Peter Smith represents so much more to Steve Johnson than simply serving as his full-time tennis coach.
Smith, the former head coach of the University of Southern California men’s tennis team, is a counselor, father-figure and—most importantly—friend to the 30-year-old Johnson, who Smith helped guide to six NCAA titles while they were at USC, from 2009-2012, in what proved to be one of the greatest careers in college tennis history.
To say the teacher-student relationship runs deep between the two would be a huge understatement.
“Stevie said something the day before his first match,” Smith recalled after Johnson upset fellow American and No. 16 seed John Isner in five sets, 6-7, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, in the first round of the US Open on Monday. “He said, ‘Hey, there’s no one I’d rather have in my corner than you.’ That’s really significant and it’s great to hear.”
Both Smith and Johnson have suffered losing someone close to them, and that fact has strengthened their relationship over the years. When Johnson’s father, Steve Sr., suddenly passed away in his sleep in 2017 at the age of 58, Smith was there to help Johnson through the grieving process.
“We have had many conversations over the years,” Smith said. “It’s something that’s in the past, but it’s always there. There is an incredible history between the two of us and I know what I signify to him. I know he knows exactly how I feel about him, and I’ve told him that; we’ve told each other that.”
Steve Sr. was his son’s first tennis coach and knew exactly when to step aside and hand him over to Smith, placing his faith and trust in the Trojans’ coach when Johnson entered USC as a freshman from Orange County. “He was just so incredibly unselfish with my time,” Smith said. “He had such a love of his child that he stepped aside so that we could have a relationship, and that really is special. I certainly feel a responsibility towards him. Look, I’m not his friend. It’s something much more than that. It’s much more complicated than a normal relationship.”
Currently ranked No. 64 in the world, Johnson has played in 31 consecutive Grand Slams, but has struggled over the past few years to make that next-step breakthrough after reaching a career-high ranking of No. 21 in 2016. He has won just five times over the past nine Grand Slams, with first-round exits in six of those nine.
As it played out, Isner hit an incredible 52 aces in the match, but Johnson never lost his serve.
“Stevie has the ability to focus and handle pressure really well,” Smith said. “He was engaged and really at his best [in the Round 1 match>. I do think John brings out the best in Steve, and that’s a compliment to John. If you just push the ball over, you’re done. John is very aggressive; he’s going to come to the net and he covers the net very well. Every shot has to have a purpose. And if you leave it short, the next shot you are hitting is a passing shot. Steve played every ball aggressively and with a purpose. He got a little frustrated in the first set, but other than that, he really kept his cool.”
Earlier this year, Johnson announced that he and wife Kendall were expecting the birth of their first child later in 2020. Smith said things are great for Johnson right now, both on and off the court.
“I think life throws everybody curveballs and I think this year, especially, there have been more curveballs thrown than anyone has seen in this generation,” Smith said. “I think it’s tough what we are all going through, politically, and socially, and with our health. It’s a really tough time. For us to just go out and compete is a gift.”
Find Steve Pratt columns this month at USOpen.org.