Sunday, August 9, 2015

My 2015 Zoo Awards

And so ends the 2015 USTA Boys National Hardcourt Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I had a fantastic time, and am so grateful to the players, the staff, the volunteers, and particularly my fellow writer Colette Lewis for all their help over the past several days. Colette has the comprehensive write-ups from each day - most definitely check them out - and the draws and player profiles are all at

I'll have more of my thoughts from the tournament in the coming days, but I thought it would be cool to give some awards based on what I saw over the week I was there (Wednesday through Sunday). Basically, the Round of 16 through the finals.


Match of the week (18s): That final.

An epic epic. A grueling test of physical stamina, mental acuity, shots, strategy, emotional maturity. Frances Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov were both done playing junior tennis, but both came to Kalamazoo with one purpose: to get that wild card into the US Open men's singles main draw. Both dispatched some of the best players their age in the world. Tiafoe took out the Wimbledon junior champion and the French Open junior champion. Kozlov dispatched the #1 junior player in the world. Both arrived at Sunday's best-of-five final extremely confident, fit, and focused.

Tiafoe started on Sunday the much better player. He was ripping his forehand and his serve got him out of trouble again and again. He won the first set 6-2 and then captured the second 6-4 and went up 3-1 in the third and it was honestly disappointing for me, as I stayed an extra day just to see what was supposed to be "a war."

And then Tiafoe blinked, and then Kozlov pounced, and all of a sudden...

Kozlov went up an early break but Tiafoe got it back and then it was 4-4 in the fifth and the crowd, and the Twitterverse, and everyone watching on the live stream was absolutely entranced.

Tiafoe won that game, thanks to an absolutely ... god, clutch isn't even the word ... sensational? Historic? ... forehand down the line pass to set up break point. I didn't capture that shot, dang it, but I did get the next one where he got the break, and served for the match. Tiafoe was excited.

But of course, that couldn't be that, not that simply. First Kozlov got to 30-40, but Tiafoe saved break point with a fantastic, a gorgeous drop shot. Then Tiafoe got to his first match point, but Kozlov saved it with this:

Two points later, Frances Tiafoe was your champion.

He was gracious in victory as Kozlov was gracious in defeat, and half an hour later, they were joking around on the same court where they had just recently tried to destroy each other. It was great for them, great for us, and great for American tennis that these two sons of immigrants (one an immigrant himself) could represent themselves, their country, and their sport with such excellence. It was an honor to be here for it.

Match of the week (16s): Jason Lui d. Keenan Mayo 6-7(0) 6-1 7-5 (Round of 16). I literally only saw 3 points of this match, but they were all match points, and on all three of them, Lui played "brave tennis" as Colette Lewis put it. He went big, and he didn't go home. I mean, eventually he went home. It would be weird for him to have just stayed in Kalamazoo forever.

Match of the week (back draw): Zeke Clark d. Sam Riffice 7-6(10) 6-3 (feed-in final). If I remember correctly, the pint-sized monster known as Zeke Clark was down 2*-5 and had set points against him at 4*-5 15-40. But he held to force a tiebreak, and then saved an additional 5 set points, including 3 straight at 3-6. Yes, he was helped by Riffice's tentativeness and unforced errors, but mostly he was helped by his incredible in-point focus and refusal to quit. His smile at the awards ceremony said it all.

Dramatic moment of the week (18s)Michael Mmoh d. John McNally 4-6 6-4 6-4 (Round of 16). Quite honestly, until the final there weren't too many epic struggles featuring the highest level play from both players culminating in a dramatic final set in which the outcome was totally in doubt.

That said, Mmoh vs. McNally was pretty damn good. McNally came out like gangbusters, hitting big and moving well, dictating from the baseline, undaunted by Mmoh's pedigree and game. But in the second and third sets, Mmoh started coming in more and finally got the win he was favored to get.

And then this happened.

That lit up Twitter for a bit, but hey! We like a little controversy!

Dramatic moment of the week (16s): Boys 16s semifinal between Alexander Rotsaert and Kyrylo Tsygura. Rotsaert was serving for the match at 6-3 5-3, but got down 15-40. During the next point, Tsygura busted a string, and Rotsaert was able to win an extended rally. Tsygura then went to get a new racquet, but needed to put a new overgrip on it. In the process of doing so, he got a warning (after double checking that he wouldn't get a point penalty) and a concerned Rotsaert asked "how much longer" until that penalty. The answer? 20 seconds. 19.5 seconds later, Tsygura was in returning position, and won the next point to get back on serve. (Unfortunately for him, he was broken in the next game, and Rotsaert advanced to the final.)

Biggest upset (18s): Reese Stalder d. Sam Riffice (9), 2nd Round. Frankly there were very few singles upsets throughout the tournament, notwithstanding Henrik Wiersholm's three-set win over #8 seed William Blumberg, who was under the weather. And also very few matches in which both players played at a very high level right to the end of the final set. But apparently 2nd round match, which took place before I reached Kalamazoo, reached that level. The TCU recruit followed it up with a win over Alex Cauneac before falling to #20 seed John McNally 4-6 6-3 6-3.

Kudos to Riffice, by the way, for playing the entire back draw and reaching the final. A well deserved Sportsmanship Award for that.

Biggest upset (16s): Keenan Mayo d. Jake Van Emburgh 7-5 6-3 (Round of 16). Like Stalder/Riffice, it happened before I got there but Colette as usual has the goods.


Warrior award (18s): Frances Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov.

Warrior award (16s): Patrick Kypson.

This was Patrick 7 weeks ago.
This was Patrick today.

Patrick Kypson. (c) Bill Kallenberg
On a plane to Miami, en route to Guatemala to play in an ITF juniors tournament in June, Kypson suffered a burst appendix and then got an infection in the hospital. It was a bit touch and go there. After he recovered, he wasn't sure he'd be able to play Kalamazoo. And now, without dropping a set, he will forever be the 2015 USTA Boys Hardcourt National Champion. And he gets a wild card to the US Open Boys tournament. Bravo.

Best backhand (one-hander): Alex Rybakov. Well, he's the only one other than Dennis Uspensky whom I saw with the one-hander, but he's got a great one. As he continues to develop it in college and beyond, he's going to make a lot of fanboys-and-girls happy.

Best backhand (two-hander): Tommy Paul. Guess it helps that, like Stefan Kozlov, Tommy is naturally left-handed. That thing just moves through the court and makes our hearts flutter for next year's clay court season.

Best forehand: Frances Tiafoe. I don't care what Greg Couch says. That thing is lethal (if perhaps unorthodox), versatile, and will win him plenty of ATP matches in the future. It, along with his serve, certainly won him this title.

Best serve: Reilly Opelka. (See below for "best interview exchange" for more on this.)

Best first-serve return: Frances Tiafoe. For this tournament, at least, he was matching pace for pace, getting returns deep and was into nearly all of Tommy Paul's and Stefan Kozlov's service games. He also returned Reilly Opelka well and even broke him  which, hey, points for that. Several guys returned well this week but Tiafoe happened to impress me the most.

Best second-serve return: Taylor Fritz. He will hurt you if you give him the chance. To wit:

Best hands: Stefan Kozlov. He and Tiafoe both have great hand-eye coordination, ability to disguise their shots, and make pick-ups that leave your mouth agape. But I'll give the slight edge to Stefan here for his preternatural calmness and his doubles prowess (even though he didn't play doubles here).

Best movement: Paul, Tiafoe, and Kozlov are all fantastic movers but I'm going to go with Michael Mmoh here. Particularly for his size, he's really top-notch.

Best tennis IQ: Stefan Kozlov. It's a little bit eerie, to be honest.

Best interview (player): Taylor Fritz. Knows tennis, knows his game, knows his opponents' game. Thoughtful, articulate, confident but still down to earth. Reminds me a lot of Collin Altamirano from my first Zoo last year.

Best interview (non-player): Mark Bey. Could pick his tennis brain forever.

Best interview exchange: Reilly Opelka calling himself a "servebot." Here's the full exchange:

JK: What's changed for you in the last year? I remember coming here last year - you weren't a top 8 seed, there were still some question marks about how your game was going to transition with your height, I think?

RO: What do you mean, question marks?

JK: About .. how can I put this? About whether or not you were just going to be a servebot basically.

RO: I am. I'm going to be.

JK: Well, clearly you have a lot more to offer than that.

RO: Hopefully. But I am. I mean, I am already, I'm going to have to be. I mean, Isner and Anderson, if they wanted to play points to entertain the crowd, I think they could. But they won't win, and they know that. It's a nightmare having to play John. One point, he hits an ace, the next point, he'll hit a forehand winner or he'll miss it and then the other guy has no rhythm, he has no feeling for the match, and that's just how it is. ... I'm going to have to get my serve a lot better. Because it's coming back at the next level.

Best doubles team: Joshua Sheehy/Parker Wynn. The Texan lefties came up short in the Boys 18s final, getting broken once in each set and unable to return Opelka or Fritz with any consistency (no break points for them in the match). But as Fritz said, they played textbook doubles, and just getting to the final was an outstanding achievement. They'll next play in New Haven, at the US Open National Playoffs, having won the Texas section and very much hoping to get a wild card into the US Open doubles main draw.

Tough luck award: William Blumberg, who was ill to start the tournament (had to pull out of doubles) and who was given a crap draw in the "unseeded and looming" Wiersholm. He won his first set 6-1 but then fell 3&4 and couldn't play the back draw. When historians write the story of why all of the top 8 seeds didn't make the quarterfinal, Blumberg's illness asterisk will have to be part of that.

Boy does he hit hard all the time award: Eduardo Nava. Boy, does he hit the ball hard. ALL THE TIME!
(Nava, by the way, was the non-Top 8 seed who got out of Blumberg's quarter. It was good to finally see him, as he's been playing mostly clay Futures overseas.)

Boy does he hit with a lot of variety award: Kyrylo Tsygura. Great to see a guy in the 16s demonstrate that critical element of high-level tennis. As he said in an interview, he wants to use his variety to make sure his opponent doesn't get into a rhythm, and gets frustrated.

Boy is he intense award (aka the Jan-Michael Gambill Award for Intensity in Kids These Days): Zeke Clark. He's not the biggest guy. He's not the meanest guy. But every point this kid plays is a battle. He's committed to the University of Illinois and I have to think he's going to make Brad Dancer's job pretty dang easy.

Official Sportsmanship Awards (given by the tournament): Brandon Holt (18s), JJ Wolf (16s), Sam Riffice (Feed-Ins).

On the Rise (a tennis blog) Sportsmanship AwardAlex Rybakov for consenting to be the subject of my profile, for warming up Opelka and Fritz to help get them ready for the two lefties in the doubles final, and for generally being a pleasant fellow all week.


Best photo I took: Kozlov is seemingly always balanced. And not bad for a phone photo.

Stefan Kozlov. (c) Jonathan Kelley

Photo I took that underscored just how darn good this Zoo 18s field was:

Best video I took: From the first set of Kozlov/Fritz.

Best other video I took: From the fifth set - match point - of Kozlov/Tiafoe:

Best video compilation about Kalamazoo that I worked super hard at:

Best trivia I learned and duly reported: University of Georgia star Lauren Herring used to babysit both Tommy Paul and Patrick Kypson. Crazy!

Official On the Rise (a tennis blog) prediction on 2015 Kalamazoo player most likely to win a major: HAHAHA no chance I'm going to give you that.

Again, my thanks to everyone who helped make this a great week, and congratulations to all the competitors, their families, coaches, and the USTA.

Who were your winners for the week? Let us know in comments!


  1. Great article Jo--enjoyed your coverage all this week! Keep it up.

    1. really appreciate that! It was such a fun week :)