Johnson uses intimidation, power
USC senior wins record 63rd consecutive No. 1 singles match
ATHENS, Ga. -- Illinois showed up at the NCAA Men's Tennis Championship on a roll, but then on Friday the Illini ran into a top-ranked USC team with a whole lot of fresh hardware, decades of history, and – some might say – a perfect dash of histrionics.
By the time their third-round match ended, the three-time defending national champion Trojans were a 4-0 winner with top-ranked senior Steve Johnson winning his record 63rd consecutive match at No. 1 singles.
That score doesn't hint at some juicy details.
“There's the intimidation factor that they bring having won all the championships in a row,” said Illinois coach Brad Dancer. “The more you focus on that, the worse you're going to play. Maybe that happened to a few of our guys, but for the most part I think USC just deserves all the credit.”
Make that special credit, to Johnson, for turning the tide without swinging a racquet.
The No. 16 Illini (19-8) had the Trojans (30-1) in a couple tight spots in Henry Feild Stadium.
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The teams split results at No. 2 and No. 3 doubles, leaving the doubles point to be decided on court No. 1. Tied 6-6 with no other action ongoing, the Illini were looking for their senior tandem of Dennis Nevolo and Roy Kalmanovich to extend recent momentum against the No. 2 duo of Johnson and freshman Roberto Quiroz.
Illinois had won six consecutive matches after a 13-7 start, upsetting Ohio State to win the Big Ten tournament, ending the Buckeyes' 92-match conference winning streak and halt OSU's six-year grip on the Big Ten tourney title.
Last weekend, while hosting an NCAA regional, the Illini rolled Western Michigan 4-0 and then rallied from a 3-2 deficit to beat No. 17 Auburn 4-3.
Nevolo and Kalmanovich showed no signs of intimidation up to the late tie.
Then, they called a deep ball out, and Johnson objected. Vehemently.
He stormed to the umpire's chair, waving, pointing, fussing and eventually summoning the head referee from the far side of court No. 3 more than 100 feet away. As the decision was made to replay the point -- it was the first of that game -- Dancer grew agitated and became involved.
The Trojans won the next seven points, surrendered one, and closed out the match 8-6 by winning eight of the final nine points to break the 6-6 tie. Was it a Crafty move by Johnson, or merely a commotion that appeared to be something more than it really was?
“He's been around, and he's not afraid,” USC coach Peter Smith said of Johnson when asked about whether gamesmanship was an important part of the senior's weaponry. “He's a talented kid, and he's a talented competitor.”
Dancer was unhappy with himself.
“I overreacted to that,” he said. “The momentum was in our favor ... and I probably changed momentum. That was a big coaching mistake. I made it too emotional of a deal. Our guys were playing well, and they looked like they were controlling the match, and the rest of the way out they clearly didn't. It was a major shift.”
During that doubles match, Johnson bounced his racquet off the court a few times (not that he's the only player to do that), kicked a rolling ball against the fence, spoke occasionally at the Illinois players, hit an out-of-play lob at the umbrella above the umpire's chair (he shrugged his shoulders and turned his palms upward after it hit), and once when coach Smith held out a hand to take back a towel during a changeover, Johnson dropped it on the ground instead.
This is an abundantly talented player, with a huge forehand, fine coverage for a man his size (he's 6-feet-2 and fairly thick), and a blow-torch of a serve. That serve, though, took a while to get cranked up and so did Johnson's ability to impose his will upon a match.
Ranked No. 7 nationally, Nevolo moved to leads of 2-0 and 3-1 in that first set and was serving to go up 5-3. By this time the Illini were trailing or tied on all courts, but that's not what appeared to derail the psyche of senior from Gurnee, Ill.
At deuce, he dropped a second serve in only to have Johnson stand still, watch it, and throw up his hands and say he wasn't ready. Whether he should have been was debatable (when it happened in their second set, it was clear that Nevolo served before Johnson was ready).
The effect on Nevolo, who had to re-do his second serve, was absolutely not in doubt.
He double-faulted with a serve that was nowhere close. That was the first of 15 consecutive points won by Johnson, taking him to a lead of 6-4, 1-0, 15-0.
“It was a little bit frustrating,” Nevolo said. “He was tense and it was exactly what I wanted. I had a [chance] ... to go up 5-3, and lost that and missed a backhand by a centimeter and then ... that was pretty much it.
“He just served lights out after that. It was absurd. I'm not going to blame it on [the extra curriculars]; those things happen all the time. He may have taken advantage of those, or I may have gotten a little spooked.”
The complexion of the match changed dramatically.
“I think Dennis came out with the right game plan. It seemed like he got a little score conscious and played his points differently,” Dancer said. “He lost his aggressiveness, and Stevie relaxed and really started to serve well. Then, you feel more pressure on your serve. Then, you see Dennis come completely out of his rhythm.”
Johnson won 6-4, 6-3 to clinch the match and set up a Sunday quarterfinal against No. 8 Duke (25-5).
If he began the morning uptight about helping the Trojans join the 1966-'69 USC and '95-'98 Stanford squads as the only programs to win four consecutive national team titles, Johnson didn't show any signs once he tied that first singles set at 4-4.
Said Smith: “Stevie gets going, and it's like a train that hard to get out of the way of.”
Johnson sees the express rolling onward. “I think the other teams are the ones that should have to press and feel the pressure against us,” he said, “because we know we're very solid from top to bottom.”