himself. Emma is now five months old.
“It’s great. It consumes most of my day as crazy as that sounds. It’s been life-changing, really,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t be happier to have a family with Kendall and our daughter Emma and everybody. We FaceTime as much as we can. It’s definitely a blessing to have everything I have.”
When home, Johnson takes care of his training earlier in the day so he can come home and spend time with Emma. From playing with toys to simply holding her in his arms, the Californian loves it all.
“You do have to be very selfish as an athlete when it comes to your training, whatever it takes for you to be at the peak of your performance. But once I am done with that for the day, I’m all hands on deck with Kendall and Emma. That’s the best part,” Johnson said. “Even the bad days out there, you come home and see her smile and laugh. It pretty much just erases anything that happened that day.”
It has been tough for Johnson to be on the road, especially because he is away from his family. But the American has also found bubble life difficult, as he greatly enjoys spending time with his friends on Tour, going for dinner with them and so on. Johnson is also a gritty competitor who feeds off the crowd. Although he battled from two sets down against Frances Tiafoe in the first round, fans had to leave in the middle of his second-round match on Wednesday evening against Thiago Monteiro due to curfew.
“The first day when I played a five-setter it was the best atmosphere I’ve played in for months, or a year, probably,” Johnson said. “It was pretty full [against Monteiro] and then it was empty. It was just his two people and I had my coach and a couple of USTA people who meandered in. It stinks, because there was a lot of good tennis played after the curfew.”
Despite the crazy year Johnson has had, he now has an opportunity to reach the fourth round at a Grand Slam for the second time when he plays 12th seed Pablo Carreno Busta on Friday (ATP Head2Head tied 2-2).
“I felt confident going into that first-round match and the first couple sets didn’t go my way, but I just dug deep and just gave myself a chance. That’s what I pride myself on, just give myself any opportunity I can,” Johnson said. “I was able to turn it around and you never know what’s on the back end of these matches if you can just squeak it out. I’m just trying my best to do that one day at a time.”
Win or lose, Johnson is able to keep his head high, as he knows his family is back home waiting.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing in my life that’s more important than my family, so that’s been quite the blessing.”