Time and again, a victorious athlete will give himself the ultimate vote of confidence: "Even with the odds stacked against me, I knew I had it the whole time."
And then there's D.J. Johnson. The East High senior defended his 18-and-younger division title at the Central California Junior Tennis Championships on Monday at the Bakersfield Racquet Club, beating Eli Whittle of Nipomo 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Johnson then unleashed his refreshing bit of modesty.
"I really didn't think I'd win the entire time," he said. "I was down a set and a break point early in the second and I just hit a huge second serve, went for broke. It went in, and I just kind of got energy from there."
Johnson, ranked in the top 30 for junior players in the Southern California Tennis Association, had won this tournament, in various divisions, each of the past three years, including an easy 6-1, 6-1 victory in last year's 18U final.
This was not so simple. Whittle flashed a big serve and an innate ability to hit winners onto the line. He raced to a 5-2 lead in the first set and comfortably held serve to finish it, 6-4.
"I've played him five times or so in 16s and never lost," Johnson said. "But he played a really good match. I thought I played pretty good, too. Even if I'd lost, I wouldn't have been mad."
After surviving that break point early in the second set, Johnson broke Whittle's serve in the sixth game for a 4-2 lead and held on to even the match. He broke again early in the third for a 3-2 lead and led 40-15 in the next game, apparently well on his way to finally establishing control.
But Whittle had one more run in him. He lasered three winners, two of which hit the line, and then Johnson double-faulted to lose his serve and even the match once more. Then Whittle bombed two aces to fight out of a 15-40 hole on his next serve and suddenly, Johnson's 3-2 lead was a 4-3 deficit.
"He played crazy; It changed so fast," Johnson said. "I pretty much said, 'If he's going to beat me hitting aces, so be it.' I'll just try to get some of his serves in play and win those."
Johnson held serve for 4-4 and, after two more missed break-point opportunities, finally cashed in on one when Whittle's forehand sailed long. Johnson held at love to clinch a second straight championship at a tournament that in its heyday hosted Pete Sampras and Andre Agassit.
"I didn't want to lose this match," Johnson said. "I didn't want to lose the title that I had won, I didn't want to lose to Eli when I hadn't lost to him. I just kept telling myself that."
His title secure, Johnson will take a rest from junior tournaments to focus on the stretch run of his final season at East. He lost a three-set battle to Visalia-El Diamante's Ryan Andrade in last year's Central Section singles final and hopes to get back there again.
Andrade still lurks, as does Clovis West super sophomore Billy Griffith. But Johnson hasn't dropped more than three games in any high school match this season and says he's up to the task.
"I've changed up my style," he said. "I'm trying to be more aggressive. I think it's working."
Most other locals didn't fare quite so well in the Central Cal Championships. Anastasia Drullas and Arianna Tilbury won the girls 14U doubles title, but that was contested by only three teams.
Brianna Kemp, who spent some of her childhood in Bakersfield but now lives in Los Angeles County, reached the girls 18U singles final before falling to Taylor Nederlander of Laguna Beach, the top seed, 7-5, 4-6, 6-0.
Brianna and Cara Kemp won the girls 18U doubles title, beating Natalia Penner-Lauren Torres 6-0, 6-3 in the championship.