American Stefan Kozlov has been in his fair share of big matches. In December of 2013, Kozlov reached the final of the ITF Orange Bowl, but fell in a close three set match to fellow American Francis Tiafoe. In 2014, Kozlov had reached the finals of both the Australian Open and Wimbledon Junior Championships. On each occasion he fell just short.
He flipped the script Sunday, defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece 2-6 6-3 6-2 to claim the Orange Bowl singles title. Only a couple of hours later he teamed with Michael Mmoh to defeat the number 2 seeds Yungseong Chung and Seong Chan Hong 6-4 7-6(5) to win the doubles title. Kozlov became the first player since Mariano Zabaleta(ARG) in 1995 to win both the Orange Bowl singles and doubles title in the same year.
A common storyline in the U.S. tennis world has been the lack of success in men’s tennis. The last American man to win a Grand Slam was Andy Roddick at the 2003 US Open. Roddick was also the last U.S. man to hold the number 1 ranking.
American tennis fans may not have to wait much longer. Kozlov is leading the charge amongst a large pack of talented juniors.
There are currently twelve Americans in the top 100 of the ITF Junior boys rankings, and as recently as last week there were four in the top 11. Francis Tiafoe fell out this week because he opted not to play the Orange Bowl, which he won in 2013. For the first time in over two decades, six Americans made the quarterfinals of the Orange Bowl. American Sam Riffice also became the first man since Grigor Dimitrov to claim Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl U16 titles in back to back weeks.
Perhaps what makes these guys so fun to watch is that they are all seemingly great friends. Just take a look through social media and you’ll quickly learn how much fun they have cracking jokes and messing around. When one guy does well, the others are always quick to congratulate them.
The U.S. will finish 2014 with three boys in the top 10 as well as eight in the top 50, with Kozlov leading the way at no. 3 in the world, having played only seven junior events all year.
Kozlov spent a larger portion of his schedule playing professionally, and came up just short on multiple occasions. He notably pushed top 100 player Sam Groth to a third set tiebreak in Washington DC.
“Whenever I get an opportunity to play in these tournaments my level rises so much. I think that I’m there with these guys to be honest,” Kozlov told The Tennis Nerds in July.
He certainly proved that statement to be true, and his success culminated with an incredible week at the Sacramento Challenger in October. As a wildcard, Kozlov defeated Ryan Harrison, J.P. Smith, Rhyne Williams and Tim Smyczek before losing out to Sam Querrey in the final. Kozlov’s on court IQ is unprecedented, and it was on display as he outsmarted players well beyond his age.
What made his accomplishment even more impressive was that each of his wins required three sets. He was even cramping at one point in the third set against then no. 99 Smyczek.
Kozlov had issues in the past with his fitness, but spent good blocks of time in 2014 to improve that aspect of his game.
He told Colette Lewis that his training block in November with the USTA was very productive. “I went to Cali for about three weeks to work with Jose and Pat Etcheberry. It was fun, but it wasn’t pleasant,” he said.
The Macedonian-born American stands at almost 6 feet tall, which his not exactly huge in this sport.
“Moving forward, tennis is a very physical sport, and with my height and size matches are going to be really physical,” Kozlov told The Tennis Nerds in Washington.
Kozlov’s hard work paid off, finishing the year with a singles/doubles sweep of the Orange Bowl. He finished the year as the highest ranked 16 year old in the ATP at no. 467. Most of those points came from the Sacramento Challenger, and won’t come off his ranking until October of 2015.
American tennis fans have had their patience tested, but that test should be coming to an end soon. The future is now.