PARIS -- A year has elapsed since Steve Johnson endeared himself to the tennis world here with the effort he invested in every shot to honor a father lost suddenly and far too soon. He reached the third round at Roland Garros on fumes.
So much has happened since -- quite literally for better and for worse in Johnson's case. He was married in April, a week after successfully defending his title at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston. After match point, Johnson broke down briefly at the net in the arms of the man he had just beaten, Tennys Sandgren, whose own father died several years ago. Sandgren comforted him by saying their dads' pride was still palpable.
It's been a season of fits and restarts for Johnson. He was half of a winning doubles combination that helped the U.S. Davis Cup team advance in February. After a deflating first-round loss at Indian Wells, he opted to enter his first Challenger-level tournament in four years to get more match time before the next Masters 1000 event in Miami. Johnson beat a rusty Stan Wawrinka in his Rome opener but lost in the next round, then played his way into the semifinals of a smaller ATP event in Geneva.
Grief is not a linear process, and the 46th-ranked Johnson arrived in Paris still navigating the balance between being buoyed by memory and weighed down by it. He still reflexively glances into the stands expecting to see Steve Sr., a longtime, widely-admired coach who ran a tennis academy in Orange County, California.
Johnson asked tournament officials to avoid placing him, if possible, on the same court where he played his first two matches last year, a request that has been honored. Johnson credited the compassion of tournament director and French tennis icon Guy Forget -- "an incredible human'' Johnson has gotten to know through Forget's two sons, both of whom have played college tennis in Johnson's native southern California.
"I come here and it's just emotional -- I can still picture being here in these media rooms and on these courts [last year] wearing my heart on my sleeve,'' Johnson, 28, told me this week.
Johnson has won his first two matches here to equal his 2017 performance, the latest a 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2, 6-2 defeat of Germany's Jen-Lennard Struff that pivoted when the American ''buckled down" in a 1-4 trough in the second-set tiebreak.
His next opponent, 2013 US Open champion and longtime top-10 fixture Marin Cilic, is the third seed. Their match is scheduled to be played on Court 1, the intimate showcourt better known as the Bullring, where his run ended last year. Johnson is 0-4 against Cilic lifetime, although they haven't met on clay.
Wherever the stage, Johnson will try to treat it as a normal day at the office, even if it's a new normal. "The most important thing about the last year for me is that we're human,'' Johnson said. "We're not just robots who go out there and play tennis. It's still hard for me to go back to tournaments I know he would have gone to, to look up and not see him there.''