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By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, April 14, 2018

Stevie Johnson

Reigning champion Steve Johnson stopped Taylor Fritz, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-2, to set up an all-American Houston final vs. No. 8-seeded Tennys Sandgren.

Photo credit: U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship

Steve Johnson will leave the singles field when he gets married next week.

Johnson continues to revel in an extended Houston honeymoon.

Watch: Nadal, Djokovic, Thiem in Same Quarter of Draw 

The reigning champion grinded down Taylor Fritz, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-2, advancing to his second straight U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship final and extending his winning streak on River Oaks' red clay to nine matches. 

"Another match playing a younger guy so hopefully I had my experience in my back pocket," Johnson told Tennis Channel's Justin Gimelstob afterward. "I just buckled down, got an early break and played a couple of good games to wrap it up."

The sixth-seeded Johnson will play Tennys Sandgren in tomorrow's all-American final between former collegiate standouts.

It's the second time in the last 15 years the Houston title match is an all-American affair, ensuring a third U.S. man will win an ATP title this season following Frances Tiafoe's title run in Delray Beach and John Isner winning the Miami Open.  

Sandgren came back from a break down in the first set defusing 2007 champion Ivo Karlovic, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4), to reach his first career ATP final.

When Karlovic's final volley sailed wide, the 26-year-old Sandgren tossed his racquet aside and raised a clenched fist celebrating a milestone victory.

The world No. 56 will crack the Top 50 for the first time when the new ATP rankings are released on Monday.

The 39-year-old Karlovic, the oldest semifinalist in tournament history, is the oldest ATP semifinalist since a 40-year-old Jimmy Connors reached the final four at the 1993 San Francisco tournament.

Sandgren played sharper tie breaks in both sets denying Karlovic's quest to become the oldest ATP finalist since 43-year-old Ken Rosewall won in Hong Kong in 1977.

A year ago, a then 157th-ranked Sandgren  qualified in Houston for his first career ATP main-draw appearance. Since then, Sandgren reached his first career Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open and will now crack the Top 50 for the first time.

Fritz earned a break of break points in the ninth game of the second set, but Johnson saved both then ran around his backhand rapping a forehand down the line holding for 5-4.

Serving to force the tie break, Fritz nudged a routine forehand volley into the tape to fall behind love-30. Johnson jumped on a forehand down the line rattling out a framed forehand reply for double match point.

The bearded American got the forehand he wanted, but missed inside out wide. On his second match point, Fritz hammered a ball into the corner to erase it. Fritz thumped a bounce smash into the crowd to force the tie break.

Deadlocked at 4-all in the breaker, Fritz rocketed a pair of big serves winning three points in a row to force the final set.

Relying on his movement and off-pace slice backhand, the defending champion drew a pair of unruly forehands from Fritz, breaking for 2-1 in the final set. Johnson backed up the break at 15 for 2-1.

Fritz's forehand is a strong shot, but can be less stable than his two-handed backhand.

The world No. 72 overshot the mark on a forehand to face another break point and spun his fourth double fault into net as Johnson broke again for 5-2.

A twisting kick serve brought Johnson to his third match point. When Fritz's final forehand flew, Johnson was through to his fourth career final in two hours, 22 minutes.

Though Sandgren, a former Tennessee Volunteers' standout, and Johnson, a two-time NCAA singles champion at USC, have known each other since their college days, this will be their first ATP main-draw meeting Their only prior meetings came at the Futures and Challenger levels with Sandgren winning both on clay..

"I think I lost both (prior meetings); a different chance tomorrow at the ATP level," Johnson said. "At Futures and Challengers he got best of me, hopefully I'll get the best of him tomorrow.

"He's a great competitor. He plays his style of game and we'll wear our colleges colors out there tomorrow."


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