The extraordinary week of Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson sat on the sand-colored couch in his Redondo Beach, California, home Monday and watched SportsCenter, trying to pass some time before his Anaheim Ducks took on the Calgary Flames.

He could be forgiven if he might have imagined the warm waves of the Pacific Ocean washing over his aching body. Johnson was excited not to be moving.

This is a guy who makes his living careening -- back and forth, up and back -- around a tennis court. But after a dizzying week that included a five-set Davis Cup doubles match in Australia, and an unlikely run in Houston, he wasn't just exhausted -- he was a winner.

"Feels great," Johnson told ESPN.com the day after taking his second-career title, in Houston at the Fayez Sarofim & Co., U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship. "It was an emotional week coming off Davis Cup and a semifinal battle with Jack [Sock]. And then the nerves of being in a final."

That acute anxiety manifested itself in a cruel case of cramping that made Johnson's dramatic third-set tiebreaker win over Thomaz Bellucci even more scintillating.

Serving at 5-all in the third set, Johnson's left leg, his push-off leg for serves and forehands, locked up, and he had difficulty even standing, much less serving. Leading 40-30, he sent a weak offering over the net, and Bellucci inexplicably slapped a backhand return into the net.

Johnson escaped to the changeover chair, where an ATP trainer worked the knots out of his thigh. Cramps are not deemed a legitimate reason to stop play during games. His movement was still compromised in the tiebreaker, but he got through.

The funny thing? Johnson, 27, said those cramps were entirely mental.

"A lot of stuff goes into it, but basically it was the stress of trying to close it out," Johnson said. "At no point was I physically tired. But I was helpless on my serve.

"For me, I haven't quite figured it out yet. I'm not used to being in that situation. But I'm getting better at it, and it was a great lesson learned."

Johnson is the first to admit he's not the best athlete among ATP World Tour players -- but as the Tennis Channel announcers said repeatedly, he is a cerebral problem-solver.

"In my mind, I'm one of the best competitors," Johnson said. "I pride myself on out-thinking guys, finding a way to win. It's all about trusting the process.

"In the end, I found my way back and closed it out. Thomaz was coming off Davis Cup, too, and had to be jet-lagged. He wasn't thinking as clearly as he should."

Indeed, Brazil's Bellucci was coming off two Davis Cup singles wins against Ecuador (one of them a five-set win) and was playing his fifth straight three-set match in Houston -- in five days.

Believe it or not, Johnson's transition to the clay surface in Houston, his clay season debut, consisted of a single practice session.

He landed from Australia late last Monday and couldn't hit Tuesday because it was raining. After finally getting onto the dirt Wednesday -- for the first time in 46 weeks, going back to his 2016 first-round loss at Roland Garros -- Johnson beat, in succession, Dustin Brown, former Houston champion Fernando Verdasco, No. 1-ranked American Jack Sock and finally Bellucci.

Johnson entered the tournament with a career record of 8-17 on clay and had lost to Sock twice earlier this year. Last year, he was an abysmal 1-5 on clay. His other career title came on grass, last year in Nottingham, England.

So where did that come from?

Relating a conversation he had in Houston with 20-year-old American Ernesto Escobedo, Johnson might have discovered the answer.

Escobedo told Johnson that he hadn't planned on playing Houston but received a late wild card -- and entered the tournament at the last moment, with less-than-great expectations. Escobedo made the semifinals, a career ATP first, and the jet-lagged Johnson seemed to benefit from similar circumstances.

"That makes sense," Johnson said. "I didn't come in exactly feeling fresh, but I didn't put any pressure on myself. After winning those first two matches, I realized I could win on clay doing what I do. I didn't need to reinvent the wheel. I just kept gaining confidence."

Johnson is ranked No. 25 among ATP players and finds himself only four spots below his career best. His victory underlined what has been a remarkable resurgence for the United States men.

Although they lost that Davis Cup quarterfinal in Australia, 3-2, Johnson's title was the fifth for Americans this season, which isn't even four months old. That's the most ATP titles for U.S. players at this juncture since 2003, when they amassed six championships (four by Andre Agassi and one each for Taylor Dent and Jan-Michael Gambill).

The U.S. is 5-0 in finals this year; the record was 2-7 last year.

The U.S. has four players ranked in the top 30: Sock (No. 14), John Isner (23), Johnson (25) and Sam Querrey (26).

Sock won titles in Auckland, New Zealand and Delray Beach, while Sam Querrey took Acapulco (beating Rafael Nadal and Nick Kyrgios) and No. 50-ranked Ryan Harrison won the title at Memphis.

Factor in No. 42-ranked Donald Young, and the six top-ranked Americans are a collective 68-36 (.654).

"It's a great problem to have," Johnson said. "It's not easy playing your buddies, but you learn to set it aside. I want these guys to be successful. As a group, we like to push each other."

The 6-foot-2 Johnson, who once played at close to 200 pounds, made a concentrated offseason effort to shed some weight. He's down a few quarts after that taxing week, but said 187 pounds is now a comfortable weight.

"I'm right where I want to be," Johnson said, laughing. "I feel great the way everything is working this year."