Steve Johnson and Sachia Vickery each earned main draw wildcards into January’s Australian Open by winning a tournament they almost didn’t play.
Vickery, 18, defeated fellow 18-year old Victoria Duval, 6-2 6-3, while Johnson, 23, defeated 22-year old Tennys Sandgren, 4-6 6-3 0-6 7-6(5) 6-1 in Sunday’s finals of the Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs in Norcross, Georgia.
Johnson and Vickery are now into the singles main draw in Melbourne – Vickery’s first appearance there, Johnson’s second – after winning three matches in three days against some of their up-and-coming American contemporaries in the annual indoor hardcourt event that easily could have featured neither of them.
Johnson contemplated pulling out of it while recovering from a leg injury, while Vickery entered the field as an alternate after Melanie Oudin withdrew.
“I was getting ready to go to Auckland, and my coach was like, ‘Well you might get in,’” said Vickery, who called both her mother, Paula Liverpool, and her coach, USTA National Coach Kathy Rinaldi, after the match. “So, I was like, ‘Yeah, we’ll see what happens. If it happens, great. If not, I have qualies.’ … I’m very religious, and my mom always says God puts things in situations for a reason.”
Vickery, ranked No. 195, earned her second straight wild card into a Grand Slam. She won the USTA Girls’ 18s National Championship this summer to gain entry into the US Open, where she advanced to the second round in her Grand Slam debut.
Saying she fought nerves the whole match, Vickery bothered the rangier Duval, ranked No. 168, by mixing up her serve placement, being aggressive and hitting a few down-the-line winners.
Last year, Madison Keys won the Australian Open Wild Card Playoff, using it as a launching pad for her breakout 2013 season. Keys advanced to the third round in Melbourne and is now the youngest player in the WTA Top 40 at No. 38.
Vickery said she didn’t feel any challenge to live up to her predecessor.
“I don’t feel pressure right this second because I haven’t even processed the fact that I won. I’m sure once the start of the tournament comes around I’ll start feeling it a little bit,” Vickery said. “I’m just so happy to be in the tournament. I wasn’t even supposed to be in this tournament. I barely got in. So, I can’t ask for anything else. I’m just happy to be there.”
Johnson, ranked No. 156, could say the same thing. The former Southern California star, who injured his left ankle midway through the fourth set and came back with it heavily taped, faced a match point while serving at 4-5 to the 183rd-ranked Sandgren.
Johnson, who won consecutive NCAA singles titles in 2011-12, hit an ace on match point, came back to win the fourth set in a tiebreak and cruised in the fifth.
“I just kind of ran the best play I could. Luckily, it worked, and here we are,” Johnson said. “That’s just tennis. He’s one point away from winning, and 20 minutes later I’m up a break and trying to squeeze him for another one.”
Johnson lost in the first round of every Grand Slam in 2013. At the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, he lost in five sets.
“I’m excited to finally win a five-set match,” he said. “I’m 0-for-4 in life, 0-for-3 this year, so I’m glad to get one.”