© Aaron M. Sprecher/US Clay

An emotional Steve Johnson celebrates his second Houston title nearly a year after his father, Steve Johnson Sr., passed away.

Watch: Emotional Johnson Repeats In Houston

American wins his third ATP World Tour title

Steve Johnson should celebrate his wedding with an extra-wide grin next weekend. The 28-year-old American retained his Houston title during an emotional final on Sunday, beating compatriot Tennys Sandgren 7-6(2), 2-6, 6-4 at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship.

Johnson became the first American to go back-to-back in Houston since Andy Roddick in 2001-02. The California native had to go through his compatriots to pull it off. He beat five Americans – Ernesto Escobedo, Frances Tiafoe, John Isner, Taylor Fritz and Sandgren – to hoist his third ATP World Tour title (2017 Houston, 2016 Nottingham).

“It means a lot [to win] here. This is one of the best tournaments of the year. You get the atmosphere of the country club, everything that goes with it. The people are awesome, everybody involved with the tournament makes it so special. Always happy to come back here and start my clay-court season,” Johnson said.

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The win was particularly emotional for Johnson, whose father, Steve Johnson Sr., died 11 months ago. Johnson's 2017 Houston title was the last match his dad saw of him.

On Sunday, after Sandgren's return of serve sailed long on match point, Johnson leaned over, attempting to compose himself. He walked to the net, making the sign of the cross and fist-pumping to the sky before burying his head in Sandgren's shoulder.

Sandgren consoled his friend and countryman, patting Johnson on the head and talking him through the moment. Later, Johnson walked to his team courtside, where he buried his head once more.

After the match, Johnson remembered his telephone conversation with his father after he won the 2017 Houston title. “He was just so excited. He's somebody that I'd still like to call today,” Johnson said. “He'd tell me he was proud of me and be ready for the wedding next weekend.”

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It had been an up-and-down 11 months for Johnson on the court, understandably. His year-end ATP Ranking fell to No. 44 last year, his lowest since 2013. But the American is starting to turn it around this season. He made the semi-finals at the Delray Beach Open, and another perfect week in Houston will propel him into the European clay-court season.

He and Sandgren had never faced off in tour-level action, but Sandgren had won both of their prior meetings, at the Futures level and in ATP Challenger Tour action.

In the opener, Johnson's low-and-cutting backhand slice perplexed Sandgren, particularly when at net. But the 26-year-old Sandgren fought well to force a tie-break, where Johnson pulled away and took the opener with a forehand winner.

Johnson had three more break points in the opening game of the second set, but Sandgren composed himself, saving all three and using the momentum to build his confidence. He broke twice to force the decisive third set.

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“He definitely had the upper hand until I could turn the momentum there in the second set. He was doing a lot of good things, and I wasn't really sure where to attack him. He was a defending well, his slice is tough to hit,” Sandgren said. 

In the decider, though, Johnson, who was playing his fourth ATP World Tour final (3-1), used his experience well against Sandgren, who was competing in his first ATP World Tour title match. Johnson came back from 15/40 to break at 4-4 when Sandgren lifted a forehand wide. Serving for the match, Johnson erased a break point with a forehand winner on the line and later clinched the title on his first match point.

Johnson, who will marry Kendall Bateman on Saturday, will receive 250 ATP Rankings points and $99,375 in prize money. Sandgren, who is expected to crack the Top 50 of the ATP Rankings on Monday, will receive 150 ATP Rankings points and $52,340 in prize money.

“It's a great week and I'm super excited to get to a final, and I'm happy the match was highly contested. It definitely could have been a lot easier for him,” Sandgren said.

Johnson is the first player to win the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship title by defeating five consecutive American opponents since Jaime Yzaga of Peru in 1991 when the tournament was held in Charlotte.