Southern Californians had a big opening day at the Oracle Challenger Series Newport Beach presented by RBC Wealth Management, with top seed Taylor Fritz and No.4 seed Steve Johnson both advancing in their first matches. While Fritz is from an hour south in Rancho Santa Fe, Johnson grew up not 15 minutes from the Newport Beach Tennis Club. In front of a crowd that included his mother, grandfather, aunt and many local fans, he took out his former USC teammate Roberto Quiroz 6-3, 6-2.
“It’s interesting and tough playing someone you’re familiar with,” said the 6-time NCAA Champion. “Being on the team together, and now touring, you don’t see each other quite as much but are cheering for each other in other tournaments. But it’s fun to see people you’ve been successful with in college on the tour so you can relive those memories. But once you get on the court, you have to put it aside and focus on what you need to do. Sometimes it’s not as easy to play somebody you’re friends with, but it happens quite a bit here so you have to put it aside.”
Johnson had control of the match from start to finish, utilizing his big serve and powerful forehand to keep his Ecuadorian opponent on his back foot. When his back was against the wall, or when he found an opportunity to dig in, he produced his best tennis.
“I thought I served well when I needed to serve well, especially when down break points I’d serve aces or set up easy balls to get out of the trouble. I also played well in return games that I could sink my teeth into and was able to dictate points.”
But after playing at the Australian Open and landing in the U.S. just 48 hours before his first match in Newport, he still may be able to kick into another gear for his next rounds as he hopes to make it to Sunday’s final.
“I didn’t feel great coming back from Australia on Monday morning, but the jetlag is feeling better because I have a purpose. I have to wake up and prepare and get the blood pumping in the middle of the day. Sometimes when I come back, I have a couple weeks off so it’s a bit slow to adjust.”
Another factor that plays into Johnson’s state of mind this week is the wave of emotions that comes with playing at a familiar venue where memories – both bad and good – are present around every corner. Growing up in the area, Johnson played at the Newport Beach Tennis Club a lot as a junior. His father, who passed away in 2017, also had a major presence at the club and is honored every year.
“This tournament brings a lot of interesting emotions. With my dad passing a few years ago – there’s a big memorial for him every year here in November. So there’s a lot more emotion that goes into it for me. Sometimes it’s hard to come to these places and see familiar faces that you don’t see too often, but it’s life and you have to find the positive and make the most of everything.”
But beyond that, Johnson relishes the feeling and experience of playing in front of a crowd who is eager to see him in person.
“It’s fun! It’s a bummer that LA doesn’t have a tournament anymore, so it’s nice to be close to home so my grandparents and mom and everybody gets to come watch. They see a bit of me on TV, but it’s different to see me play in person. Hopefully this game will take me another so many years, but you never know when it’s the last time they’ll get a chance to watch. So it’s fun to have that around. This event is a bit more low-key than, say, Indian Wells, so they get closer and I get to spend a bit more time to hang out.”
The fans at the Oracle Challenger Series Newport Beach are some of the most well-versed in the game, eagerly studying draws for the best matchups and making sure not to miss their hometown heroes. Young and old get up close to the courts and urge their favorites on, and it’s something that Johnson loves to be a part of.
“It’s such a big part of these events. The people here really enjoy the game of tennis – they like to come to these events and see us play live and up close and in person. I can remember being a kid and going up to the guys and I think it’s important for us to know what we bring to the table and how we can grow the game.”
For full results from Day 3, click here.