As Steve Johnson pumped his fist, let out an euphoric yawp in the direction of his players box, and began walking to the net to shake hands with Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, sweat poured from the hem of his teal Asics shirt–beaded from the hairs of his beard. The sweat was not only of a symbol of the effort he gave to upset Tsonga in the first round of the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, but also symbolic of the hours the American has spent on the court training to reach a new high point in his career. With the win Johnon became the top ranked American man–surpassing perpetual American number one John Isner in the process.
Johnson has rode his growing success over the past two seasons to new heights this summer. Fresh off a quarterfinal singles run at the Rio Olympics (where he stretched gold medalist Andy Murray to three long sets) and a bronze medal victory in doubles with Jack Sock as well, Johnson looked no worse for the wear in his matchup with the higher ranked Frenchman. Utilizing the power and accuracy of his first serve, he continually gained cheap points against Tsonga. In Rio, Johnson’s forehand seemed to bloom, as he continually would work the ball inside out to his opponent’s backhand then follow that up with a huge flat forehand down the line. He continued to work this approach to his benefit pulling out two set tie breaks with gutsy shot making to garner the win.
The development of Johnson’s serve and forehand has allowed the 26-year-old American to make deep runs in tournaments over the past 18 months, helping him to steadily join the tour’s elite players. Johnson has wins over top tour players like Richard Gasquet, Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov, John Isner, and Kevin Anderson. After ending 2015 with a run to the finals of Vienna and the semifinals of Valencia, Johnson’s momentum seemed to sputter a little bit during the first half of 2016. However, the grass season seemed to revitalize and reward his bigger serve and forehand as he advanced to the quarters of the Aegon Champiohnships, the final of Nottingham, and the Round of 16 at Wimbledon. He has extended his good form with a run to the Citi Open semis and all of his Olympic successes.
Johnson was his typical low-key self when asked about becoming the number one American after his victory over Tsonga. When asked by the Associate Press how it felt to be the top ranked American he said, “it’s an honor, it really is. John [Isner] has held that spot for a while, and I’m just glad that there are a bunch of Americans pushing toward the top.” Although Johnson has established himself in the top 40 in the world for some time now, he has often found himself the forgotten American man. With the likes of Isner, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock, and the new wave of American men receiving much of the attention, Johnson has quietly flown under the radar while building a successful pro career. Johnson is the quintessential all-American guy next door, and also a former real life all-American as a former NCAA singles and doubles champion at the University of Southern California. Although never one to mix words on a subject (Johnson lit up tennis Twitter this past week with comments about Juan Martin Del Potro), Johnson is an affable, hard working sort, whose fierceness on the court never breaks down into negative injury or antics like some of the others of his generation. This steadfastness means he is always a factor to the very end of any match.
Johnson has a tricky last third of the season to navigate if he wishes to retain the top spot and move even higher into the rankings. Johnson has a huge chance to earn points at the US Open and subsequent Asian swing of the ATP Tour as he never advanced out of the 2nd round of any of those tournaments in 2015 leaving him very few points to defend this year. However, he will have to defend his hard earned points from his successful European indoor run last year. Holding his seed at US Open, and one good run at Tokyo or Shanghai would put him very near the top 15 and have him finish the 2016 season with an all time rankings high.
Regardless of what happens at the US Open or following, Johnson is the current top American–an achievement that many tennis experts would not have thought possible when Johnson transitioned from the NCAAs to the pro tour. Johnson’s ability to beef up his weapons, has turned what many just considered an “all-court” game, into one that has the firepower now to put any opponent on tour in a difficult position.