Monday, January 11, 2016

The triumph of Koz

Our intrepid guest contributor, Parsa, made his way to the USA F1 Futures event in Los Angeles for yesterday's final. The tournament was the first men's Futures in ITF history to offer a $25,000 prize pool. Enjoy his report on the excitement that transpired. Twitter users, be sure to follow Parsa at @Smith_J1989!

In the first-ever 25K men’s futures event, there were 64 players that started out in the qualifying draw, with another 24 players competing in the main draw in addition to the 8 qualifiers. However, during yesterday’s singles final, only two players remained standing: 17-year-old American Stefan Kozlov and 27-year-old Canadian Philip Bester. It was the second consecutive year that the University of Southern California (USC) hosted this USTA Pro Circuit event, however last year it was a 15K event.

Kozlov, from Florida, dropped only one set en route to the final while Bester advanced without dropping a single set. Kozlov’s first four opponents were Jean-Yves Aubone (Florida State ’11), Max de Vroome (USC senior), Gianluigi Quinzi (former ITF No. 1 junior), and top seed Tennys Sandgren (Tennessee ’11), who was injured. Meanwhile, Bester’s first four opponents were: Brandon Holt (USC commit), Jake Devine (USC freshman), 2015 NCAA champion Ryan Shane (UVA senior), and Clay Thompson (UCLA ’14).

Towards the end of 2015, Kozlov started working with Russian Andrei Cherkasov, a former ATP player who achieved a career-high singles ranking of 13. They found success together quite quickly as Kozlov won his first pro singles title in Belarus in October after previously going 0-3 in futures finals and 0-1 in challenger finals. Bester has been working with Bertrand de Ducla since the US Open, and de Ducla told me he has known Bester since he was 12 years old. Kozlov does not have the most firepower, however he has great shot selection and moves well around the court -- he is able to play some fantastic defense if needed. On the other hand, Bester has a big game comprising a pretty big serve, a nice flat forehand, and a decent one-handed backhand. Both Kozlov and Bester are exceptional at the net, and both players frequently used their strong volleys to their advantage.

Philip Bester in action (c) Parsa
Kozlov broke Bester three times in the first set but failed to consolidate the break each time, allowing Bester to get right back into the set each time. Kozlov had two set points on his own serve at 5-4, but blew both opportunities. During the first point he hit a forehand approach shot out, while on his second set point he netted a forehand. A few points later, Bester secured the break and was back in the match once again as he yelled “Allez” (means “come on” in French), a word he shouted throughout the match.

After having two set points of his own earlier in the set, the young American now found himself in a bit of a hole, down *3-6 in the tiebreaker. Kozlov won the two points on his serve to put the pressure on Bester, who wilted under pressure and hit a netcord on his second serve forcing his serve to go long. A few points later at 7-8 with Bester serving, Kozlov stepped in on the second serve to hit a low cross-court backhand which Bester netted to give Kozlov the first set. As a result, Kozlov jumped up in the air and fistpumped as he ran over to his seat excitingly.

It looked as though Kozlov was going to breeze through the second set as he quickly went up a break in the second set to go up 3-1. However, Bester stayed resilient and repeatedly pumped himself up between points as he stayed calm and composed in his effort to mount a comeback. Kozlov let up a bit in his next service game and Bester stepped up his game to get the break right back. The next crucial service game came at 4-all with Kozlov serving.

In between his first and second serve on the first point of the game, Kozlov started squeezing the ball and took it to the chair umpire for inspection as he thought it was a flat ball. He had a quick discussion with the chair umpire before he was given a replacement ball, however he was not given a first serve which irked him. Kozlov ended up winning that point which was good for him, as I suspect he would have had some more words for the chair umpire had he lost the point. Next at 15-15, Kozlov had a pretty routine overhead at the service line but he tried to be fancy as he attempted a drop volley, and Bester read the play perfectly, sprinting up to the service line to hit a beautiful backhand winner down the line. Two points later, Kozlov double faulted to hand Bester an opportunity to serve for the second set. Kozlov fought well though to get the break right back. At that point in the match, each player had their serve broken five times.

It was déjà vu in the second set tiebreaker as just like the first set, Bester raced out to a 6-3 lead. This time, he was not going to let the lead slip away as he crushed an ace down the T to force a third set.

There were no breaks of serve in the early part of the third set, until the American broke the Canadian in the fifth game to take a 3-2 lead. From there, Kozlov never looked back: he broke Bester once again at 5-3* to clinch the title after a two-hour and 50 minute battle!

A pumped Kozlov serving at 2-2 in the 3rd set. (c) Parsa

Both players are staying in the Southern California area as they are competing in this week's Long Beach 25K Futures. Kozlov is the fourth seed and will face fellow American teen Michael Mmoh in the first round. Bester is in the other half of the draw as the second seed, and he faces former USC player Yannick Hanfmann in the first round.

Interesting notes:

  • It was apparent that both players respected each other on the court as they regularly commended each other on each other’s nice shots.
  • Kozlov needs to mature a bit on the court, but that will come in time as he is only 17. In terms of gamesmanship and competitiveness, Kozlov reminds me of NBA star Chris Paul since both of them will do anything to win, and they both have extremely high IQ’s on the court. Kozlov started grunting a bit in the second and third sets, but it was sort of a delayed grunt which would occur a second after he swung his racquet which was funny to watch. Furthermore, in the third set, he was demonstrating to Bester that he was not going to just go away in the match as he was shouting “Come on,” very frequently in the third set, and this was usually followed up by a Michael Jordan-esque fistpump.

Kozlov fist pump. (c) Parsa

  • After he shook Bester and the umpire’s hands, Kozlov went to his bench and threw his racquet up in the air to show his joy. Oh and of course he dropped the racquet when he threw it up.
  • Shoutout to USC coach Peter Smith’s dog Rex for lying on the court adjacent to the match without so much of a whimper or bark. If only some professional players had that same level of etiquette towards the sport.
  • Shoutout to one of the ballboys who looked like he was about 9 years old since the poor fella got absolutely nailed by a Bester 1st serve near his stomach. He fought through the pain and carried out his duties as ball boy.

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