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Steve Johnson, former USC star who recently lost his father, breaks down after French Open victory

Former USC star Steve Johnson cries after winning a second round match at the French Open against Borna Coricon May 31.
(Tatyana Zenovich / EPA)

Steve Johnson held everything in, all of it, until he simply could not any longer.

Still mourning the recent death of his father, a tennis coach who helped Johnson learn the game back home in Orange County, the 25th-seeded American didn’t allow the jumble of feelings show outwardly. He didn’t permit them to affect his ability to smack a tennis ball, either, and managed to edge Borna Coric 6-2, 7-6 (8), 3-6, 7-6 (6) and reach the French Open’s third round.

For nearly four full hours Wednesday, Johnson stayed the course, over and over, even as the on-court particulars grew complicated. He managed to be OK even after his initial four match points slipped away.

And even when he was docked a point by the chair umpire for what an incredulous Johnson considered an innocuous extra hit of the ball deep in the fourth set. And yet , when Coric twice was a point from forcing a fifth set.

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Only when, on his fifth chance to end things, Johnson delivered a clean forehand winner to seal the victory, did he let go, dropping onto to his knees near the baseline, his chest heaving, his eyes filling with tears.

“I have no idea what happened after I hit the forehand. I just kind of collapsed and, emotionally, it got the best of me,” said Johnson, who faces No. 6 Dominic Thiem next. “The other days, I was able to kind of get to the locker room and kind of compose myself a little bit. Today was just such an emotional match. A long match. Up and down. Just to get through it was something that I know I’ll be very proud of.”

Steve Johnson Sr. passed away three weeks ago. 

“I know it’s going to be emotional for quite some time. Who knows how long it’ll take? I just know he’s with me. He raised me to be a competitor and a fighter to the last point. And that’s what I try to do with my tennis,” said the 27-year-old Johnson, who won two NCAA singles titles and four team titles at USC. “I may not be the best tennis player. But there’s not going to be a day where I’m just going to let you win. I’m going to try and give it my best.” 

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There were other winners and losers, of course, on Day 4 of the French Open, but nothing quite so poignant. 

The 12th-seeded Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga left meekly, eliminated 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-4 by 91st-ranked Renzo Olivo of Argentina after only one game Wednesday in a match suspended a night earlier because of darkness. It was 2008 Australian Open runner-up Tsonga’s first loss in the first round in Paris since his debut 12 years ago. 

“Last week, I won my first-ever clay tournament,” Tsonga said. “And today, I lost at the French Open. It’s the paradox of tennis.” 

No call for such reflection from those who advanced, including defending champion Novak Djokovic and nine-time champion Rafael Nadal among the men, and defending champion Garbine Muguruza, former No. 1s Venus Williams (whose pregnant sister Serena was in the stands) and Caroline Wozniacki among the women. 

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There were a couple of surprises: No. 6 Dominika Cibulkova was beaten 6-4, 6-3 by 114th-ranked Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, and 18-year-old Californian CiCi Bellis defeated No. 18 Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands 6-3, 7-6 (5). 

Two-time major champion Petra Kvitova, who needed surgery on her left hand after a knife attack at her home in December, bowed out in the second match of her comeback, a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5) loss to American qualifier Bethanie Mattek-Sands. 

“It’s weird. I mean, I’m disappointed, for sure. I came here to win the matches,” Kvitova said. “The fairy tale ended. Now, in upcoming weeks, I think it will be business as usual.”

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