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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Kozlov Makes History Sweeping Orange Bowl Titles Capping Huge 2014

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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.

 

Kozlov Makes Main Draw Debut In Newport

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You might not recognize the player above, but be prepared to see a lot of him in the future. That is Stefan Kozlov, and as a 15 year old, he may be the United States best shot at a future number 1 ranked player. He played his first ATP World Tour match today, and it was a great showing for the youngster.

Kozlov vs Przysiezny- I’ve talked a little bit about Stefan before, but today I’m going to focus on the young American. He was born in Macedonia, but soon after moved to Pembroke Pines, Florida, where he now resides. He trains at the USTA player development camp in Boca Raton, and is moving up the ranks quickly. After taking out the number 2 ranked junior in the world, Alexander Zverev, and reaching the quarterfinals of the Wimbledon Juniors, Kozlov was awarded a wild card into the Hall of Fame Championships in Newport. He played the world number 119 Michal Przysiezny in the first round, and he really impressed. Playing somebody 14 years his elder, Kozlov(Know as “Koz” by his friends”) hung in with the big boys like he had been there his whole life. After losing a tight first set 3-6. Kozlov stormed back to go up 4-0 in the second. The polish man, who we call Przy because his nam is a mouthful, fought back with some great first strike tennis to even the score at 4-4. Kozlov saved numerous break points on the fast Newport grass before the two players eventually got to a tiebreak.

Had the match ended there it still would have been a great showing for Stefan, but that wasn’t enough for him. Down 3-6 in the tiebreak, and visibly tired, Koz came back to win the breaker 11-9, saving 4 match points in the process. He plays a very smart game Kozlov, mixing up the pace and changing the rhythm often. I think his backhand is his best shot; it resembles that of Wimbledon champ Andy Murray. He has a rock solid 2 hander, but also has a fantastic 1 handed slice. He was coming to the net often, and he has fantastic hands. The grass in Newport is much quicker than Wimbledon, and although you would think that would hurt the young Kozlov, he used it to his advantage.

The third set looked like it would go quickly in favor of Pryz, as Kozlov looked fatigued and was down 0-3. However, the youngster wasn’t going to let that happen. He won 4 games in a row with some fantastic tennis, taking advantage of a few errors from the Pryz. He hit a great forehand pass to break serve at 4-3, and the crowd was really getting behind the American.

Unfortunately the 15 year olds body couldn’t quite handle the last few games of the match, as he started to cramp badly. He fought to the end, but went down 4-6 in the third set. He earned numerous fans, and even though he was on the ground after the match, he can hold his head high after pushing a top 120 player to the limit.

As for he future, Kozlov still has a long junior career ahead of him. He has said that he might play a couple futures this year, but he will stay for the most part on the junior circuit. Currently ranked #17 in the world, Kozlov is the highest ranked American, and the #1 ranked 15 year old in the world. American tennis may have hope after all.