Stevie Johnson backhands his way into the Delray Beach quarterfinals.
Stevie Johnson backhands his way into the Delray Beach quarterfinals.|Andrew Patron / Delray Beach Open
Tennis

Stevie Johnson has a backhand and other notes from the Delray Beach Open, plus quarterfinal picks for a Rainy Friday

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

The one great thing about actually going to a tennis tournament and seeing what’s going on in person is that you pick up little things and nuances that the TV doesn't show and most media don't report. That’s what I experienced yesterday.

First let me talk about Stevie Johnson, because I have taken every opportunity over the past fifteen months to berate the guy because he couldn’t hit a backhand. Well, he showed up here in Delray with a new-found two-handed topspin backhand to go with his reliable block, slice, and chip. Not only that, although he didn’t hit it too often, it appears reasonably solid and augments his other backhand shots really well. He used it often enough to keep Jack Sock on his toes, especially in the first set that set the tenor of their three-set match yesterday, and helped enable Johnson to win a match I thought he would lose.

Not only that, but I even heard him thank a ball boy for a ball yesterday (really!), which I’ve never heard any other player do. He’s turning me into a fan.

Johnson won his match with Sock because of that first set win. Sock, who won his first match in fifteen months in the first round here, folded when it counted at the climax of the first set, came back strong to win the second, but didn’t have enough ability or conditioning to fight through the possible fatigue, and faded badly in the third. For Sock the desire is there, but there appears to be more work to be done. Johnson’s win sets up a quarterfinal battle with second seeded Canadian server Milos Raonic, who destroyed Germany’s Cedrik-Marcel Stebe in the nighttime Stadium slot. That should be a good one.

The afternoon match between Americans Frances Tiafoe and Tommy Paul was slightly disappointing. Paul, who I thought would eke this one out, appeared confident early, and even had a set point leading 5-2 in the second, but went down meekly when it mattered, 7-5, 7-6. As he struggled with a 5-2 lead which quickly disintegrated, Paul was even heard to mutter, “I can’t get a first serve in,” after missing three in a row serving at 3-5 in the second. He surrendered as Tiafoe raised his game and used a killer forehand and strategically placed drop shots. Tiafoe particularly impressed with a stunning eyebrow-high forehand, hit with massive pace at 5-6 in the second set, when it mattered.

Tiafoe deserved this win, although I think it also says something about Paul's readiness to compete on the very highest levels of the Tour, as it appears like he needs to learn a bit more about service placement. Where a big topspin serve aimed wide in the ad court, hit with a big loop pushed short in the court intended to push the returner off the court would have worked wonders for the young American, Paul never once tried it. There’s something wrong when a professional tennis player doesn’t utilize a tried and true strategy even once. He has the serve in his arsenal, he needs to use it. It will help him, not just compete, but win.

Watching Paul play Tiafoe, and then follow that up with a doubles match partnering with Taylor Fritz on Court 1, reminded me of a college match. It also showed that the Americans don’t know how to play doubles, and I wonder just how seriously they take it, as their match yesterday appeared like they were using it as therapy after each of their singles’ losses.

Fritz spent pretty much the entire match head hunting. Whenever he got a forehand, and he made sure that was early and often, he’d hit his shot with as much pace as possible and try to hit one of his opponents, Serbian Nikola Cacic or Hugo Nys, the Frenchman who lives in Monaco. This strategy is never a good one for winning doubles, and it failed many more times than it succeeded.

Additionally, Fritz appeared to want to showcase his strong first serve, but never considered that winning doubles comes from getting your first serve in, even if you’re hitting a second serve for a first serve. This winning strategy in doubles allows the server’s partner, the net man, to be dangerously mobile, and the foreign team utilized it correctly. The Americans did appear to be enjoying themselves, however, even as they lost, as they frequently smiled, laughed at each other as if sharing an inside joke, and slapped hands like happy brothers. Through all of that, and the no-ad scoring that presented the Americans myriad chances to break serve that they never capitalized on, Cacic/Nys played strategically winning doubles, and didn’t drop a set. It was very apparent which of these two teams makes their living playing doubles, and which team was just out there for a lark.

And lest I leave out this little tidbit, as most folks rarely get to see players behind the scenes and simply have to rely on the media to report what we see: Ugo Humbert behind the scenes was all smiles after avenging last week’s loss to Serbia’s Miomir Kecmanovic with yesterday’s straight set win. I think the most accurate description of Humbert’s attitude is that he reminded me of an 8-year-old on Christmas morning after he just got the bike he was dreaming of.

On a rainy Friday, it’s the hope that the tournament can get in their scheduled matches, although it appears that the weather might not cooperate. The Bryan Brothers are slated as first on the Stadium, followed by a potentially explosive Tiafoe/Humbert match. At this point, I’d go with Tiafoe. Following that, American Brandon Nakashima, formerly a freshman at Wake Forest who is now in his first professional quarterfinals, takes on Japan’s pesky Yoshihito Nishioka, who keeps getting better and better. My pick here would be Nishioka. Tonight, Soonwoo Kwon of South Korea will try to return Reilly Opelka’s serve, and my guess is that he will not be successful, followed by the Raonic/Johnson headliner. As long as Raonic is healthy, I’d go with Raonic in the nightcap.

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