Steve Johnson tracks down a shot against Ernests Gulbis on Friday. (Al Bello / Getty Images )
NEW YORK -- Steve Johnson, who won 72 consecutive matches and back-to-back NCAA singles titles to close out his collegiate career at USC earlier this year, is playing at the U.S. Open as if he will be more than just a player struggling to earn points and make it into main draws.
Johnson, who got a wild card into the U.S. Open because of his NCAA singles title, advanced to the third round of the Open with a significant 6-7 (3), 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-4 win Friday over veteran Ernests Gulbis of Latvia, who had won the 2011 Los Angeles Open at UCLA. The 24-year-old Gulbis is capable of both brilliant and eccentric tennis and he played both against the 22-year-old Johnson.
After he left USC as both team and singles NCAA champion, Johnson played the Los Angeles pro event and also a challenger-level tournament in Aptos, Calif., which he won.
"This feels pretty good," said Johnson, who will next play 13th-seeded Richard Gasquet of France. "I had a couple of great weeks leading up to the Open. I got a lot of the nerves out in the first round against Rajeev [Ram] and kind of settled down today as well and was able to play really good tennis."
Johnson said playing, and winning, the challenger tournament in Aptos was important.
"I got a few matches under my belt," he said. "I played five matches in a week and kept building on each one."
Johnson might have played Stanford's Bradley Klahn in the next round but Klahn never solved the clever playing style of the French veteran Gasquet.
But Johnson and Klahn will be seeing more of each other. The two recently decided to get an apartment together near the United States Tennis Assn. training center in Carson. "I think it's going to be great," Johnson said. "Bradley and I have gone way back. We can push each other to stay up here in the pros and do big things."
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