ATP Nottingham: Steve Johnson defeats Pablo Cuevas to win maiden ATP Tour title

Steve Johnson captured his first ATP World Tour title after overcoming a second set slip to defeat the second seed Pablo Cuevas in straight sets 7-6(5), 7-5 at the Aegon Open.

Road to the final

This finals encounter was the pairs first meeting, as both were battling it out in their first ATP Tour level grass court final. Johnson arrived in Nottingham after a fine quarterfinal run at The Queen’s Club last week (l. Cilic) and was bidding to win his first ATP World Tour singles title, after narrowly missing out in Vienna final to David Ferrer in a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 loss. The American began the week with straight sets wins over John Millman and Vasek Pospisil, before completing a three sets win over Kevin Anderson in a match which went over two days, coming back onto court later on the Friday to defeat Andreas Seppi 6-4, 6-4 to book his place in the final.

Cuevas arrived in Nottingham with just two grass court wins to his name in his entire career, but began his campaign with a straight sets win over qualifier Stephane Robert. The Uruguayan then had to come through three very tough three set battles, coming back from a set and a break down to defeat Britain’s Dan Evans, before saving a match point against Marcos Baghdatis and then recovering from a set down to oust Gilles Muller in yesterday’s semifinal 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-4.

The final was due to start at 14:00 BST after the conclusion of the doubles final between Dodig/Melo and Inglot/Nestor, but rain delayed the start of the day’s play to 13:15 BST. With rain then falling just over an hour later to interrupt the final, the singles match was pushed back even further, getting underway at 16:15 BST.

The sixth seed edges closely contested opening set

Johnson came out strongly, holding to love before moving 15-30 in front on the Uruguayan’s serve. Cuevas was quickly stung into action and recovered to hold to level at 1-1. He trailed 15-30 once again in his following service game, but an ace and an overhead smash guided him to a hold.

Cuevas could not buy an easy hold as he saw his 40-15 slip back to deuce. Johnson displayed great defence in an extended rally but could not reach break point as the second seed once again survived. The pressure was on again in the next service game at 30-30, but Cuevas kept serving well. The second seed had his first look on the American’s serve at 30-30 and deuce, but an ace saw Johnson hold to take a 5-4 lead. A couple of holds later saw the players find themselves in a tiebreak, Cuevas’ sixth of the week (W5-L1).

In the first set tiebreak Cuevas gained an early break to lead 3-1. However, the Uruguayan put a forehand down the line just wide to see him be pegged back level at 3-3 at the change of ends. Johnson went a mini break up immediately and held on to his advantage. The sixth seed sliced wide on his first set point but hit an unreturned serve to claim the second to take the set 7-6(5) in 51 minutes.

Johnson moves close to victory

At the start of the next set Cuevas, once again, was under pressure at 30-30, but he continued to deny the sixth seed a break point opportunity, holding to take a 1-0 lead. Yet, in the third game the pressure told, as the American earned the break point chance he was searching for and he grabbed the opportunity, making the breakthrough to move 2-1 in front.

After a series of service holds, with the American 4-2 up, the match looked to be almost over when Johnson got to break point on the second seeds serve. However, as the Uruguayan had done throughout the week, Cuevas dug deep to hang on.

Cuveas comes back

That hold sparked a turning point as in the eighth game Johnson came out looking very tight as he made a few errors, allowing Cuevas to break back after he hit a superb backhand crosscourt passing shot. A hold to love, the second seeds only comfortable service hold of note in the match, took the Uruguayan a game away from levelling things up at 5-4.

The moment of triumph for Steve Johnson. Photo: Getty
The moment of triumph for Steve Johnson. Photo: Getty

The American holds his nerve

Johnson recovered after that lapse to hold for 5-5 and it was then Cuevas who blipped, making three unforced errors to hand the American the break and the chance to serve for the championship. With the sixth seed serving for the chance to win his first ATP World Tour title it was never going to be easy, especially when Cuevas hit a stunning backhand down the line winner to move to 30-30. The crowd held their breath and Johnson held his nerve, as he wrapped up victory and slumped into the net with sheer relief and delight etched over his face. A 7-6(5), 7-5 victory. Steve Johnson is the 2016 Aegon Open champion.

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