Paul, Fritz to Play in All-American Boys’ Final

Tommy Paul in action.  Photo Credit: USTA

Tommy Paul in action.  Photo Credit: USTA

By: Steve Pratt

FLUSHING, N.Y. – Two American boys will battle it out for a junior Grand Slam singles title for the second time this year at a major, and once again it’s Taylor Fritz and Tommy Paul left standing.

The pair each won their respective semifinals on Saturday at the U.S. Open Junior Championships and will square off in Sunday’s final for a rematch of the French Open final the Lumberton, N.J., resident Paul won back in June.

Paul, an 18-year-old who is the No. 5 seed, dusted aside Australian qualifier Alex De Minaur with dropping a game, 6-0, 6-0, in his semifinal match played at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center.

“I think with Taylor it’s just about his power; he hits the ball so much harder than most people in the juniors,” said Paul, who was told once of Fritz’s serves was clocked at 138 miles per hour on Saturday. “You just have to be able to absorb that and play my game.”

Paul said he can only remember one other time during his junior career when he won without giving up a game. “It was my first match of 2015 in qualifying for a Futures event,” said Paul, who turned pro after he won the French Open instead of playing collegiately for the University of Georgia. “My coach once bet me I’d never do it because he joked I couldn’t focus long enough to win 6-0 6-0.

“I don’t think it was his best day,” Paul added. “I had an on day and didn’t miss too many balls. I’m not feeling bad for him because I want to win. It’s definitely tough to win 6-0 6-0.”

FRITZ MOVES ON TO FINAL

The top-seeded Fritz beat No. 11-seeded Yunseong Chung of Korea on Saturday in his semifinal match, 6-2, 6-3.

“It’s been a really good year,” said Fritz, who besides the final in Paris also made the semifinals at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals at the Australian Open. “I’d love to get the win. This is a better surface for me than the French Open (hard instead of red clay). Clay is my worst surface.”

Fritz said it is tougher to be the top seed. “There’s a target on your back and they have nothing to lose,” he said of his opponents. “They are going to play their best tennis against you. And you have to be focused and ready for that. They can come out dangerous.”

Fritz said he and Paul spoke before they played. “We both said let’s go out and get it done,” Fritz said. “We both wanted to play each other in the final. Wouldn’t want it any other way than two Americans in the final. We’ve been good friends for a long time.”

Paul has beaten Fritz the past two times they have played, but both on red clay and in three sets. Besides the French Open, Paul downed Fritz at a Futures event in Spain.

Recent U.S. Open champions on the boys’ side include current pros: Richard Gasquet (2002), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2003), Andy Murray (2004), and Grigor Dimitrov (2008).

The last time two American boys’ played each other in the U.S. Open Junior final was in 2010 when Jack Sock beat Denis Kudla. It also happened in 2000 when Andy Roddick beat Robby Ginepri.

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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.

Fratangelo Wins Launceston Challenger, Breaks Top 200

Fratangelo watching from the stands in Melbourne. Photo via; Ben Rothenberg

Fratangelo watching from the stands in Melbourne.  Photo via: Ben Rothenberg

Bjorn Fratangelo had a strong 2014 season. He won five futures titles and reached the quarterfinals of two challengers. The 21 year old finished the year with a career high ranking of 261. Fratangelo’s ranking was just on the border of making the Australian Open Qualifying cut, and when The Tennis Nerds spoke to Fratangelo back in November, the Pittsburgh native seemed pretty confident he would make that cut.

Fast forward to January. Fratangelo flew to Melbourne after a decent week at the challenger in New Caledonia. He practiced with many fellow Americans, including his friend Bradley Klahn. As the days wound down, some players began to withdrawal and Bjorn was getting closer. Finally, the qualifying draw had come out; Fratangelo missed the cut by a mere two spots.

“It was brutal to be two out. It hurt, but in a way it motivated me. I tried to take positives and make it a good training week. To just be around that atmosphere is unbelievable,” Fratangelo told The Tennis Nerds Monday.

Despite missing the cut, Fratangelo stayed in Australia for three more weeks and played two $50,000 Challengers; Burnie and Launceston. He won two matches in Burnie before falling to Alex Bolt in the quarterfinals.

However, Fratangelo’s trip down under was capped by the biggest accomplishment of his professional career, as he won his maiden challenger title in Launceston, defeating a promising 18 year old, Hyeon Chung, 4-6 6-2 7-5.

“This win makes it all worth it. I put in a lot of work in Melbourne and it paid off,” Fratangelo said. “I thought (the final) was a good match from both of us. The ball striking was great. I think the crowd enjoyed it as well.”

Chung is already nearing the top 10o, and had just won the title in Burnie the week prior. The level of play from both, especially in the third set, was incredibly solid. Fratangelo had many chances in the third set, and finally broke serve after a marathon game at 5-5. On one deuce point, the two engaged in a very long exchange that ended with the American receiving some good fortune.

“That crazy drop shot I hit at 5 all got under his skin a bit. That was the luckiest shot I’ve ever hit,” Fratangelo said.

The title earned Fratangelo 80 ranking points, and he soared up the ATP rankings to a career high of #172 Monday. By comparison, in June of 2014, the American was as low at #535. The new ranking gives the American more opportunities to play higher level events.

“The ranking is definitely higher than I thought it would be,” Fratangelo said. “I’m gonna try to ride the wave out where I basically have no points coming off. Im gonna play Indian wells qualifying and then Irving(challenger). Now that I’m up there a bit I wanna keep testing myself against guys close to the top 100.”

Fratangelo’s roommate in Florida is fellow young American Mitchell Krueger, who himself has had a nice start to 2015. You can read our Q&A with Krueger here. Krueger won the doubles title in Launceston with Radu Albot, taking out the team of Hubble/Statham 11-9 in the third set super-tiebreak.

Fratangelo and Krueger have spent a lot of time together through juniors and now professionally.

“We’re like brothers. We’re sarcastic towards each together, and we have fun together,” Fratangelo said. “He’s an easy guy to get along with and live with. He’s helped me a lot as far as traveling goes. He can go for months, where I start to lose it a bit after a few weeks, but traveling with him has made me calm down a lot.”

Full match replay of Launceston Final:

http://new.livestream.com/accounts/5057055/events/3782996/videos/77163414/player?autoPlay=false&height=360&mute=false&width=640

Question and Answer: Mitchell Krueger

Krueger in action at USC.

Krueger in action at USC.

Mitchell Krueger celebrated his 21st birthday back in January, and he did so in style, winning the $15,000 Los Angeles Futures title on the same day he became legally allowed to order an alcoholic drink. Krueger had a successful junior career before turning pro at the age of 18. Now starting his third year on tour, the Dallas-Fort Worth native has reached a career high ranking of 311 in the world, and should move a few spots higher after picking up a win at the Burnie Challenger. The Tennis Nerds spoke with Krueger about his adjustment to life on tour, goals for the future, and much much more.

(Editors note: Make sure you read to the bottom, the quick fire questions at the end are some of the best)

The Tennis Nerds: You’re in Australia AGAIN! You’ve spent quite a bit of time over there the last 12 months. I know you joked it was almost your FIRST home at this point. What goes into your scheduling decisions? Does playing in an English-speaking country make you feel more comfortable? Give the average fan a short breakdown on why you schedule the way you do.

Mitchell Krueger: Yeah I’ve definitely spent a lot of time down in Australia. I honestly think I’ve been there more over the last four months than I have in Florida(laughing).

Well for one, I’m not afraid to travel outside the U.S. and leave my comfort zone a bit. I feel like too many Americans get comfortable just staying within North America and end up limiting themselves. To me, it gets a little tiring playing the same guys each and every tournament. A huge part of being a professional tennis player is enjoying the travel and I think my game benefits from seeing different competition, surfaces, and conditions all the time.

TTN: You started the year with a title at the $15k in LA, beating some strong players in the process. Do you see that result as a springboard for things to come? Does it take some pressure off in the coming weeks knowing you started the year well?

Krueger: That result was definitely huge for my confidence going into the beginning of the year. It’s always a great feeling to win a tournament, and for it to happen so early in the season gives me some added belief that I can really take a big step forward this year. I’m really excited for 2015.

TTN: What was your offseason like this year? Where did you train and what were you focusing on?

Krueger: I actually didn’t have a traditional offseason this year because I ended up playing a tournament in the Dominican Republic right before Christmas. The past two years we’ve always shut it down right around Thanksgiving and had a solid four week training block to get ready for the coming year. But this year I only really had two weeks. I was down in Boca Raton and managed to get some good fitness work in with Pat Etcheberry and court time with my coach Stan Boster. I actually think having such a short offseason helped me continue to play good tennis into the new year because the break between tournaments wasn’t too long.

TTN: Often times when you’re traveling to these tournaments you’ll go with a group of either fellow Americans or other players. Who are your favorite guys to travel with and why? Who provides the most comedic entertainment?

Krueger: I’ve definitely spent the most time traveling with Bjorn(Fratangelo), Brad(Klahn), and Jarmere(Jenkins). We all get along with each other great and know how to push one another to get better. It’s never a dull moment when we’re all together that’s for sure. I mean it’s hard not to give the comedic crown to the guy that has several hundred thousand views on a YouTube video of him face planting on concrete. It made me laugh so hard I started crying the first time I saw it(laughing).

TTN: When I talked to Bjorn(Fratangelo) a couple months ago, he said he had just finished stringing a racket. Do you string any of your own rackets?

Krueger: As much as my mom has begged me to learn, I still don’t know how to string rackets. When I’m training, the absolute last thing I want to do in my free time is string a racket. To me, that extra thirty minutes of sitting on the couch is worth the price of getting it strung by someone else(laughing).

TTN: American men’s tennis has gotten plenty of negative attention in the last few years. Does that motivate you guys? What is your view on the years ahead for American tennis?

Krueger: It’s a huge motivation to me. Very few people that report that kind of stuff actually realize the amount of work and sacrifice that goes into being a world class tennis player. It’s very frustrating when people talk about how Americans just don’t want it bad enough. I think in the next few years these same people will start to eat their words. I’m very optimistic and excited for the future of American men’s tennis. I’ve seen the work that myself and many others have put in, and I know it’s just a matter of time before the rest of the world is able to see it too.

TTN: I know the debate between turning pro or going to college was relevant in your life and it’s been a big talking point lately. Now that you’ve spent a couple years on tour, what are your thoughts looking back on that decision?

Krueger: Obviously being an American, going to college and getting an education is something most kids are taught to strive for from a very young age. I can only speak for myself because everybody’s situation is different. I have absolutely no regrets in my decision to turn pro. The fact that I can wake up every day and devote myself 100% to getting better without any other distractions is amazing. Whenever I’m done playing tennis, I can always go back to school somewhere and get a degree if I want. There’s no age limit. The window for a person to make a living playing tennis is so small when compared to the rest of their life. I’m glad I made the decision to give myself the absolute best chance possible to reach my dreams.

TTN: There was a rather funny twitter exchange where your mental strength was discussed. It’s always seemed like one of the stronger points of your game. Where does that come from? How much did your upbringing and environment influence that?

Krueger: (Laughing) That tweet actually took me a bit by surprise because I seriously consider that one of the strongest aspects of my game. And I take it that Jarmere agrees with me because he actually had my back for once (laughing). I’ve always been insanely competitive in anything I do. I’ve never tanked anything in my entire life. I pride myself on never giving up on anything, whether it’s on court or off. Anyone that knows me can tell you the exact same thing. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I knew I could’ve given a little bit more effort. Win or lose, I can always rest easy knowing I gave it everything I had.

TTN: Which part of your game are you working on most specifically to improve right now?

Krueger: Right now I’m working mostly on really owning all my shots and understanding the ways I can use my game to win points and matches. Over the last couple years I’ve put a ton of time into strengthening both my serve and my forehand, and I think this next piece will really bring my game together. I’m very happy with the progress I’ve made and I’m excited to keep it going through the rest of 2015 and beyond.

TTN: You’re about to hit a career high ranking just a few spots outside the top 300. What are some of your short and long term goals ranking wise?

Krueger: Well my first really short term goal is to break top 300. After that, my goal is to make qualies of the slams this summer. I’m obviously getting close right now but I don’t like to put too much pressure on myself to hit a certain number. I know if I keep putting in the work and giving myself opportunities each week, I’ll keep moving up the rankings.

————————————————————————————————

Quick Fire Q’s

Favorite airline?

Krueger: American Airlines all the way. Hit platinum for the second year in a row.

Go-to drink and/or snack on flights?

Krueger: Either water or sprite. Sometimes Apple juice.

Again, on flights–Music, movie, book, or something else?

Krueger: I usually go all three. Movies if it’s a long flight. Music when I’m trying to sleep. And a book if I run out of good movies to watch.

Favorite challenger you’ve played?

Krueger: Gotta be Challenger of Dallas. Can’t go against my home tournament! Maui is a very close second though.

Favorite futures you’ve played?

Krueger: Probably some of the futures in Italy because of the food. Love the pizza.

Dallas Mavericks or Dallas Cowboys?

Krueger: This is tough. Probably gotta say Cowboys just because it’s easier to follow while I’m traveling because of their shorter season. I’ve been to more Mavs games though.

Tony Romo or Demarco Murray?

Krueger: Tony Romo all the way. Screw all the haters.(laughing)

Better NFL prospect: Stefan Kozlov or Nathan Ponwith?

Krueger: Koz probably won’t like this, but I gotta say that Ponwith’s catch off my perfect pass while being defended was a thing of beauty. At this point though, the Dolphins could definitely use Koz on offense. I really hope he reads this. (laughing)

Eat out or cook?

Krueger: Definitely eat out. As Bjorn can vouch for me, living with an Italian for the last few years has made me not want to embarrass myself in the kitchen.

Federer or Nadal?

Krueger: Federer for sure. He’s a GOAT.

 

Question and Answer: Jarmere Jenkins (Part 2)

Jenkins found much success in Australia

Jenkins found success in Australia

Jarmere Jenkins, an NCAA champion at the University of Virginia, talked to us a little over a year ago as he began his journey on the pro tour. You can read that Q&A here. 2014 saw Jenkins go through some incredible highs as well as some forgettable lows. At 24, he cracked the top 200 for the first time, and finished the year at no. 192 in the world. We spoke to Jenkins on a variety of subjects.

The Tennis Nerds: First full year on tour, what stood out to you the most?

Jarmere Jenkins: How important faith, family and friends are. This is a brutal sport to play alone. I’m convinced you can’t do it by yourself. Had it not been for them I would have quit a long time ago.

TTN: Finally the offseason, got any plans?

Jenkins: I’ll be in Boca doing on court with USTA and working on my fitness with Richard Woodruff. Just trying to maximize that time in preparation for Australian Open quallies.

TTN: A large majority of your points came from challengers and futures in Australia, what about that country made you so successful?

Jenkins: I honestly don’t know. I’ve developed some really good relationships over there so it’s kinda like home away from home at this point. Could be because it’s so far away. I know if I lose a match I can’t hop on a plane and be home in a couple hours. Just have to go to work and bring it every single day. Seems to be working.

TTN: You are certainly “earning” your way up the ladder. Other than French Open quallies, you played exclusively ITFs and Challengers. How tough is that?

Jenkins: It’s really tough. But nothing feels better than earning your way up the ladder. I’ve played tournaments where I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. Now I feel like I’m putting in the work and paying my dues to belong.

TTN: Playing off that, prize money at those levels is pretty brutal. ATP site has you at $27K(that’s without your last futures title). You picked up a lot of points, but how do you manage to stay positive when the paychecks are so low?

Jenkins: I’m crazy.

TTN: How prevalent, in your experiences, is match-fixing? Have you seen it/heard about it?

Jenkins:  I receive messages and hate mail about it through my Facebook account. But never from players or coaches. I’ve heard about a couple instances or rumors. But nothing firsthand.

TTN: When we talked last year you said fitness was a key point of focus for your game. How has that progressed?

Jenkins: Yes. I’m stoked that I’ve finally gotten to a point where I’m witnessing my hard work pay off. Credit to my trainer Richard and his impact performance team in Florida. He’s really helped me take my fitness to the next level and I still have so many levels more to improve on.

TTN: You had various fellow American’s traveling to the same tournaments as you throughout the year(Klahn, Krueger etc), how important is it to have friends out there with you?

Jenkins: Very important. We all have the same goals plus I grew up with Klahn. It helps because we push each other in practice everyday to get better. We’re all trying to take American tennis to the top.

TTN: With that futures title, you move up inside the the top 200. Any significance in that?

Jenkins: Yes. Just a tribute to the hard work and sacrifices I’ve made to get there. Definitely wasn’t an easy road but I’m excited and grateful for it. My ultimate goal is much further than that.

TTN: Gotta talk about your EPIC tweet

— what was going through your head at that time?

Jenkins: Tennis is a cruel sport sometimes. Up 6-3,5-3 40-15 serving I tasted the defeat only to have it ripped from me. It was devastating at first and I was crushed. But it lit a fire in me that burned for weeks in Australia and I could easily argue had it not been for that loss I wouldn’t have played so well the following weeks.

TTN: Most in the tennis world have seen your legendary face-plant by now. What kind of reaction have you gotten for that and are you able to laugh about it now?

Jenkins: I’ve always thought it was hilarious. Probably the single most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done. My ex-girlfriend was watching from the sideline. I’m pretty sure that destroyed any chance I’ll ever have of getting back with her! (laughing)

TTN: You built a solid base of points at the end of the year, what does your schedule look like for the start of 2015?

Jenkins: Noumea challenger. Aussie quallies. Maui challenger. Then back “home” to Australia for some challengers.

TTN: Do you think next year is when you can make the breakthrough to the tour level? You’re not far off now. How hungry are you?

Jenkins: I think 2015 will be a special year for me. I’m all in. I really believe I have something special within me to make the breakthrough. In due time.

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.

A Conversation With Stefan Kozlov

Kozlov and good friend Noah Rubin pose with the American flag after the Wimbledon junior final. (PHOTO CREDIT: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Kozlov and good friend Noah Rubin pose with the American flag after the Wimbledon junior final. (PHOTO CREDIT: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

It’s no secret, American tennis(especially on the men’s side) has struggled mightily over the last ten years. So, naturally, everybody is looking for the next big American star. A name that has been talked about heavily is Stefan Kozlov, a 16 year old from Pembroke Pines, Florida. The American lost a tight three setter to big serving Sam Groth 6-3 6-7(5) 4-6 in the first round of qualifying at the Citi Open.

Born in Macedonia, Kozlov lived overseas until the age of one, when his family made the move to the United States. His game is a change of pace for American tennis fans. He doesn’t possess an enormously powerful serve, and although his forehand is a very good shot, but he is very solid in all aspects of the game. His biggest strength may well be his two handed backhand, which he can take very early. Kozlov recently reached the final of the Wimbledon Junior champaionship, losing out to good friend Noah Rubin in three sets. The Tennis Nerds(Joey Hanf) had a chance to sit down and talk with Stefan about a wide range of tennis subjects.

The Tennis Nerds: So you lost a tough three setter to Groth on Saturday, and you also lost a close three setter to Michael Pryzniezny last year in Newport. How much different is the level of play on the ATP tour?

Stefan Kozlov: I think it’s more about maintaining a high level. 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. I should have beat Groth, and I think I maybe even should have qualified. Once you put yourself in that spot, you never know what can happen. My goal is to train hard and put myself in more positions like that

The Tennis Nerds: It seems like you’ve started to get a little more emotional on the court recently. Are you making a conscious effort to fire yourself up?

Kozlov: Recently I’ve been really focused, trying to win more matches. At this Wimbledon I put an emphasis on playing well and going deep in the tournament. I’ve gotta keep moving forward because this is my last year of Junior slams. Every match gets more and more important. I’ve always been emotional, it just depends what match I’m playing. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been an emotional guy. I feel like especially at tournaments like here it helps me a lot, I can get the crowd involved.

The Tennis Nerds: You, Francis(Tiafoe), and Michael(Mmoh) have been playing together for a very long time now. What’s it like to compete alongside two friends as you try to make your mark on the ATP World Tour? How much do you guys push each other.

Kozlov: I think it’s great that it happened. Every one of us wants to do better than the other. It’s really just a natural habit; we want to do better than each other. It’s been a lot of fun.

The Tennis Nerds: Last year you got the quarters of Wimbledon(Juniors) and this year you reached the final. How much do you like the grass?

Kozlov: I’m really comfortable on grass. I think it’s one of my best surfaces. Actually, I think it is my best surface. I’ve always felt comfortable on it. There’s not too many weeks on grass for me, only two, so hopefully I’ll be able to play more(grass court tournaments).

The Tennis Nerds: You and Jared(Donaldson) recieved at wild card to play doubles in the main draw, and you drew the Bryan Brothers. How excited are you about that?

Kozlov: The first day I found out I was really excited. Now it’s kinda sunk it a little bit, and it’s still pretty surreal. I’m just excited to play. I’m not really happy(about drawing the Bryans) because I know it’s going to be a tough match, but I honestly think we can win. So that’s how confident I am in myself and Jared. If we play well, you knew never know.

The Tennis Nerds: I assume with this being your last in junior slams that you won’t be going to college?

Kozlov: No, I’ve already turned pro.

The Tennis Nerds: With your ranking in the 800’s…..

Kozlov: I haven’t really played too many pro events yet, so I think I’m much higher than my ranking shows.

The Tennis Nerds: Yeah you’re still playing some juniors. What’s your plan for the future, what events are you going to be playing?

Kozlov: I’m going to play the US Open(Juniors), Kalamazoo–hopefully I’ll do well in Kalamazoo so I can get a Wild Card into the Open. But yeah I’m trying to play more ATP events, hopefully get into some qualifying draws, and then some challengers and futures.

The Tennis Nerds: The state of American men’s tennis has been discussed a lot obviously, and everybody wants to know who is next. How much pressure do you feel being perhaps the most talked about name for the future?

Kozlov: I feel zero pressure. We don’t have that many top Americans, but I don’t compare myself to them. I compare myself to the best in the world. I think the fact that we don’t have a top American motivates everyone, but I don’t really feel pressure because of it you know what I mean?

The Tennis Nerds: Yeah I understand what you’re saying.

Kozlov: It’s kinda weird, I just try to focus on what I need to do to become number one in the world. I don’t really look at the top 100 to see how many guys we(United States) have there. I know we’re going to get better and better, and we’ll have more guys there soon.

The Tennis Nerds: What part of your game have you worked on the most over the last six months? It looks like you’re fitness is improving.

Kozlov: Yeah, me and my dad have tried to get after that. Moving forward, tennis is a very physical sport, and with my height and size matches are going to be really physical. So I’ve definitely worked on my fitness, but others things as well.

The Tennis Nerds: About that, it seems like you’ve grown a little bit. How tall are you?

Kozlov: 6 feet

The Tennis Nerds: Are you still growing?

Kozlov: Yeah I think I’m definitely still growing. I’m trying to grow everyday, you know.{laughing}My dad is helping me out, giving me a lot of vitamins, and we’ve been focusing on stretching.

The Tennis Nerds: The typical American game these days usually involves a big serve and a big forehand. You play much more of an all court game. How did that come about?

Kozlov: You’re going to have to ask my dad that{laughing}. I had no control over that to be honest. Whatever my dad taught me, I listened. So yeah, you’ll have to ask him.

The Tennis Nerds: About your dad, I know he coached you for most of your life. How much a balance do you have right now between your dad and the USTA?

Kozlov: I’ve been with Gully(Tom Gullickson–USTA) the last two weeks. My full time coach is Nicolas Todero, but his wife is having a kid so he hasn’t been traveling. I would say it’s a 70/30 ratio. 70 percent with the USTA, and 30 percent with my dad. I think me and my dad have a really good connection, so everything is working well so far.

The Tennis Nerds: Thanks Stefan.

Kozlov: My pleasure.