In his four previous times coming to River Oaks, Steve Johnson had never made it past the second round. Sunday afternoon, the 27-year-old American captured the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship singles crown.
It was no easy feat. Johnson arrived late to Houston after competing for Team USA in a Davis Cup tie in Brisbane, Australia.
After receiving a first round bye, he was pinned against the ever-electric Dustin Brown. The No.4 seed needed 78 minutes to move past the German 7-6(12) 6-4 and book a spot in the quarterfinals.
Next up was 2014 Houston champion, Fernando Verdasco. The American entered the match having never beaten the Spaniard (0-4). One hour and 23 minutes later, he walked off the court a victor, downing his foe 6-4 6-2 to secure a semifinal spot.
Once again, Johnson was forced to face a former champion. This time it was Jack Sock, who reigned supreme at River Oaks in 2015. The pair have quite the on-court history, having won the Bronze Medal together at the Rio Olympics just last year. Prior to their Saturday semifinal meeting, they had already played twice in 2017, with Sock winning both encounters. Johnson needed nearly two hours to oust the top seed 4-6 6-4 6-3 and into the final he went.
Nerves came into play Sunday as the American took the court for his third ATP World Tour final. Across the net from him, a seasoned clay court player, Thomaz Bellucci. The Brazilian has four ATP titles to his name, all of the victories coming on the dirt.
After splitting the first two sets, the men headed to a decider. Serving for the lead at 5-5, Johnson began to cramp. It looked as though the American was down and out, but he continued to battle.
When asked what caused the cramps, Johnson responded, “The nerves of having to close out a title. I haven't been there enough to feel comfortable.”
After a miraculously hold, he struggled to even return Bellucci’s serve and to a tiebreak they went, becoming the first final in tournament history to be decided in a third set tiebreak.
Johnson’s forehand was firing as he rushed off to a quick 6-3 lead. It looked as though Bellucci may force a comeback, but the American was finally able to close out the win, 6-4 4-6 7-6(5).
The title is Johnson’s second in his career, and first on clay.
You better believe the California native will be back in 2018 in the hopes of defending his Houston crown, “I’ll tell you what, this is circled on my calendar for next year.”