USC’s Steve Johnson aims to rise to Ojai tradition


Friday in Ojai was a day best suited for canvas and watercolors. Also, because it was Ojai, for tennis.

We live in an era where tradition means you did the same thing last year. In Ojai, their tennis tradition runs a bit deeper. This weekend’s tournament, simply called “The Ojai” because that’s all that is needed, is the 112th. Some of the trees surrounding the courts in Libbey Park look as if they were there when this all started.

To be clear, this is no collection of hackers in green shorts and cheap rackets. They have a wall of honor here that lists those who have played at Ojai and gone on to win at least one Grand Slam title in singles, doubles or mixed doubles. There are 85 names — Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzales, Tracy Austin, Dodo Cheney, Pete Sampras, Bobby Riggs, Billie Jean King, Alex Olmedo, Darlene Hard.

On and on. Everybody’s a somebody.

Ojai is where Bill Tilden slept under a tree. It is where Arthur Ashe forgot to change his clock to daylight saving time and would have been defaulted out of the final had not Dennis Jenks’ mother, at whose home Ashe stayed, violated several speed limits through downtown Ojai.

This is where Carl Chang won several times and his little brother, Michael, never did. It is where a pigtailed 15-year-old named Tracy Austin, a year away from winning the U.S. Open, created a battlefield of photographers. Sampras won 14 Grand Slam titles and zero Ojais. A Stanford wonder named John McEnroe was on the bus and ready to head to Ojai when he got a call that he had been given a wild-card entry into a pro event. He got off the bus and never made the Ojai wall. His brother, Patrick, did.

Usually, the essence of tradition and Ojai are the only real stories. This year, it’s different.

Part of Ojai is the Pac-10 championships, now the Pac-12. USC’s No. 1 player is Steve Johnson, who won at Ojai last year and also won the NCAA individual title.

Johnson is a story on several fronts. He entered Friday’s team semifinal match against Stanford — Ojai has done away with individual conference matches and gone strictly to team play — with a winning streak of 58 matches. The last time Johnson lost was in January 2011, a nearly 15-month run. NCAA men’s tennis records are too sketchy to be sure Johnson has a record, but both his father, Steve Johnson Sr., and his coach, Peter Smith, say they have been unable to find any streak approaching that.

That kind of streak has tennis fans projecting Johnson as the next big thing for U.S men’s tennis.

Smith said, “He is, for sure, a top-100 player. After that, it’s up to him.”

Johnson said, “I’ve thought about that, and heard people talk about our men’s tennis going downhill. But if you look at it, there are only three countries winning right now — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.”

Johnson played at Orange High School, always wanted to go to USC and has found it difficult to leave. Faced with the prospect of turning pro after his junior season and his NCAA title, Johnson stayed. Some might call it the Matt Barkley syndrome.

“Life is about memories,” Johnson said, “and USC has given me many great ones.”

The specific reason, Johnson said, is wanting to be a part of a fourth straight NCAA team title for the Trojans. The records on that are clear. It is unprecedented.

What Johnson didn’t say, but what is a current reality in tennis, is that much of the endorsement money that once came the way of young prospects such as Johnson has dried up in the current economy.

Nevertheless, the story just kept getting better Friday. Johnson won his 59th in a row, 6-4, 6-3, over Stanford’s Bradley Klahn and can make it a nice, round 60 in Saturday’s final against UCLA’s Nick Meister. Meister gave him his best run during the streak, but Johnson still won, 7-5, in the third set.

In the weeks ahead, Johnson will participate in his dream fourth straight team title attempt, then try to repeat in the individual event. After that, it will be on to the pros as a new U.S. hope and, perhaps, on to the kind of success that will get him on Ojai’s wall of honor.

All he will need is something easy, like to win a Wimbledon or U.S. Open title.