Just this past weekend, we all celebrated Father’s Day. Except some of us did not get to share the celebration with our dads. And when you used to share your life passion – and profession – with your father, even doing your daily work can sometimes be hurtful. I’ve learned this first hand, as some of my work days at the racetrack are not as easy as others, especially around Father’s Day, or around my dad’s birthday.
You never know how someone else really feels, but at this year’s U.S. Men’s Clay Court, I must say I watched Steven Johnson play tennis and while working behind the camera I often thought, “I get it, I know what that’s like.” Weeks later, he said these words to Andrew Eichenholz in an interview for ATP World Tour: “It’s been hard to look at my players’ box at tournaments like the U.S. Open and Indian Wells, because Dad should be there. I don’t look over there for coaching. I just wish my biggest fan was there.” And once again I thought, “I know,” – because I know that feeling way too well.
Ranked high among Houston’s top social events, the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship has been a tradition for 83 years. Tennis enthusiasts from all over the world converge to Texas for the Championship, for a weekly attendance that regularly exceeds 40,000 people. And as for every high profile event, many of the attendees have been tennis lovers for a long time, and sometimes their families have supported the sport for generations – enough to have their own family box on the center court.
Former President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara were among the many tennis lovers who would regularly grace the courts every year, with many of the city’s most prominent residents. Traditionally sponsored by Fayez Sarofim & Co. as title sponsor and Lexus as presenting sponsor, the tournament is also supported by many local businesses each year, including companies in the energy, oil & gas, healthcare, and automotive industry.
The tournament’s beneficiary charity, the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL), supporting development with tennis and education, had an additional special purpose this year. After many areas in Houston were devastated by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the courts at the City Sunnyside Park, where the NJTL programs are held, were flooded and severely damaged. Many of the tournament participants decided to make donations to help resurface the damaged tennis courts, and six players (Steve Johnson, Sam Querrey, Frances Tiafoe, John Isner, and the Bryan brothers) also visited the courts to spend time with the children.
Also for this 2018 edition, for the first time ever, the Tennis Channel was on site for the entire duration of the tournament, broadcasting every match on TV worldwide, and also broadcasting the matches on court 3 on their Tennis Channel Plus subscription.
On center court, the 2018 tournament saw five former champions coming back to Houston: Fernando Verdasco, Steve Johnson, Jack Sock, John Isner, and Ivo Karlovic. Many more big names entered the tournament, including Dustin Brown and Frances Tiafoe, the Bryan brothers, doubles defending champions Peralta and Zeballos, and 10 times doubles Grand Slam champion from Belarussia Max Mirnyi, who is also an Olympic gold medalist after winning the mixed double in London 2012 with Victoria Azarenka.
Steve Johnson, the defending champion, made his way to the final again where he faced Tennys Sandgren in the first all-American final since 2003. For Sandgren, this was the very first ATP World Tour final, a year after his ATP debut, which also happened on the River Oaks Country Club courts. On the day of the final, it was Steve Johnson who got the win, in 7-6 2-6 6-4, becoming the first competitor to win repeat championships since Andy Roddick.
As the match ball hit, everyone on center court saw Johnson bring his fist up to the sky, choking back tears. For him, throughout the matches and the media obligation, it had been a very emotional week. In 2017, when he won his first title at home on US soil, his dad – Coach Steve, or Big Steve as many called him – was sitting in his player box. Barely a month after they had celebrated the Houston victory together, Steve Johnson Sr. passed away suddenly. The 2017 US Men’s Clay Court final in Houston was the last match where Coach Steve saw his son play – and win.
Everyone in Houston missed seeing Big Steve during the championship week, and the Houston tennis family did what it does best: rallied around Steve Johnson to show how united we all stand when one of us suffers. As Steve got to raise the trophy for the second time, it was also a moment for the entire tennis community to honor his father.