Tiafoe and Kozlov Star in Kalamazoo Classic

Frances Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov have been friends and competitors for a hefty portion of their lives. Both 17, they’ve shouldered enormous pressure and expectation as the next American tennis greats. Tiafoe(1) and Kozlov(3) each reached the USTA Boys 18s final without dropping a set, and with a US Open Main Draw Wild Card on the line, literally everything was to play for.

Before we get into the match itself, let’s look at each players’ journey and current standing in the last 12 months.

For Tiafoe, his 2014 campaign was marred by inconsistency and doubt regarding his somewhat unorthodox strokes. It was always clear that his athleticism and natural ability were more than enough to make a name for himself, but many (including myself) were worried that he may struggle to make the transition to the pro game. Well, Big Foe has pretty much put everyone to bed with his play in 2015. After starting the year on an absolute tear in futures, the College Park native went on an astonishing run in the USTA Har-Tru Challengers in April. His best result was in Tallahassee, where he beat Facundo Bagnis in a third set tiebreak before going on to make his first challenger final. His results in Tallahassee and Savannah earned him a WC into the main draw of the French Open.

Tiafoe’s season has also been highlighted by his signing with Roc Nation, an American entertainment company founded and owned by rapper Jay Z. Tiafoe has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and ATPWorldTour.com. He was the favorite going into Kalamazoo, on and off the court.

Stefan Kozlov’s story is very much the opposite. Kozlov had been the top ranked American boy in his age group for nearly his entire junior career. And early on in their professional career, Kozlov had more success. In October of 2014, Kozlov reached the final of the Sacramento Challenger, beating Tim Smyczek and Ryan Harrison among others.

However, Kozlov plays a much different game than Tiafoe. While Frances possesses massive weapons from nearly every position on the court, Stefan’s natural game relies much more on court positioning and general tennis IQ. Kozlov, like Tiafoe, has had his fair share of critics. Many argue that he does not have the weapons to damage top pros. Kozlov has struggled in 2015. After making a QF in Maui, Kozlov’s only main draw wins have come at the futures level. He lost to Taylor Fritz, another incredibly talented young American in January. With Tommy Paul and Reilly Opelka winning the French Open and Wimbledon Junior Titles respectively, Kozlov has fallen through the shuffle a bit and was going relatively under the radar in Kalamazoo.

He even admitted before his KZoo semifinal clash against Fritz that he felt he was the underdog. Many, including those with influential voices, have placed others in front of Kozlov in terms of potential career ceiling.

So, if you buy my line of thinking, Tiafoe vs Kozlov had much, much, more meaning than just a US Open Wild Card. This was about pride, confidence, mental strength and the battle within.

Tiafoe and Kozlov are very good friends, but have noticeably different personalities. I think they each represent the gradual rise of American tennis incredibly well–in significantly different ways.

Tiafoe is a streaky, massively talented young man. For the first two sets Sunday, he looked a league above Kozlov. Tiafoe’s forehand is one of the most explosive you will see, and his flat backhand as well as an increasingly powerful serve put him in aggressive positions in nearly every point. And Foe has filled out his body nicely in the last 12 months; he’s worked much harder off the court to get stronger and fitter, and the results have been clear.

Still, you can  get a different Frances Tiafoe every time he steps on the court. As Bjorn Fratangelo told The Tennis Nerds in Binghamton, sometimes it doesn’t even seem like Frances knows what he wants to do on court. And that often times plays to his advantage. His ability to disrupt opponents rhythm and tempo is extremely underrated.

Kozlov, again, represents a different trait in the rise of American tennis. Every time he steps on the court, Stefan is playing with a chip on his shoulder. Nothing is ever good enough for him, and he will fight every day until he gets to where he wants to be. This was never the more evident than today in Stowe Stadium. Down 6-2 6-4 4-2, nearly all juniors and even most pros are mentally checking out from the match. But Kozlov, who has the utmost confidence in himself, never let those thoughts creep in. Yes, Tiafoe missed opportunities to close out the match, but Kozlov’s relentless attack *mentally* made the finish line look so much further away than it actually was. I swear it felt like Kozlov saved upwards of 40 break points in the final 3 sets.

Kozlov, who was playing A LOT of defense in rallies, was getting worn down physically by Tiafoe, and began to cramp starting very early in the fourth set. His ability to fight that off repeatedly and push the match to five sets speaks volumes to his mental resilience. When he broke early in the fifth set, it really did look like he was going to pull off one of the greatest comebacks of all time. (He became the first player in Kalamazoo since 1971 to go from 2 sets to love down and push the match to 5 sets)

Which makes Frances Tiafoe’s victory 6-4 in the fifth so much more impressive. If he had won in straights it would have been great, but not nearly as significant. The quality of tennis in the 5-4 game was INSANE, with both guys fighting for their lives. The resolve Tiafoe showed was amazing, and his ability to stick to an aggressive game plan amid a bit of a mental breakdown shows how much he has matured as a player and as a person. Frances has earned his way into two Grand Slams this years, and it will be very fun to see how fares in the main draw.

Kozlov’s fight was truly inspirational, and it’s clear that he is headed in the right direction. His serve looked much better this week, and he seemed to get a fair amount of his swagger back. That being said, this is an absolutely brutal loss for Kozlov. To come back that far and then fall short is one of the toughest things to recover from in sports. Knowing the kid, I can tell you that this will motivate him even more.

Tiafoe and Kozlov each represent a wider emergence of American tennis. Their final at Kalamazoo should not soon be forgotten, and it is not the last time these two will battle in best of 5 set matches.

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