After Turning Pro, Taylor Fritz Opens Junior Play at US Open

Photo Credit: David Kenas/ASICS Easter Bowl

Photo Credit: David Kenas/ASICS Easter Bowl

 

By: Steve Pratt

FLUSHING, N.Y. – Now that the decision has been made, Taylor Fritz feels like he can relax and get down to the business of becoming a successful professional tennis player.

The 17-year-old Fritz from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., two weeks ago decided to forgo a full-ride scholarship to play at USC, instead signing a professional contract with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) where he will be managed by agent Rick Montz.

Fritz is currently the No. 1-ranked junior player in the world and the top seed in the U.S. Open Junior Boys’ Singles tournament, which began on Sunday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Fritz won his first round with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Ugo Humbert of France and next faces Yusuke Takahashi of Japan in the second round.

“I played it pretty safe today and felt confident in winning the match without going for all the shots I usually go for,” said Fritz, who lost in the first round of main draw qualifying here two weeks ago, and was granted a wild card in both men’s and mixed doubles.

Fritz said he would like to finish the year as the No. 1 junior in the world, which may mean playing two more events closer to his home in Mexico.

“It would be nice to get the No. 1 ranking at year-end,” he said. “I’ve come all this way so I might as well go for it. But that will be it. I’ll play this and two more junior tournaments. But I’m not going to play Eddie Herr or Junior Orange Bowl or go back to Japan. It’s not worth it to me to do that.”

Fritz said he knew he wanted to turn pro, but his father and former pro player Guy Fritz wanted him to get stronger with one year of playing college tennis. “I’ve always been sure about turning pro,” he said. “Even when I was awful I still was saying I’m going to turn pro. I’ll take some time off just to train. That was the main reason my dad wanted me to go to college; to get stronger. But I think I can do it better doing it away from college than doing it in college because I won’t have the distraction of school.

“I’ll come out around January or February and be ready.”

Fritz said he is already making better decisions now that he is professional. “I’m doing better with training and dieting,” he said. “I’m now a pro and I have to act like it. I’m eating healthier. My diet has gotten a lot better.”

He said the thing he’ll miss most about his diet choices is “going to In and Out when I’m home.”

Fritz practiced with Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in New York, and said his game has improved a lot since he’s been here. “Surprisingly I’ve gotten a lot of court time and been able to work on a lot of things,” he said. “Everything just really feels good right now.”

Fritz said he loves watching Del Potro play because he’s so strong from both sides, but that his favorite all-time player is Pete Sampras.

Advertisements

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.

Kozlov Makes History Sweeping Orange Bowl Titles Capping Huge 2014

Mmozlov

Stefan Kozlov and Michael Mmoh Celebrate after winning the Orange Bowl Doubles Title. Photo via Mmoh’s Instagram

 

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.