At Charlotte Catholic seven years ago, Kyle Johnson made history.
As a senior in 2011, Johnson became the first player in N.C. High School Athletic Association history to win four straight state championships.
That same year, was named the United States’ Tennis Association’s (USTA) high school player of the year. He seemed destined for stardom.
But after an up and down college tennis career at DePaul University – where he was 43-48 in singles’ play and 29-33 in doubles’ play -- Johnson believed his days as a “serious tennis player,” were over.
Johnson’s college tennis career essentially ended late in his senior year when he was hospitalized with a foot injury that turned out to be a staph infection.
“At that point, Kyle (Johnson) was ready to move on and planning to still play tennis, but not on any serious level,” said Kyle Johnson, Sr., his father.
Johnson Jr. allowed himself to imagine a future without competitive tennis.
“You hear about what all your friends are doing after college for jobs, and I wanted to do something (job) that was secure,” Johnson, Jr. said. “I was really scared to fail at that point, and I would think about going for my dreams (future tennis career) and get really sad. I would force myself not to think about my tennis career.”
After graduating from DePaul in June of 2016, Johnson took a job as a full-time, tennis professional at Lakeshore Sports & Fitness in Chicago, where he primarily taught the game in lessons and clinics. He also leased an apartment in the Wrigleyville neighborhood.
Johnson still played in the occasional tennis tournament, actually winning the Midwestern Regional doubles’ title and getting to the semifinals of the East Bank Club championship in singles that same summer.
But just three months later in September (2016), Johnson was offered a job as an operations’ analyst in Bank of America in Charlotte.
He decided to come back to his hometown and take the job.
Johnson immediately immersed himself in his new work, playing very little tennis.
Johnson, Sr., says the only time Kyle, Jr. would pick up a racquet was when he working out with East Mecklenburg High’s Nikhil Sandagopa, who is now the Eagles’ No. 1 player.
“I was just focusing on work (at Bank of America) and I gained a lot of weight, got up to about 200 pounds,” said Johnson, noting that was about 30 pounds heavier than usual. “I wasn’t taking my health and fitness seriously, because I was still trying to move on from playing tennis. I didn’t even want to get the desire to play tennis back. It was too painful at that point.”
Getting back on the court
While tennis seemed to be fading from Johnson’s life, he still received invitations to play in various leagues and tournaments.
In the spring of 2017, Johnson decided to play in the Charlotte Pro League, which features some of the top players in Charlotte from college players, former college players and club professionals.
Johnson had enough success in the Charlotte Pro League to start thinking about playing tennis more regularly. He not only got back in shape, but starting finding the passion he had for tennis, again.
“From that moment on a lot of people (good tennis players) were telling him how good he was,” Johnson, Sr. said. “And he was very unhappy with job with the bank.”
Just a few months later in mid-August, Johnson decided to quit his job at the bank and give his lifelong dream of a professional tennis career a shot.
About that same time, Johnson spent the day with father at the PGA Championship (golf tournament) at Quail Hollow Club.
One player he was particularly interested in watching was Jordan Spieth, who is the same age as Johnson, now 24.
Johnson actually briefly talked with Spieth walking down the fairway on one hole, and found motivation from watching the PGA professional do his thing on the golf course.
“Seeing Jordan Spieth out there was very inspiring, because here’s a guy who is the same age is me, living out his dream,” Johnson said. “…I thought I was wasting my God-given talent working with the bank.
"…Another thing that really opened my eyes is that I took a trip to London (about same time) to visit a friend and took a step back. That trip (which including watching play at 2017 Wimbledon tournament) pushed me to follow my heart. I came back and quit my job two weeks later.”
Johnson immediately started working with Charlotte Country Day tennis coach Calvin Davis, who also runs his own tennis academy, Tennis Advancement program (TAP) training a lot of top junior players in the area.
Johnson has also worked tirelessly to get back in shape, and is now much closer to his where wants to be at 5-foot-11, 162 pounds.
Johnson officially started his professional tennis career in a series of International Tennis Federation (ITF) Futures’ tournaments in October in Birmingham, AL, Niceville, FL and Pensacola, FL.
His goal in those three tournaments was to get his feet wet with no expectations.
While Johnson did make the main draw in three tournaments, he won a few qualifying matches, giving him confidence going forward.
“After playing his those first three (pro) tournaments, Kyle was like ‘Wow, I can do this,’” Johnson, Sr. said. “But it also revealed the level of tennis that he would have to play to get where he wants to go.”
The struggle is real
Johnson played in a few more events in 2017, including trips to Pinehurst and to the U.S. Indoor Nationals in New York City to finish out the year with no great results.
While he was a bit discouraged with his play, he was also frustrated trying to change racquets to start the 2018 season.
But just when everything seemed to going wrong, Johnson started playing better, winning the Southern Men’s Open in Asheville, the Seagull Open in Salisbury, MD, and the Banana Open in Charlotte (at Olde Providence Racquet Club) before getting to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Clay Court Nationals at the Jimmy Evert Tennis Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., May 12-15.
Johnson won 14 straight USTA tournament matches from Asheville to his loss in the U.S. Clay Court Nationals.
“To have a win streak like that is great,” said Johnson, who also spent five weeks playing and training in Egypt in March, making the trip with former Wake Forest No. 1 David Hopkins. “But honestly, I didn’t even know about it (the streak) until my dad told me. As a tennis player, you try not to overthink things, you try to live in the moment.”
While Johnson won the Olde Providence Club championship, June 6, he has not played his best tennis most of the rest of this spring and summer, struggling in recent tournaments in Winston-Salem and Lynchburg.
Living the dream
Johnson admits the ups and downs of his professional tennis career have been tough.
But he tries to remember that less than a year ago, he was out of shape and barely even playing tennis.
While Johnson has still has a long way to go to accomplish his professional tennis goals, he is happy to be taking his best shot at living a lifelong dream that all started when he learned to play tennis in El Salvador, when visiting his mother (Lisette Hasbun) in the summers.
Ironically, this summer, Johnson’s job is playing tennis.
While the struggle with his swing, his confidence and his game, both mentally and physically, is a weekly battle, Johnson says it’s all worth it.
“I always try to look at the big picture, and where I was a year ago, I thought I never had a chance to be a professional tennis player,” Johnson said. “To be able to prove to myself that I made the right decision to give this a shot is great. I seriously never thought I was going to be here. I thought never in a million years would I be out here playing professional tennis.”
▪ The Powerade Invitational 7-on-7 Invitational will be played July 12-14 at Matthews Sportsplex. It will feature 42 high schools from 17 states, including regional powers from Vance, Rock Hill South Pointe and Shelby.
Here are states represented: Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington, DC, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina & South Carolina.
Each team will play a minimum of nine games, and there will be more than 1,200 athletes. The event is free for invited team and $5 for fans.
POWERADE will provide jerseys and a gift items for each team along with the following prizes:
First Place: $15,000 uniform voucher from BSN Sports
Second Place: $7,500 voucher from BSN Sports
Third Place: $5,000 voucher from BSN Sports
Fourth Place: $2,500 voucher from BSN Sports
Key teams committed thus far are: Phillips (IL), Bishop Sullivan (VA), Vance (NC), Rock Hill South Pointe (SC), Oakland (TN), Dutch Fork (SC), Male (KY), Shelby (NC), Hoggard (NC), Summerville (SC), Bryant (AR), Meridian (MS), Central (AL), Woodrow Wilson (NJ), Vero Beach (FL), Johns Creek (GA), Cedar Grove (GA), Kenton (OH), Bluefield (WV), Woodson (DC) & Brownsburg (IN)
▪ The Football University (FBU) Top Gun Showcase returns to South Pointe High School (801 Neely Rd., Rock Hill, SC) for its annual national showcase event on July 8-14. FBU Top Gun is considered the largest national showcase event in the U.S., and features some of the best middle and high school student athletes from across the country. The High School Showcase will take place July 8-10, and the Middle School Showcase July 12-14. The Specialists Showcase will be held on July 11-12 featuring Rubio Long Snapping and Chris Sailor Kicking.
▪ Charlotte Catholic Billy Hambrook, 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds, has committed to Villanova. A rising senior, Hambrook chose Villanova over Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina, Elon, Richmond and William & Mary.
He was a part of 2017 Cougars offensive line that paved the way for a N.C. state championship and nearly 6,000 yards total offense.
▪ Charlotte Catholic rising senior wide receiver and cornerback Brian Jacobs has committed to Davidson.
▪ Hough High quarterback Kennique Bonner-Steward has committed to Temple. Bonner-Steward was All-IMECK 4A last season when he threw for 2,494 yards and 24 touchdowns. He ran for 616 yards and 13 scores, setting single-season school records for most touchdowns and total yards.
The ugly side of youth basketball came out last week in the Atlanta-area, where a huge brawl broke out in girls AAU game at Langston Hughes High School. It began when a 13-year-old girl, Jamiah Gregory, was fouled and an adult came out of the stands.
Gregory suffered a concussion.
“It was complete chaos,” parent Crystal Henderson told WSB. “I’ve never seen anything like this. … The spectators in the stands were actually jumping in on this kid.”