During top-ranked Southern California’s round of 16 match against No. 16 Illinois Friday morning, an Illini fan opined loudly that the Trojans’ Steve Johnson “doesn’t want it.”
That outburst, said veteran USC coach Peter Smith, was exactly the wrong thing to say.
“Whoa. Not Steve Johnson,” Smith said. “Steve Johnson wants it about as much as anybody I’ve ever met.”
The top-ranked player in the country and the top competitor on the three-time defending national champions, Johnson possesses undeniable court skills, but he’s got a lot more going for him than his ability with a racket.
As evidenced by his play against Illinois, which fell to USC 4-0, the senior Trojan’s on-court savvy aided him in his efforts to wiggle out of jams in both doubles and singles.
In his doubles match with Roberto Quiroz against Roy Kalmanovich and Dennis Nevolo at No. 1, the very demonstrative Johnson made his case against a ball that was called out.
After the head referee got involved, the call basically evolved into a “do over,” which signaled the beginning of the end for Kalmanovich and Nevolo, which lost the clinching match for the doubles point.
In his singles match against Nevolo, Johnson twice claimed his opponent served before he was ready, which led to a long run of points from which Nevolo never recovered in a 6-4, 6-3 loss, which clinched the match for the Trojans.
“It was a little frustrating,” said Nevolo, who has been friends with Johnson for years but had never faced him in collegiate play. “I had a break in the first set and was holding on pretty strong and (Johnson) was pretty tense, which was exactly what I wanted. I had a game point to go up 5-3 and I lost that by missing a backhand by about a centimeter … And he played lights-out after that.”
Illinois coach Brad Dancer said Johnson’s conduct during the doubles controversy had an effect on his coaching.
“I overreacted to that,” Dancer said. “The momentum was in our favor at that time and I made it too big of an emotional deal. There was a major shift there.”
Coupled with his dramatic slides across the court, the bouncing of his racket on the ground and the balls he angrily kicked into the net, and one might think Johnson would be the target of fans’ catcalls on the road.
“If they’re doing that, it’s a mistake,” Smith said. “It doesn’t happen too much. He is who he is for a reason. He’s a competitor, and a competitor wants a challenge. … If that’s what (fans) want to do, I’m all for it.”
The five-time All-American, who has 63 consecutive singles victories and has won 17 straight doubles matches playing with Quiroz, insists his style is designed to aid the Trojans’ younger players.
“I’ve been in this for the last three years and it’s nice to be able to take some of he pressure off the young guys,” he said. “Myself and the older guys know what it takes and we’ll help them get through it.”
Despite being the main target for the top team in the country, Johnson shrugs off having a target on his back.
“I don’t think we should feel too much pressure out there,” he said. “I think it’s the other teams that should feel the pressure because we’re very solid from top to bottom. I go out there with nothing to lose and just play my game.”
USC (30-1) will meet No. 8 Duke (28-2) at noon on Sunday in the quarterfinals. Duke advanced on Friday with a 4-0 victory over Baylor in the round of 16.