PINEVILLE -- History is staring Charlotte Catholic boys tennis star Kyle Johnson squarely in the eye.
Johnson has won three straight N.C. 3A individual state championships. No N.C. boys tennis player has ever won four.
Johnson, a senior signed to DePaul, begins state championship play Friday morning at the Burlington Parks and Recreation Center. And he says he does feel the pressure.
Aw man, he said, I think about it. I try not to show it, but I hope it doesnt get to me. I feel pressure and no one is putting bad pressure on me. A lot of my friends are joking about it. But winning three (state titles) is still pretty good, but I dont want to just be satisfied with that. I want to give it my all, so the pressure is motivation, too.
Johnson is 15-0 in singles play this year and his career record is 85-7. This season, he has not lost a set.
In this years N.C. 3A regionals, the qualifier for todays state finals, Johnson lost two games in four matches against some of the best competition in the western half of North Carolina.
And this was after missing most of his preseason work while he recovered from a knee injury.
Johnson was playing rec league basketball at the end of January when he was fouled hard going for a layup. His knee hyperextended and the pain was immediate. So was the swelling. Johnson feared he might have a ligament tear that might require surgery and end his tennis season -- and his chase for history -- before it even got started.
But after a few days on crutches, a lot of ice and plenty of nervous thoughts, Johnson was diagnosed with a fractured kneecap and was out until March. He missed weeks of practice and tournaments, and Johnson is a guy who regularly practices three hours a day.
Unable to take the court, Johnson hit the weight room.
I was so mad at myself because I put so much into tennis, Johnson said.
Johnson started seriously playing at nine years old. His mother is from El Salvador, a small and densely populated country in Central America. In the summers, she took Johnson there where he learned to play, spending time at a tennis club there from the time he was five.
At home in Charlotte, Johnson was always a soccer player, playing on elite level youth teams, until one day, he begged his father, Kyle Sr., to take him out to hit tennis balls.
Kyle Sr. played No. 1 singles in high school and nearly played in college at Hampden-Syndey, a private Division III school in Virginia, but he decided to run track and cross-country instead.
One day, Kyle Sr. said, he came in and said, Dad, I want to play more tennis.
Kyle Sr. had to borrow tennis clothes and tennis rackets to go out, but one thing he noticed rather quickly about his son: little Kyle could really smack the ball around.
In the fall of 2004, Kyle Sr. signed up his son with the U.S. Tennis Association, so he could play in some local events. Kyle Jr. won his first tournament in September 2005 and soon gave up the youth select soccer he was playing. Not long after, Kyle Jr. was winning five tournaments a year. He began traveling to get better competition by the time he was 13.
Johnson has won some prestigious regional events and has reached the semifinals of a national event, the Southern Open in 2009. Hes also participated in some summer events where top high school players get to play with college players.
In 2010, he got to the final of such an event at UNC-Greensboro, beating a Tennessee player who had finished second in the NCAA championships the previous season. Last summer, Johnson played in a similar tournament at North Carolina that had 64 players, including a Notre Dame star who beat Johnson in the semis.
And this season in school tennis, Johnson won his fourth straight conference singles championship and was named conference singles player of the year for the fourth straight time. Hes added a fourth straight regional championship to go with it.
Now, all thats left is history.
I like to attack a lot with the forehand, Johnson said. I wait for my opportunity and as a result of working out, Ive gained some muscle and my serve has become a weapon and thats led to some quicker points. I can stay in points as long as I want to. Im in good shape now, too, not like right after the injury.
Now, I really just want to take charge.