©

Steve Johnson fights through cramp to beat Thomaz Bellucci in a third-set tie-break in the Houston final.

Johnson Fights Off Cramps, Bellucci For Houston Title

American globetrotter wins second title

Fourth seed Steve Johnson has covered plenty of ground in the past three weeks, traveling from the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Miami to a Davis Cup tie in Australia and then back stateside for the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship in Houston. But after countless miles in the air and in his legs on court this week, the American captured the title after fighting off cramps and a determined eighth seed Thomaz Bellucci 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(5). 

“To win on U.S. soil and win when you’re not feeling great is a testament to my willpower and competitiveness,” said Johnson. “My body has just physically run out of gas after this week. Coming in from Australia kind of put me behind the eight ball and then the nerves of trying to close out the final, a lot of factors go into cramping. I was very fortunate to get out of that.”

The win gives Johnson his second ATP World Tour singles title, with his maiden trophy coming this past June on the grass court of Nottingham. He takes home a cheque for $95,495 and 250 Emirates ATP Rankings points.

Bellucci was aiming to become the first player to win five three-set matches en route to an ATP World Tour singles title since Martin Verkerk prevailed in Amersfoot in 2004. He was also seeking his fifth ATP World Tour title and first since Geneva in May 2015. The Brazilian earns a cheque for $50,295 and 150 Emirates ATP Rankings points.

“I wasn’t cramping, but I was so tired that I couldn’t think to win the match. He was a little bit worse than me [physically], but he was playing unbelievably,” said Bellucci. “I’m a little bit sad because I think I could have won, but I’m happy to make another final.” 

You May Also Like: The New-Look Steve Johnson Picks Fish Over Fries

Johnson opened the match by dropping his serve, but regrouped to break Bellucci and level the set at 2-2. Both players traded service holds until the Brazilian blinked first, hitting two consecutive double faults to give Johnson a pair of set points. The American needed only one, grabbing the early advantage after Bellucci sent a forehand long.

Bellucci responded strongly with comfortable service holds throughout the second set and continued to apply pressure on Johnson’s serve. He converted on his fifth break point chance of the set after the fourth seed sent a forehand long. The Brazilian comfortably held in the next game to send the match into a deciding set.

Johnson hit two straight double faults in his opening service game of the final set to give an early break to Bellucci. It appeared that the match would soon be over after Johnson began to experience cramps in his legs down 2-4 in the final set, but the American simply increased the velocity on his forehand in a bid to keep points short. The plan worked as he hit a passing shot winner to set up a break point and ultimately level the match at 4-4.

The cramping intensified with Johnson serving at 5/5, 40/30, and the American appeared barely able to stand. With the crowd cheering him on, he won that point off a return error from Bellucci and the set ultimately went to a tie-break.

“I can think things through even when times are tough,” said Johnson. “I knew I just had to take a few deep breaths and just get enough going in my body to last another five to 10 minutes out there.”

A passing shot gave Johnson a 4/2 mini-break lead and he eventually built a 6/3 advantage. Bellucci saved the first two championship points with winners, but Johnson brought the crowd to their feet with a forehand winner at 6/5 to wrap up the match in two hours and 24 minutes.