Johnson serves up Challenger win

KAANAPALI – Steve Johnson enjoys playing tennis on Maui.

Last year, he reached the quarterfinals of the ATP Challenger Tour event played in Wailea.

Wednesday, he worked three sets to advance to the second round of the Royal Lahaina Challenger.

Johnson, a former standout at the University of Southern California who is currently ranked No. 147 in the world, beat No. 972 Chieh-Fu Wang of Taiwan 7-6, 2-6, 6-1 on the Stadium Court at the Royal Lahaina Tennis Ranch.

“It was tough, he’s a great player, I didn’t really know too much about him walking out there,” Johnson said. “But he has a very big serve, very big forehand. He played very well, got the second set off me, but I got off to a good start in the third which was important.”

Johnson smashed his racket in the second set, drawing an abuse of equipment warning from the chair umpire, whom Johnson also argued with earlier in the set. In the third, Johnson raced to a 5-0 lead, losing only seven points along the way.

“It wasn’t too positive at the end of the second,” Johnson said. “It was good for me to turn it around and go out there and see that it’s all right – I just have to go out there and take care of business and kind of forget the past.”

The 24-year-old Johnson has won two Challenger titles since turning professional in 2012. He has won two matches in the seven majors he has competed in and lost in five sets in the first round of the Australian Open last week.

Johnson reached a career-best No. 97 ranking six months ago.

Wang survived two three-setters in three matches to qualify for the main draw of a Challenger for just the second time in his career.

“In the third set I have a little bit of thinking too much, so I didn’t hold my chance, I didn’t hold my serve,” Wang said. “He is so tough, his serve is so big – a lot of them (you) cannot return very well.”

Today in the round of 16, Johnson will play doubles partner Tim Smyczek, the second seed here who is currently ranked 90th in the world.

“This is not my first time here, but I do enjoy it,” Johnson said of playing on the Valley Isle. “I lost to Smyczek in the quarters last year and I get to play him tomorrow in the second round, so it should be a good fun match and I’m looking forward to it.”

Johnson said he’s faced Smyczek four or five times, but was playing Wang for the first time Wednesday.

“It is always nice to play new people, somebody new, a new challenge,” Johnson said. “It was enjoyable. Tim and I, we hit together a lot, play doubles together – we know each other pretty well, so it should be a good one.”

Johnson said the courts at Royal Lahaina are in stark contrast to the Australian Open.

“It’s great, but it’s just definitely different conditions coming from Australia – it’s so quick there, these are very slow,” he said. “That’s tennis – you have to adjust to different conditions every week.”

* Robert Collias is at