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Tennis: True doubles – Cajun Johnson twins are two of a kind

Twins Hunter and Yates Johnson are UL's No. 2 doubles team and have a 12-6 record as freshmen. (Photo Brad Kemp/RaginCajuns.com)
Twins Hunter and Yates Johnson are UL’s No. 2 doubles team and have a 12-6 record as freshmen. (Photo Brad Kemp/RaginCajuns.com

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, April 18, 2013

They typically were dressed as kids in the same clothes, though if one had on red the other was bound to be in blue.

They still finish each other sentences.

And they know what each other is likely to think next, which makes life a whole lot easier when shots fly over the net quicker than you can ask who was born first.

(It was Yates, by about 20 minutes).

UL tennis-team twins Hunter and Yates Johnson started playing in the backyard when they were 4 or 5, and entered their first tournament – playing doubles, of course – when they were around 8.

When others were constantly changing partners during juniors play, they stuck together.

And now they’re the Ragin’ Cajuns’ No. 2 doubles team behind the all-Sun Belt Conference tandem of Jake Wynam and No. 1 singles player Rick de Groot, ready to face Florida Atlantic when UL hosts the SBC Championships tournament that begins today.

They arrived in Lafayette from Texas as the nation’s No. 10-ranked juniors team, and are 12-6 as freshmen this season – starting as UL’s No. 3 pair, and moving up to No. 2 four matches ago.

And it’s all largely because they’re so inseparable.

“You can’t really find any other partner like him,” Yates said. “He makes me better, and I make him better.

“We don’t really have to say things to each other teams might have to do. We don’t really have to try to pump each other up as much as other teams. Being together so long, we just work so well together.”

Any thoughts about breaking up are quickly squashed by not only the realization of how far they’ve come already, and how long the road to start over with another partner would be, but also the jealousy they sense in opponents over their built-in advantage.

“We always thought that might be fun,” Hunter said, “but then (other players are) like, ‘Aw, man, I wish I had a twin I could play with all the time.’ ”

While other doubles teams might talk to each other for a half a match or more, the Johnsons guess that at least 80 percent of their on-court communication is non-verbal.

UL coach Mark Jeffrey thinks it’s 90.

“It’s just ‘knowing,’ ” Jeffrey said, “which is a huge advantage, because those reaction skills are 50 times faster than actual verbal.

“In tennis, you’ve got to react without even thinking. You’ve to go to the ball. More importantly for them, they know exactly where the other guy is at all times.”

The notion of just how far such familiarity can carry them – the two have pro aspirations, and more – was driven home during a couple matches this season when they actually were split.

Hunter was reaching his match limit, so Yates played once with Mexican teammate Edgar Lopez and once with Aussie Damian Farinola.

The Cajuns won both times.

But for Yates Johnson, something just didn’t seem right.

“It’s weird, because you have to communicate more,” he said. “With (Hunter), you really don’t have to say much. All you have to do is stay positive. The technical things you really don’t need to say. But with (others), you have to talk strategy, you have to say this and that.

“Most teams need to communicate. (But) if you’re switching sides during the point, if I’m hitting a volley and move to one side, he just automatically switches over. We know where each other (is), who has the overhead, who has the volley, who has anything.

“People who haven’t played with each other that much, if you hit balls down the middle, they think, ‘You got it,’ then the other guy thinks, ‘Oh, you got it.’ We know who has the ball every time, and who’s gonna make the move.”

The twins are in synch off the court as much as on.

That’s especially the case when the conversation is one-on-two, even when each is asked to take turns.

“One of us will be telling a story,” Hunter said, “and then the other will get excited and we’ll want to tell it together. Then I’ll get mad at him and say, ‘No, I want to tell it.’ ”

“It’s an every-day thing,” Yates can’t help but add.

Hunter, however, has the last word on this one.

“The story always gets told,” he said, “one way or another.”

But the two don’t bicker nearly as much as most brothers.

Rackets in hand, or not.

“We have our arguments here and there,” Hunter said, “but the good thing about being twins is two seconds later you go, ‘Hey, do you want to go get some food?’ ”

That’s not the only benefit.

There was that time a few years back when Yates wasn’t serving so well, and Hunter accidentally might have tossed it up out-of-turn.

No one noticed.

But it’s not just during an inconsequential match that the two have some fun.

There was an April Fool’s Day in high school when they switched classes. A few classmates caught on, but their teachers didn’t for some time. They both had to laugh – until the joke was on them, and one had to take the other’s test.

“I didn’t know anything,” Hunter said.

Or was it Yates?

Their parents, Dawn and UL volunteer assistant coach Jeff Johnson, would know.

Or would they?

Hunter’s and Yates’ voices are as similar as their looks – Hunter’s is a tad deeper, but it’s tough to tell – and sometimes even Mom and Dad don’t know.

That’s especially the case on the phone, when they can’t cheat.

“A lot of times they’ll completely space out and think they’re talking to him when they’re talking to me,” said Hunter, who is an inch or two taller. “They have those moments.”

Back on the court, the Johnsons take their inspiration from two others who know all about trading volleys together.

American twins Bob and Mike Bryan have been the world’s No. 1 double teams for 300-plus weeks. They’ve won 13 Grand Slam tournament titles together, including at least one of all four and six Australian Opens. They’ve won more than 20 Davis Cup matches, and Olympic gold in 2012.

Hunter and Yates have hit with the Bryans and spent time hanging out at their California home. Yates frequently swaps text messages with Bob Bryan, and the exchanges are often about encouragement.

“Our goal is hopefully go pro and, just like Mike and Bob, be No. 1 in the world, hopefully,” Hunter said. “But, at the end of the day, it’s just about development and helping the team.

“Just getting better every day,” Yates added, “is kind of the next step to going pro.”

Facing higher-level competition really is important to the twins, who won three state high school championships in Arizona and a fourth – after moving, partly for tennis, partly because of their mother’s family ties to the area – at New Braunfels High in Texas.

Jeffrey’s vow to help make them better, in part by exposing to a challenging schedule, helped attract the two to UL.

So too did the realization they could play more, and much sooner, for the Cajuns than certain other programs.

The payoff might not come immediately – they’re still freshman, after all – but it could soon.

“I’m telling you: These guys are going to be Top 50 in the world, for sure, within probably two years,” said Jeffrey, an ex-pro himself.

“I’m not kidding. I see a national-championship in their sights. No questions asked. They’re working toward that, and they’re on a very, very, steady, direct path to that.”

Click below for information on the 2013 Tennis Reunion on April 19 & 20, 2013.