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Rio a real opportunity for Steve Johnson to break through

RIO DE JANEIRO -- If you're a casual sports fan, aware of tennis only through the likes of Serena, Roger or Novak, you hear the name Steve Johnson and one word springs to mind: Who?

But as the Olympic tennis tournament heads toward its final stretch here, the 26-year-old American realizes the chance a stage like Rio provides. It's a chance to make his name stand out.

"It just doesn't get much bigger than this for me," he said, sitting under the stands at center court here on a day when all matches were suspended because of rain, including both of Johnson's scheduled matches.

The bearded right-hander with a booming serve and a hard-spinning forehand has slipped quietly under the radar here. He is suddenly a few victories away from winning medals in both singles and doubles. In the singles round of 16, he is the favorite to win against Russian Evgeny Donskoy on Thursday. In doubles, Johnson and partner Jack Sock have served their way into the semifinals. They're a strong enough tandem to have a solid chance at gold.

"To be in my first Olympics and in this spot right now, to have [two medals] an attainable goal in the next four or five days, it's something truly remarkable," Johnson said.

Beyond his next singles match, Johnson understands that his draw is extremely rough. His opponent in the quarterfinals would likely be Andy Murray. But having toiled first in the American college ranks before rising slowly through the unforgiving ATP World Tour, Johnson is not the type to back down. "Anything can happen," said Johnson, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 21 just a few weeks back. "It's men's pro tennis. Nothing is set in stone."

Tennis is as top-heavy a sport as there is. All the attention goes to the top stars. The stories of the strong but not spectacular players are often skipped over. They are generally seen as early-round Grand Slam fodder for the biggies. Rio provides a real opportunity for someone like Johnson, who might have been left off the U.S. team if two higher-ranked players -- John Isner and Sam Querrey -- had not opted out of the Games.

Johnson shares little with a high-tensile star such as Murray, one of the biggest names in global sports. Murray turned professional as a teen and has won $49 million in prize money and 38 titles, three of them Grand Slams.

In four full-time years on tour, Johnson has one singles title and $2.5 million to his name. But he is unbothered by his comparatively paltry résumé or his late start. "I was not ready at 18," he said. "If I turned pro at 18, there is no way I would be here now. I had so much to learn. I found a love for tennis and the work ethic I needed in college."

Little-known fact: Johnson isn't just the rare top-100 pro tennis player who played college tennis for four years. He's the most decorated player in men's NCAA history. At USC, he won four Division I team titles to go along with two singles championships, and he strung together what is almost certainly the longest winning streak in college tennis history: 72 matches.

"He has probably the most gifted right arm I've ever seen," said his former USC coach, Peter Smith, who knows something about the subject matter. Smith was a frequent practice partner for Pete Sampras when the eventual 14-time major champion was on the rise.

Johnson -- 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds -- entered the wily world of pro tennis in 2012. It took him two years to make it into the top 100. But he stayed at it. Last summer, he was No. 49. This year, he won his first tournament, on the grass at Nottingham, England. A few days later, he faced Federer in Wimbledon's round of 16. It was a 6-2, 6-3, 7-5 loss, but it also taught him much.

"OK, now I get it," Johnson said of Federer. "You realize when he hits these shots and finds his way out of tricky situations with such ease, that's just what he does and why he's arguably the best ever."

Can that kind of match -- a learning experience against an all-timer on the biggest stage -- translate into more success here at Rio?

He'd like to think so. "A perfect world means getting gold," he said.

Is that realistic for a guy with his pedigree?

"Why not?" he said.

A necessary answer, and just the proper attitude for a little-known righty trying to make his name stand out.