NEW YORK -- The court can be a place where players find refuge from their sorrows, but it doesn't afford an escape for Steve Johnson, who is still grieving the unexpected death of his father, Steve Sr., in May.
For the younger Johnson, who won two NCAA singles titles and shared four team championships during a stellar career at USC, tennis holds a powerful association with his father, who coached him for years. Sometimes, it's all he can do to keep his composure and not surrender to the ache in his soul.
"When I go out there it reminds me so much of him that it also reminds me of what we accomplished together," he said. "I don't like to talk about myself, but I'm a pretty good tennis player, and that's a lot of the hard work that he put in and those sweat and tears that we did.
"Some days it's easier, some days it's harder. I just never know until that day comes and that moment of going one way or the other comes and how I deal with it. I'm trying to get better at that."
Johnson looked to the sky in gratitude after his 6-4, 7-6(2), 7-6(5) first-round U.S. Open victory over Nicolas Almagro of Spain on Monday, but that's nothing new. "But now it has a bit more significance with this whole curveball that life has thrown," said Johnson, who had 16 aces. "I know he's proud and he would be here in a heartbeat."
Johnson reached the third round at the French Open and Wimbledon and recently reached the quarterfinals at Winston-Salem, N.C. He lost to Kyle Edmund, who will be his second-round opponent here. Johnson welcomes the rematch and feels good physically, though his emotional state is shakier.
"I feel really good, so hopefully the mental side stays clear and we can go out and execute the game plan," he said. "At this point I'm just playing, trying to compete every point. It's good to just (be) out here and heal and get ready and go through the process of this."
Garbine Muguruza loves New York, but the Open hasn't loved her back. The 23-year-old from Spain couldn't get past the second round in four previous appearances but is considered a prime contender this year after her Wimbledon win, her second Grand Slam title.
On Monday the No. 3 seed took a solid step forward with a 6-0, 6-3 first-round victory over Varvara Lepchenko, a Uzbekistan native who's an American citizen. "I don't believe I'm a favorite here because I've never played very good. I did play good but things didn't go my way," Muguruza said after her first victory at Arthur Ashe Stadium. "I like it here. I love the big stage. I love to go out there and have the crowd enjoy the match."