Luke Johnson loves life in America and the advantages it has given him both on court and in the lecture hall. Lee Sobot reports.
FOR any young British tennis player, Andy Murray clearly presents the idealistic long-term vision.
Leeds-born hitter Luke Johnson admits the world no2 is “inspirational” and dreams of following the Scot to Grand Slam glories.
Yet it is John Isner, Kevin Anderson and Steve Johnson providing the immediate fuel in the fire for Johnson in his final year in America before turning pro’ back in England.
Isner, Anderson and Johnson are three of the most successful young tennis stars to have graduated from the US college tennis scene and make the grade in a big way on the ATP World Tour.
Isner, aged 30, is the current US no1 and world no12 while 29-year-old South African star Anderson – who beat Murray in 2015 US Open – sits just two places lower in the ATP world rankings.
Johnson, 26, is the current US no3 and is another player on the rise, currently ranked 30th in the world.
And all three are providing the inspiration for 21-year-old Yorkshireman, Johnson, who has swapped life in Leeds for the sunshine of South Carolina at Clemson University.
Not that the American adventure is any holiday for the former Grammar School at Leeds student, who has held the ambition of studying in the States since he was a 10-year-old.
Johnson’s 26-year-old sister, Kim, was also a hugely promising junior who ultimately chose not to pursue her tennis career and, instead, studied at Loughborough University now works for the Rugby Players Association in London. Her ‘little’ brother, though, has every intention of fulfilling his very highest tennis dreams and believes firmly that embarking on the American dream has given him the best chance of succeeding.
Johnson is in the final year of his four-year degree to obtain a bachelor of science at Clemson – but the degree is designed purely as a back-up.
And life is certainly gathering pace fast for the Yorkshireman who has even netted himself an American girlfriend in fellow Clemson student Sam.
In an exclusive interview with the Yorkshire Evening Post, Johnson explained: “When I finished playing junior tennis and finished my A-levels there’s two options really for a junior tennis player turning into the adults.
“It’s either turn professional or go to America and try and improve your skills there.
“I just felt, personally, that I wasn’t quite mature enough physically to go on to the ATP Professional Tour and make a good shot at it.
“I felt that the average age of professionals in the men’s tennis game was getting a lot older so I thought I had a chance there to go on a scholarship so I would not be losing all my money.
“That way I could build up my physical side and improve my game while I am there and then get a degree at the same time.
“For me, I thought it was the right choice.
“There was the other choice of going right into the professionals but then if that doesn’t work out you lose a lot of things.
“You lose a lot of time and a lot of money.
“You’d start off on the lower levels below the very top so you’d start on the Futures which are actually ITF and then after the Futures you go up on to the ATP Tour.
“The Futures is the lowest level but prize-money is not great in that.
“The LTA do support some players but I just thought even if the LTA were to support me, I still didn’t feel like I was really ready.
“I would have taken a lot of time to get to a good physical level where I would have been able to really have the best go at playing on the Tour and doing well consistently.”
A clear vision. And the former Fulneck Primary and Greenhead College pupil has a clear blueprint as to how he hopes to smash his aims.
The Leeds ace will graduate from Clemson in April and then spend the summer working in New York to raise funds before returning to England in September to the Roundhay home he shares with dad, IT software worker Julian, and mum Cathryn – a PE teacher at the Grammar School at Leeds.
Sport clearly runs in the family genes and Johnson hopes to make gradual progress when embarking on the ATP Futures tour from the autumn onwards with the help of his coach.
Johnson explained: “I’ve got a coach for when I come back, Dave Sammel, who lives in Ilkley and is based in Bath. He has coached most of the top 100 men’s players in Britain.
“I’ll do some of the training in Bath but I will still live in Leeds.
“With him we have got goals for my ranking at the end of each year but my ultimate goal is to get into the top 100.
“Once I get in there then I have just got to keep moving up and I want to be the best I can be.
“Once you get into the top 100 it’s a different ball game. You have to really get there and then you will know how high you can go.”
Just two Brits feature in the current world’s top 100 with Aljaz Bedene the closest pursuer to Murray at world no50. Beverley’s Kyle Edmund is ranked 102, ahead of James Ward at 157, Daniel Evans at 174 and Brydan Klein at 192. Liam Broady is next at 313.
Johnson explained: “I had a ranking before I went to university because you can play the professional tournaments, so I had a ranking before.
“Once I went on to the university circuit that ranking obviously disappeared after a year of inactivity on the professional circuit.
“I’ll be going back in unranked and you try and work your way up the rankings by winning matches in tournaments.
“Realistically, to get into the top 100 it probably takes three to four years but you have to start the progression and you want to be probably inside the top 700 or 800 in the world after the first year out of college.
“Then you just keep working up from there afterwards. To make a good, decent living I would probably say you want to be in the top 250.”
A degree would also give Johnson a decent living, yet the ambitious and determined Yorkshireman hopes his bachelor of science will merely be there as a fall-back option.
Johnson, who made the semi-finals of the English Under-18s Nationals in his junior days and finals of the doubles, beamed: “There’s been a huge improvement since I have been in America; we do around four hours a day. A lot of the top Americans, they go to university and then go on the professional tour. I have moved up in my team position every year and then this year I will be playing no1 and 2 on my team in singles and no1 in doubles. I will be playing against the best competition in the country and the team should finish in the top 20 this year.
“There’s nine guys on my team at the moment and each team has probably eight or nine guys on a team and all of them, or the majority of them, have hopes of playing on the professional tour afterwards. Or at least all of them are at the level where they could have a good shot.
“There’s definitely ways you don’t make it such as injury but for me that’s also the plan of going to college. I am playing tennis because I enjoy it and that’s what I want to do, not because I have no other choice.
“I’ll have a degree that I will be able to use but I don’t want to use it – I want to be a professional tennis player. I want to be the best in the world, that’s what I’m dreaming of becoming.”