NEWPORT — Prior to each one of his matches around the globe, no matter what continent, Steve Johnson takes a moment to reflect.
After his pre-match serves and volleys have been taken, as well as an assessment of his opponent, the 29-year-old Californian will then pause and look to the sky to remember his guiding light, his father and coach, 58-year-old Steve Johnson Sr., who died of a heart attack two years ago.
“I always tell myself to do things the right way, to treat people with respect,” said Johnson, the defending champion at the International Tennis Hall of Fame following his upset defeat at the hands of 23-year-old Chris Eubanks on Tuesday.
Johnson fell in a pair of tiebreakers, 7-6 (9), 7-6 (5), to Eubanks, another of the seven Americans in the field. Johnson is currently the sixth-ranked American on the ATP Tour behind No. 12 John Isner, Taylor Fritz, Sam Querry, Frances Tiafoe and Reilly Opelka.
“If I could change about six points, I’d be No. 30 in the world,” Johnson said after succumbing to 15 aces served up by Eubanks, who won just his second ATP Tour match of the season and the fourth of his brief career.
Johnson ran into a five-month streak of setbacks, including nine straight first-round tournaments losses. After taking his second tourney title of the 2018 season last year in Newport, Johnson lost in the first round of the U.S. Open and matters began spiraling down.
“Every week you have to prove yourself (on the tour),” Johnson said. “Every time that you go out there, you feel as if you have to prove yourself.”
The former two-time NCAA Division I singles champion at USC (2011-12) is currently No 68 on the international ladder, much higher than his all-time best ranking of No. 21 in 2016. Johnson has been ranked among the top 100 players every year since 2014.
Making his sixth Newport appearance, Johnson is trending upward, having advanced to the round of 32 at Wimbledon before losing to Kei Nishikori.
Although he is 10-17 on the tour this season, Johnson is a rare breed among touring tennis pros — with a lifetime won-lost record above .500 at 159-157.
“That’s the game, somebody’s got something to gain, something to lose,” Johnson said Tuesday. “That’s the way it works, I didn’t take my chances.”
The 6-foot-7 Eubanks, from Atlanta and ranked No. 188, was presented with a “wild card” entry by Tournament Director Todd Martin as one of the up-and-coming young Americans.
“Stevie (Johnson) helped me out a lot when I was making the decision of leaving school (Georgia Tech) early,” Eubanks said. “I got his opinion, to hear his situation (coming out of USC). He gave me some good advice. He’s one of the American guys that I look up to.”
Eubanks overcame a 3-0 deficit in the first set and a 5-3 second-set deficit. Johnson knows, all too well, the struggles of being a young player on the tour, having his father nearby for solace, comfort and constructive criticism.
“It’s been difficult,” Johnson said of his struggles. “It’s harder to figure out than ever. That’s tennis. I believe I can get back (to winning and up the rankings), sometimes it’s harder to find it. I’m healthy and life is good.
“I remind myself that tennis does not define me,” Johnson. “This is just a bump in the road.”
In other Newport action Tuesday, 2018 finalist Ramkumar Ramanathan of India outlasted Sergiy Stakhovsky 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-2; 2017 finalist Matthew Ebden of Australia beat Brayden Schnur 6-1, 2-6, 6-3; Denis Kudla topped Bradley Klahn 6-4, 7-6 (6); No. 7 seeded Alex Bublik of Kazakhstan served 18 aces to oust Alex Bolt 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (7); and qualifier Viktor Troicki held off Jason Jung 3-6, 7-5, 7-5.