“I feel good. That was about as standard a grass court match as you’re going to get, two guys who served great and played well on their serves,” Steve Johnson said after his 7-6(4) 7-6(1) victory over Vasek Pospisil. We sit in the player’s lounge of the Nottingham Aegon Open. Televisions are dotted around the perimeter of a sea of white tables and chairs. The room is largely empty; after all, the tournament has now reached the last eight. Johnson is one of those final eight. After a slow start to his grass court campaign in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the American has come to have a thoroughly satisfying last 10 days.
On Tuesday, Johnson had made quick work of John Millman, defeating the Australian 6-2 6-2. His subsequent opponent, Vasek Pospisil, represented a wholly different type of threat. “It was a completely different game style to John [Millman],” Johnson admitted. “He’s a fantastic player, [but] maybe grass isn’t his favourite surface so I was able to be a bit more aggressive and dictate more of the points yesterday.” Against Pospisil on the other hand, Johnson was very much focused on executing the basic tenets of grass. “Today, goal number one was to hold as many times as possible and then just try and give him as many return games as I could.”
As Johnson also appeared to concede though, the clash was not simply as rudimentary as that. The American #4 frequently opted for the blocked slice return against Millman. With Pospisil’s propensity to serve and volley, a floated slice was hardly going to nullify Johnson’s opponent and a much more nuanced approach was needed. “He did a great job of mixing up when he served and volleyed,” he said. “Sometimes I think he would stay back, I hit one long, he would come in and it’d be an easy volley. Sometimes I’d think he was coming in, I’d hit it short and he’d have a shorter ball to come in on. That’s tennis.”
It is testament to Johnson’s adaptability then that he managed to overcome the challenges posed by his fellow big server. Yet in the key moments, Pospisil was at times equally culpable in the fate of this match. The most notable instance of this came at 4-5 in the first set tiebreak. Pospisil arrowed a serve down into his opponent’s backhand corner; Johnson could only float the ball into the path of the onrushing Canadian. But with the court at his mercy, Pospisil slammed his forehand volley into the top of the net to gift Johnson the set point that he would gratefully snatch up.
Just a week earlier, Steve Johnson had enjoyed a highly successful stay at the Queen’s Club. He picked up his first top 10 victory of his career in defeating Richard Gasquet, and it took a powerful Cilic performance to halt Johnson in the quarter finals. Although Nottingham’s courts have differences to the grass of Queen’s, it was clear that that match time was greatly benefitting the Californian against Pospisil. Indeed, he felt optimistic that all of his grass court competition was amounting to perfect preparation for Wimbledon. “I’m feeling good,” he said. “First week on the grass didn’t go too well but getting the matches at Queen’s and here, as well as the one I even got under my belt at ‘s-Hertogenbosch have put me in a good position.”
The start of the second set saw a continuation of the opening set’s deadlock on serve. However it was Johnson who was making greater inroads during his opponent’s service games. Any inroads the Canadian attempted were quickly subdued; invariably by a stinging Johnson first serve. The tournament’s #6 seed made 72% of first serves over the course of the clash, whereas Pospisil made only 55% – an integral difference considering how both players’ games essentially revolve around their first service delivery.
However, as so often occurs with the format of tennis’ scoring system, the amount of points won did not correspond with games on the scoreboard. With one loose service game, Johnson found himself facing a 5-3 deficit. But the American claimed not to have panicked. “I just felt like I was playing well so regardless of the second set if it got to a third I’d be okay,” he said post-match. “I played a great game to break, played aggressive, and was lucky to break.” That faith was certainly evident in Johnson’s shot making. The 26-year-old opted to push forward on his returning and strike the ball with topspin rather than his more defensive blocks. He completed the break with a stunning lob over his six foot four inch opponent.
Johnson’s composure held – even after coming under immense pressure on his service game at 4-5, where he also received a code violation for swearing – and a tiebreak was once again required to separate the two players.
Pospisil took the tiebreak’s first point, but from there it was all Johnson. Taking seven points on the bounce, the American simply elevated his first serve consistency at the right time – a critical advantage that he was acutely aware of. “I’m glad to play well on both breakers,” Johnson said. “I don’t think I missed any first serves which is very key in both those breakers.” He will certainly need to be in his best serving form on Thursday, where he will face the impenetrable serve of Kevin Anderson. Tiebreaks should surely be anticipated in that clash.
Steve Johnson only turned professional in 2012 at the age of 22, and the rises of Jack Sock and more recently Taylor Fritz have arguably eclipsed his own rise since. He achieved a career high ranking of #29 back in February and back on the surface that suits his game best, there appears to be no reason why Johnson cannot transcend that impressive ranking with his work at Nottingham and on the biggest stage of all: Wimbledon.