“Just a lot of emotions,” Johnson, 27, said in a cracking voice. “He was such a big part of my tennis life.”
Again, he apologized as he wiped tears from his eyes.
“It’s not about tennis right now,” he said. “Sorry.”
On learning of his father’s death about two weeks ago, Johnson pulled out of a tournament in Madrid. Unsure of what to do next, he pushed on with tennis, in part because his mother, sister and fiancée had planned for months to follow Johnson during the clay-court season in Europe. Johnson said his father had planned to join him at Wimbledon in July.
Johnson then went to Geneva and reached the quarterfinals there, though his description of it sounded as if he was just going through the motions. His first-round meeting with the 78th-ranked Sugita had been suspended on Sunday because of darkness. He called the two-day match perhaps the most difficult he has endured.
He said that after he lost the third set on Sunday, he was not doing well, and it was translating on the court. He trailed, 2-4, in the fourth set when the match was suspended, giving him a reprieve to reorganize his thoughts.
“At the end of the third set yesterday, the emotions kind of hit me pretty hard,” he said, “and I was lucky to have the night to figure it out.”
Now ranked 26th, Johnson broke into the top 50 in 2014 and last August passed John Isner to become the top-ranked American. Isner, now No. 22, and No. 15 Jack Sock have since passed Johnson. Sock lost his first-round match on Monday to Jiri Vesely of the Czech Republic, 7-5, 7-5, 6-3.
In the second round, Johnson will play 40th-ranked Borna Coric of Croatia, who beat Mathias Bourgue of France, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-2. Johnson said his mother, sister and fiancée had been helpful as they all grieved, but focusing on a game, even the game his father taught him, had been difficult.
“Today, the last two weeks, or week, it hasn’t been about tennis for me,” he said. “It’s just, trying to do the right things and move on as best that I can.”
In other men’s matches on Monday, the defending champion and No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic of Serbia played his first match with his new coach, Andre Agassi, watching from the seats above. Agassi, the 1999 French Open champion, sat stoically in a black T-shirt and sunglasses, observing Djokovic shrug off a little rust before defeating Marcel Granollers of Spain, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
Djokovic split with Boris Becker, his coach for three years, last year and then recently cleared out most of the rest of his team in the hopes of returning to No. 1. Since he beat Andy Murray last year to capture his first French Open title, Djokovic has sagged, at least according to his own standard. He has not won a Grand Slam tournament in a year, and this is the first season since 2012 that he has not won at least one clay-court title leading to Roland Garros.
The hope is that Agassi can help him return to the top of the pyramid, and Djokovic spoke of how Agassi’s contributions were, thus far, more abstract than tactical, hinting that Agassi is uniquely positioned to understand the challenges for a player seeking to recapture top form after losing it.
“He likes to talk about things that are very deep inside the human being,” Djokovic said.
Djokovic said Agassi may leave at the end of the week because of a previous commitment. But if Agassi can push his pupil through the draw as expected, Djokovic could end up meeting No. 4 Rafael Nadal of Spain in a compelling semifinal.
Nadal had no trouble dismissing No. 45 Benoit Paire of France, 6-1, 6-4, 6-1 in 1 hour 36 minutes.
Despite his ranking, Nadal is considered by many to be the favorite as he seeks a record 10th French title, because of his expertise on clay and his recent form. He won in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, though he lost to Dominic Thiem of Austria in the quarterfinals in Rome, and is now 18-1 on clay this year.
“I won here nine times, and every year that I won I was unbelievable happy,” Nadal said without a hint of boastfulness. “But every year that I come back, I was unbelievable nervous.”
Also on display Monday was a weary Paul-Henri Mathieu, who attempted to extend his final French Open at least one more day. But he was routed by No. 10 David Goffin of Belgium, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, on Court 1, the so-called Bull Ring.
Mathieu, a 35-year-old Frenchman who is retiring later this year, was upset that the tournament directors denied him a wild-card entry, requiring him to win three qualifying rounds to enter the main draw. Those matches may have taken a physical toll as Mathieu complained of a painful hip and lingering sore muscles since his last emotional qualifying victory on Friday.
But he told organizers that should he lose, he did not want any special presentations or ceremony. All he received was a handshake from Goffin and a standing salute from the fans.
“I was happy to finish this way because the crowd put their hands together for me when I left the court,” he said. “It’s enough. It really is.”
Continue reading the main story