Commentary: Stevie Johnson beats Taylor Fritz in battle of USA at Indian Wells, but can either rise to upper echelon?

Steve Johnson serves to Taylor Fritz during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on Friday.
(Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

The search goes on. Is this becoming a needle in a tennis haystack?

Where is that next great U.S. men’s tennis player, the next Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi? When will we have a John McEnroe to brag about — his tennis, not his mouth? Is Jimmy Connors too old to take some more cross-court swings with that silly little metal racket he once used to beat the world?

Could we at least get to another Andy Roddick, the last U.S. male to win a major tournament? That was the 2003 U.S. Open. Why does it feel like 1903?

Friday at Indian Wells, in the prestigious BNP Paribas Open, brought another sneak preview. Or perhaps, that is merely wishful thinking.


The young Taylor Fritz was playing the still fairly young Stevie Johnson on center court.

Fritz is 21. He lives in Rancho Santa Fe. He is ranked No. 46 in the world. He hits the ball like he’s mad at it. His forehand should be listed as a lethal weapon. When they work his matches, the lines people take out extra health insurance. Oh, yes, on the third point of the match, Fritz hit a serve 144 miles an hour.

“Yeah, I saw that,” Johnson said. “I watched it as it went past me.”

Taylor Fritz returns a shot to Steve Johnson during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on Friday in Indian Wells.
(Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

Johnson is a still-young 29. He lives in Manhattan Beach. He is ranked No. 38 and once got as high as No. 21. He hits big serves and big forehands, but neither strikes the fear of God into officials on court or patrons sitting in the first few rows.

So, who won and how does that matter in the grand scheme of tennis futures? Johnson did 6-3, 6-3. And it probably doesn’t.

Still, if U.S. tennis fans can’t find somebody who is frequently found across the net from the Djokovics or Federers or Nadals in late rounds of the Grand Slam tournaments, they can at least fantasize.

Johnson playing and beating Fritz, on one of the big stages in tennis, is grounds for some discussion, especially because one of the more interested spectators sat in a balcony seat where he could analyze every move, every step of each player.


Martin Blackman is the Director of Player Development for the United States Tennis Assn. His job description says he is in charge of “identifying and developing the next generation of world class U.S. tennis players.” Because Serena Williams is pretty well developed, that leaves players such as Johnson and Fritz.

“It was great to watch a match like this,” Blackman said, “and see two players who are training at our center in Carson.”

So, what did he think?

“Stevie has had, and is having, a great career,” Blackman said, “and Fritz is an up-and-comer. To see them play each other at this level is great.”


OK, and … ?

“I try not to get too involved or talk much about what needs to be done,” Blackman said. “I make sure the process is carried out correctly.”

Interestingly, the process with these two players was strikingly different. Johnson spent four years as USC. Each year the Trojans won the NCAA title, and two years Johnson won the NCAA individual title. The last 72 college matches he played, Johnson won.

Fritz was a junior phenom in 2015, ranked No. 1 in the world in the juniors. He was to be the next Stevie Johnson in the USC program. The Trojans recruited hard. His dad, former tour player Guy Fritz, was encouraging that. His mom, former top-10 women’s player Kathy May, didn’t seem quite as sure. For Taylor Fritz, there never seemed to be a question.


“If I go anywhere to college, it will be USC,” Fritz told a reporter after a 2015 match at the Wimbledon. “But that isn’t going to happen. I’m turning pro.”

With those separate career paths in mind, and with Johnson’s win seemingly built around the controlled strategy of a mature player, conclusions can be reached. But Johnson wasn’t buying in.

“I’ve always given credit to my time in college,” he said. “It’s different for different people. Taylor was winning Challengers [lead-up ATP events] about the time he would have been a freshman in college. Would I have been winning Challengers when I was a freshman? No way.”

After they had served four straight love games early in the first set, Johnson broke Fritz’s serve and, it seemed, his spirit.


“I changed the way I was returning. I tried to just get into the point,” Johnson said. “And it seemed to work.”

Johnson has been full time on the tour since the middle of 2012. He said this year has been up and down, but Friday’s win was a good up.

“I feel like I’m close,” he said. “I feel like my best tennis is ahead.”

Both Johnson and Fritz list Sampras among their idols. U.S. tennis fans would like at least one of them to be Sampras’ successor.


For now, the wait goes on.