At first glance, Connor Johnston looks like your typical California kid.
The blonde hair, blue eyes, easygoing attitude … you could envision him with his surfboard looking to catch the next wave.
“Yeah,” Johnston said, nodding his head, “I’ve gotten that before.”
But this isn’t California. Instead of a surfboard, Johnston has a tennis racket. And he isn’t seeking the next wave, just the next state championship.
Johnston is the No. 1 player in the state and is the 49th-ranked senior in the country by Tennis Recruiting Network, but he still has a degree of anonymity at Northville High.
“If you’re a football player and you’re that highly ranked, everyone knows who you are,” he said. “Most people know I play tennis.”
However, most people don’t know how well Johnston plays.
Johnston, who has committed to Michigan, is the favorite in this weekend’s Division 1 finals in Midland. It is a place that has brought him immense joy — he won the No. 2 singles state title as a freshman — and bitter disappointment — he finished runner-up in No. 1 singles as a sophomore and junior.
Both times, Johnston lost to Novi’s Tim Wang, who is now a freshman at Columbia.
Each time over the previous two years, Johnson and Wang split four matches each year. But two of Wang’s victories came in the state finals.
“He played better those days, I guess,” Johnston said.
Wang believes those losses have driven Johnston to the point where he is 25-0 this fall. Johnston hadn’t lost a set until the finals of the KLAA championship meet.
“In a way, I know that it meant a lot to him, but it definitely helped him,” Wang said by phone from New York. “He was definitely motivated in practices after because we practiced together after. I’ve been following his progress this year, and I think he’s definitely approaching the game with a chip on his shoulder.”
Johnston and Wang have been rivals for 10 years, a rivalry that has developed into a genuine friendship.
“We played each other in the 8-and-under qualifier, and ever since then we’ve been hitting a lot, practicing all the time,” Johnston said. “We’re friends. We hit together all the time. He’s the best practice for me.”
Playing against and practicing with each other brought out the best in both.
“We kind of viewed our competitive relationship as one that we both got better from,” Wang said. “We kind of pushed each other in practices and obviously in the matches because we’re both very competitive. Yeah, it just benefited both of us, and I think we both understood that.”
Boys tennis: Cranbrook has a great shot in Division 3
But Johnston’s first rivals were his older sisters, Chelsea and Haley.
It began when Johnston was 3 and his sisters went for tennis lessons. Johnston tagged along, but only because he didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t long before he grabbed a racket and walked onto the court, much to the chagrin of his sisters.
As the years passed, Johnston competed with them despite the age difference.
“He’s always been athletic, so he wasn’t that bad, but he was eight years younger than me,” said Chelsea, who was a state champ at Northville and played at Grand Valley State. “He picked it up quickly, and he had a very fast learning curve once he really started to like the sport.”
By the time he was 11, Johnston defeated his sisters on a regular basis.
“It was very frustrating because we’re all competitive, but we’re very happy for him, too, because you’ve got to be,” Chelsea said. “We just hoped he turned out better than my sister and I did, which obviously he did.”
When you watch Johnston play, his raw athletic ability stands out. Opponents simply can’t match it.
That athleticism came from his years of playing travel soccer and hockey, where he was a standout in both sports.
“He has always been an athlete, and he was good at anything he did,” Chelsea said. “If he played soccer, he was good at that. He played hockey when he was really young, and he was good at that. You could just tell that anything he put his mind to he was going to really excel at.”
Tennis was Johnston’s best sport, so he gradually devoted himself to it. By the time he was in high school, it was evident his future was in tennis.
“I really started having a lot of success in the transitions from 14s to 16s,” Johnston said. “That’s the biggest transition in tennis, because everyone starts hitting harder and so you either fall off or keep going.”
Johnston kept going and relies on his speed and quickness to do the same in his matches.
“I think I’m pretty fast, so I get to a lot of shots,” he said. “I just try to make them hit one more shot. Keep the rally going.”
Wang can speak to Johnston’s ability to extend a rally to the point the opponent becomes unglued.
“It’s his athleticism; it’s his ability to come up with big shots when he really needs it,” Wang said. “He’s so fast, he’s so steady, and he just would drive me nuts sometimes by just getting every ball back. I think that’s why he’s been so successful this season. It’s really hard to beat a guy like Connor who gets to every ball.”
Johnston also possesses a genuine understanding of the game, allowing him to switch tactics midmatch if he gets in a jam.
“He’s smart,” Chelsea said. “He will change up his game if he needs to. If something’s not working, he won’t do it anymore. He’s also a fighter. He won’t go down without trying everything he has.”
For years, Johnston has given everything to tennis. He lifts weights and runs regularly to be in the best physical shape possible.
But there is more to tennis than chasing down balls and making tough shots. Johnston has learned to win the mental side of tennis.
“I’m very mentally tough,” he said. “I don’t get rattled, I don’t let things get inside my head. I stay strong-headed, I guess. I stay positive.”
It is easy for Johnston to stay positive about his future in tennis. Next fall he will be playing for Michigan, and that could lead to a prolonged career.
“We’ll see what happens in college,” he said. “If I become really good, I can take it farther. But I’m going to Michigan so I’ll get a good education if tennis doesn’t work out.”
More than anything, Johnston wants this weekend to work out when he chases that elusive No. 1 singles championship.
“I want it really bad,” he said. “I’m going to do it. It’s been on my mind a lot. I just have to perform there. That’s all that matters.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.
Boys tennis finals
Where: Division 1 — Greater Midland Tennis Center; Div. 2 — Holly/Fenton/Grand Blanc; Div. 3 — Holland; Div. 4 — Kalamazoo College.