It was 9 o’clock at night, and the stadium at the Costa Rica Country Club was packed with more than 3,000 fans.
Then-17-year-old Campbell Johnson stood opposite the Venezuelan Ricardo Rodriguez to battle in a televised night match at the annual Copa Del Cafe ITF tournament.
In front of a sea of Costa Rican spectators, Johnson and Rodriguez opened up competition play.
Johnson found his rhythm early on in the match and clinched a difficult back-and-forth first set, hitting swift backhands and returns to conquer Rodriguez’s serves.
Johnson continued his momentum and led 2-1 in the second set, but the match was postponed due to rain.
Rodriguez eventually topped Johnson the next morning in three close sets. But playing at the Costa Rica Bowl as a teenage tennis player was an experience Johnson will never forget.
With thousands of cheering spectators, it was the first time Johnson felt like a professional tennis player, and he loved that feeling.
“It was a really cool experience,” Johnson said. “They pretty much treated us like pros.”
Ever since Johnson discovered his tennis prospects at the age of 14, he has poured his life into the sport.
He has been living and breathing tennis all these years, and he continues to do so at Cal.
It’s worked for him so far.
On the surface, Johnson looks like a typical Southern California boy from San Diego.
With his tall frame and blonde beach-boy haircut, it’s almost too cliche how much he misses the sunny weather and surfing the blue waves of the San Diego beaches with his brothers.
Perhaps Johnson could have embodied a normal SoCal lifestyle for the rest of his life. But when he turned 14, Johnson’s life took an unconventional turn.
At 14, Johnson discovered the ITF Pro Circuit, which consists of different level tournaments held around the world. He was instantly hooked on the idea of traveling the globe to establish his world ranking. His high school would not allow him to miss multiple weeks, so Johnson withdrew and enrolled in Bridgeway Homeschool Academy.
Johnson jumped at the chance to receive an education on his own time so that he could focus on playing more tennis.
“School was definitely not my strong suit,” Johnson said. “But tennis was — and if I didn’t decide to homeschool to play in those tournaments, I don’t know if I ever would have had another chance to.”
Tennis became a full-time job. For two years, Johnson lived away from home to train at the Roddick Tennis Academy in San Antonio. Over the next two years, Johnson returned to California to be closer to home but continued his training in Thousand Oaks.
By the time Johnson was a senior, he increased his world ranking high enough to play in Grade 1 ITF tournaments — the highest level tournaments before Grade A level grand slams.
After he completed his stint with the ITF pro circuit, Johnson was offered a scholarship to play at Georgia. During his first two years with the Bulldogs, the team ended the season ranked No. 5 in the country.
But as the sixth- or seventh-ranked player on the team, Johnson was constantly pulled out of the starting lineup.
Although he played at some major tournaments, Johnson was frustrated. He felt as though he was not contributing to the squad as much as he could. He knew that without consistent play, he could not improve as a tennis player.
“I got some good experience playing with a top-five team, but when it came down to starting every match, I didn’t get the opportunity, and it bummed me out,” Johnson said. “I knew I could play tennis well, and I knew I could help them out, but they didn’t have a place for me.”
When Johnson told his parents he wanted to make the move to a different school in order to increase his play time, they were initially reluctant to make the transition. His mother, Julia Johnson, was comfortable knowing that academically Johnson was on track to graduate with a college degree from Georgia.
Despite their initial concerns, his parents gave in.
“Here’s a kid who’s talented, a high recruit out of high school and who’s not getting any play time,” Julia said. “We knew how successful he could be, that drive and determination, and we wanted him to have the chances he deserved.”
At the end of his sophomore year at the NCAA championship tournament, Johnson contacted Cal head coach Peter Wright to discuss transferring to the Bears. Once Wright found out about Johnson’s situation, there was no hesitation.
“We talked with Georgia’s head coach, and he had only praise for Campbell and what an extremely hard worker he was,” Wright said.
According to Wright and his numbers, Johnson is excelling at Cal. He plays on the top court in doubles with senior co-captain Christoffer Konigsfeldt, and they make up the No. 18 doubles pair in the country. He also anchors the team on the third court in singles and has consistently clinched most of his singles matches.
“More important to him than anything is that he is able to contribute something to the team,” Wright said. “At his position right now, he’s right in the middle of all the action, and he loves it — he produces his best tennis there.”
Johnson traveled on non-traditional pathways to get to where he is today.
He thrives on knowing he is doing everything he can to challenge himself to grow as a tennis player.
But despite having altered his lifestyle, all of his experiences reflect the constant factors that have governed his entire life: his extraordinary passion for the game of tennis and his willingness to change his life in different ways to pursue it.
Johnson believes that he has made the right decisions during the past 10 years.
Judging by his life these days, it’s hard to disagree.
Janice Chua covers men’s tennis. Contact her at [email protected].