ORANGE — Steve Johnson was affectionately known as "Stevie" when he ruled the tennis courts at Orange High for three years.
Johnson returned to his alma mater Monday afternoon quite grown. He's a professional tennis player, one who is ranked No. 128 in the world and an emerging young talent for United States tennis.
After speaking to about 500 Orange High student athletes in the school gymnasium ("The Dome"), Johnson took to the tennis court to serve to members of the Panthers tennis team.
Johnson, 23, said he has served upward of 130 miles per hour. His serves weren't necessarily easy to return Monday. He made it a point to ace his former high school coach, Pete Tavoularis.
"I returned his serve," said Orange junior doubles player Matthew Trinh. "He was holding back, though."
In terms of giving back to his school, where he won CIF Individuals singles titles in 2006 and 2007, Johnson has held nothing back. His parents, Steve and Michelle, remain very involved in the school's athletic programs. A two-time NCAA singles champion at USC, their son has donated uniforms and shoes to Orange High tennis through his endorsement deal with Asics.
And, in a way, Steve Johnson will give back to his home area again this July when he plays his inaugural season of World Team Tennis for the Orange County Breakers.
"As a tennis player, you don't get too many chances to be on a team," said Johnson, who was part of four NCAA team titles at USC. "Usually, it's yourself, so it's great to be part of a team. I loved 'SC, four years went by so quick, and I was pretty thankful. Last year, I was just coming back from injury when the Breakers started, so I didn't even get a chance to really throw my name in that hat.
"When I got the chance, I said, 'I'd love to do it but I'd love to do it for Orange County, where I grew up.' I love being a part of the team thing, and I'm really looking forward to my time in Newport Beach. [Coach] Trevor [Kronemann] is a great guy and I've known him for a long time … It's going to be a fantastic opportunity for me to go back and play team, play [in front of] friends and family and do well for the Breakers."
Johnson plans to play at the French Open and Wimbledon for the first time before returning to Orange County. On Monday, he seemed very gracious, answering questions during the assembly on everything from practicing with Roger Federer to his relationship status (yes, he has a girlfriend).
"He is a true gentleman, and our students need to see that," Orange High Athletic Director Sheryl Glass said. "Our students need to see that hard work can pay off. If you stay determined, you can accomplish your goals. He gave our kids some good words to show them that after you graduate, it's important to give back as well, and be involved in your community as much as you can. It was a great event. The kids were really lucky to have him out here today."
Johnson said he regretted that he wasn't able to attend any Orange High tennis matches this year. But he always comes back to visit when he can. His impact surely has been felt. Tavoularis said before Johnson came on campus, Orange boys' tennis had not made the CIF playoffs since 1981.
With this year's postseason appearance, Tavoularis said the Panthers have qualified eight of the last nine years.
"He's inspired a lot of kids," Tavoularis said. "My best player from two years ago [Stevie Phifer], who's playing No. 1 at Grossmont College, he told me, 'I came there because of Steve Johnson. I knew I was only going to be playing with him for one year, but I knew he was there.' He provided a lot of inspiration for kids to want to play, and want to do well here."
Johnson could do the same this summer for the Breakers at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center. He's part of a talented team, one that also includes Newport Beach resident Coco Vandeweghe, Treat Huey and Maria Elena Camerin. He certainly is accustomed to the team format, racking up seven All-American awards while playing for the Trojans.
He has adjusted well to the ATP Tour as well. At this year's Australian Open, Johnson made it through qualifying before battling world No. 11 Nicolas Almagro for five sets in the first round. In March, Johnson made the quarterfinals at the SAP Open in San Jose before losing to Tommy Haas.
"It's definitely different," Johnson said of adjusting to the ATP Tour. "We've had the last five, six weeks on clay. I never really played on clay that much growing up, and now doing it on the professional level, it's tough. It's a challenge you kind of have to embrace and learn, because a lot of the tour's on clay. It will be a couple more weeks of that, then I get to try out the grass and go to Wimbledon. I'm really looking forward to seeing Paris and London for the first time."
Being back in Orange County after that won't be too bad for Johnson, either. He definitely remembers his roots.
"I've been back [to Orange High] maybe a couple of times, whenever I do get a chance to be home," he said. "It's been pretty special. You get to see these guys and girls wearing the uniforms, and they're very grateful. They sent me a bunch of cards, and I read them all. It was pretty cool that I was able to give back. I played here for three years and I loved every minute of it, so I was definitely hoping to give back one day. I was glad I was able to do so."