Steve Johnson was at his home in Orange County, California, when everything started to turn. The tennis pro had just finished a grueling workout and assumed he was dizzy because he hadn’t eaten enough before. A few minutes later, she started shaking while waiting in line at a bagel shop. Johnson ran out and took a seat in his car, confused by what his body was experiencing.
“I’m freaking out. I feel like my heart rate is 200 miles per hour,” says Johnson, 31, by phone, recalling the incident that occurred in January 2018.
He went back into the store, but the terrifying symptoms returned. Johnson called her mother and her fiancé and told them that she felt she was having a heart attack and needed to go to the hospital.
Later she found out that she had suffered an anxiety attack.
“Your mind plays a trick on you, feeling like it’s worse than it is,” says Johnson. “That first one was definitely a strange feeling.”
He felt a lot of pressure at the time after losing three of his first four games to start the year. Above all, he was still struggling to process the sudden death of his father, Steve Johnson Sr., who passed away from a heart attack eight months earlier.
Johnson Sr. first put a racket in his son’s hands when Stevie was two years old; the boy used to run around the family yard hitting balloons and beach balls. As a child, Stevie spent long days at his father’s tennis club, the Steve Johnson Tennis Academy, where he quickly became his father’s protégé, winning tournaments against children a few years older than him.
Johnson Sr. left the coaching reins when Stevie attended USC, but was in the stands to watch his son win consecutive NCAA men’s singles championships and finish his college career with 72 consecutive victories in 2012. Four years later, Johnson Sr. celebrated with his son in Nottingham, England, after Stevie won his first ATP title.
“I can remember that moment as clear as day,” says Johnson.
In May 2017, Stevie was at Los Angeles International Airport when he noticed an incoming call from his mother. He replied nonchalantly, assuming she just wanted to wish him a good flight. Instead, he had dire news: his father had died in his sleep at the age of 58.
Johnson was in shock, but continued his season, traveling to Switzerland for the Geneva Open a week later, followed by Paris for the French Open. In an on-court interview after a second-round win over Borna Coric at Roland Garros, he couldn’t contain his emotions. “I didn’t know that feeling was going to come out of me after that game,” he says.
Johnson struggled internally for the rest of the season, but put on a strong face and told everyone he was doing well.
“It’s not easy when you’re trying to portray something that is completely false with what you feel inside,” says Johnson.
People close to him, particularly his mother Michelle, tried to persuade him to speak to a professional. Johnson thought he could figure things out on his own, and he didn’t think therapy would work for him. But in 2018, anxiety attacks began, including symptoms that were particularly difficult to manage during matches.
“The whole ground shakes and the stadium spins,” says Johnson. “It’s definitely not a fun process to go through while you’re racing.”
He became lonely, avoiding restaurants and social engagements, and stayed home for as long as he could.
“I really wanted to be in my own comfort just in case,” he says. “I was always afraid of when the next one would come instead of trying to accept the problem and deal with it.”
Eventually, Johnson gave in to his mother’s insistence and began seeing a psychologist. He had wallowed in self-pity for a long time, wondering why his father had to die at such a young age. Through treatment, he was able to change his perspective. He says that’s when everything stopped snowballing and started heading in the right direction.
“The most important thing was to change that conversation in my own head to how lucky I was to have a father who cared, who I loved, with whom I had a great relationship, all these positive things that I was overlooking because I was more concerned about Why did this happen to me? ”Says Johnson. “A big part of my transition to healing was turning those thoughts and processes from negative to positive.”
Although he has found a way to overcome his pain, Johnson still misses his father. His eyes often wander to a framed photo he keeps in his office of the two of them in Nottingham, hugging after their first ATP title. In December 2020, his wife Kendall gave birth to the couple’s first child, a girl named Emma. I wish she had the opportunity to meet her grandfather.
“I would give almost anything to have my dad here and be a part of this,” he says.
Today, Johnson faces occasional anxiety attacks, but they occur less frequently than a few years ago. At the start of an attack, he tries to calm his breathing as much as possible and concentrates on putting his mind in his “happy place”, a term that he admits sounds cliché. “I go through a checklist one by one and it just calms you down and returns you to neutrality,” he says.
She knows how much she benefited from being vulnerable and seeking treatment, and she hopes her story will help someone who is silently suffering.
“Trying to be the guy where you don’t want help or don’t feel like you need help or can get through this on your own, it doesn’t work,” says Johnson.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.