Monday, July 11, 2016

Stefan Kozlov is making strides

Stefan Kozlov won the doubles title at the 2016 Winnetka
Challenger. (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
Stefan Kozlov is a fun tennis player to watch. This isn't breaking news, of course. Anyone who watched him during his illustrious junior days, or who has followed his still-nascent pro career, can attest to what he brings to the sport: a full array of shots, a vocal enthusiasm, a flair for the dramatic.

Kozlov currently sits at a career-high #169 in the ATP rankings, having started the year at #351. He's the world's 7th-ranked teen, although only the 4th-ranked American teen. Still just 18 years old, Kozlov is the youngest member of the group of Americans, born between February 1996 and February 1998, that currently includes 8 of the 23 players under 21 years old in the Top 325. (No three other countries combined have more than 7 players in that age and ranking range.)

Last month on the grass of s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, Kozlov received a wildcard and notched his first two ATP match wins, over Yoshihito Nishioka and then American Steve Johnson, who two weeks later won his first ATP tournament in Nottingham and then reached the Wimbledon 4th round. Koz then lost 6-3 6-0 to soon-thereafter Novak Djokovic conqueror Sam Querrey.

Last week in Winnetka, Kozlov lost in the second round to eventual semifinalist Go Soeda, but teamed with Australian JP Smith to nab his second career challenger doubles title. (In the final, the natural left-hander showed off his skills by hitting a lefty forehand winner. See the 24-minute mark.) It was his 8th title as a pro, a total that includes four Futures singles titles, all since last fall.

I had the opportunity to talk with Kozlov following his and Smith's thrilling 4-6 7-5 (11-9) second round doubles win over the Winnetka top seeds, Dijiv Sharan and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan.

OTR: Just wanted to catch up with you, see how things are going. You had your first big pro trip playing a lot of bigger tournaments, when you went to Europe. Can you walk us through how that went for you?
SK: Yeah, I went over to Europe for 2 months and played a lot on red clay – a surface that I’m not so familiar with – and grass, a surface that I like. I played a lot of matches over there, fortunately, and I started playing a lot better on the red clay toward the end of the trip. But unfortunately I had to start playing grass then, and obviously I enjoyed the grass, had a lot of fun there, played some good people.

OTR: You made your first ATP quarterfinal while you were out there. How big was that for you?
SK: It was a very exciting week. I was having a lot of fun on court and playing some really good tennis and enjoying it, and I was really excited to beat a couple of good guys.

OTR: You beat a guy in Steve Johnson who just made the 4th round of Wimbledon. What does that tell you about where you’re at right now?
SK: That just tells me that I’m able to play at the level of these guys and keep being able to compete with them. Obviously Stevie’s a very good player. I played my best – I don’t know how he played – but it just shows that we’re all very close to going to the next level.

OTR: What does that next level look like in terms of your tennis? Not just your strokes but also your match play awareness?
SK: I’ve just got to keep building my ranking to get to the next level, and I’ve gotta keep improving every shot in my game and every mental aspect of my game. If I do that then hopefully I’ll get to the next level with all of the other Americans

OTR: When you’re playing guys like Stevie and Sam out there, are you consciously seeing it as a development opportunity, are you looking at it just in terms of a win or a loss? What are you thinking about on court?
SK: I’m just thinking about learning from these guys and getting a good experience, and hopefully I can see where my game is at against top players in the world and that’s what I did that week – just tried to see where my game was at. Obviously Sam beat me pretty handily, that was very tough.

OTR: I know you take a lot of pride in your return game. What is it that you think will make you an elite returner on the ATP?
SK: I think I’ve just got to be quicker – quicker split-stepping and moving, cause the guys, they serve really … they put it in good spots where you’ve really got to be able to move quick. I think if I get it in the middle of the racquet and I swing at it hard, that will help me out for sure.

OTR: You're now into the Top 200, which is going to help you get into some tournaments from here on out. What is your summer schedule going to look like?
SK: Just going to try to mix in one or two ATPs and the rest challengers so I can keep building my game and stuff like that. I’ll play Newport next week; I’ll play Binghamton and then Lexington I believe, and then not sure about after that.

OTR: Are you thinking at all about the USTA Wild Card Challenge?
SK: Yeah, I would love to get a wildcard into the Open. So whatever it takes to try to do it, I’ll for sure put myself in a position to.

OTR: In a few weeks is Kalamazoo [site of the USTA Boys National Championships]; you’re not going to be there for the first time in a while. Do you have any memories of that now that you’re a veteran of those wars?


SK: (With a wry smile.) Who knows, I might be there. I can still play of course. I’m just messing around. Probably not, but I had a lot of memories at Kalamazoo. One of the best junior tournaments I’ve ever played, always a lot of fun there. And it’s very well run by Mark Riley. It’s a blast, I have a lot of good memories. I’m never going to forget the match last year, the five-setter [against Frances Tiafoe in the final]. One of the toughest losses of my life, but we got over it and I love that place.

OTR: You and Frances Tiafoe are pretty close in the rankings right now. Are you guys aware of where each other is at and do you use it as motivation?
SK: Yeah we mess around. We know where each other is ranked and we try to pass each other every week, and we mess around a little bit. I caught up to him [after Kozlov's first round match] we had the same amount of points, and then he went up again [by reaching the Winnetka final]. (Laughs.) We’re playing cat and mouse here. We’re pretty good friends, we usually support each other.

OTR: Are you where you thought you would be a year ago? Or were you even thinking a year about being consistently at the Grand Slam qualifiers level?

SK: I wasn’t really thinking about that, I was just trying to improve my game and learn as much as I could from people around me. I wasn’t really worried about anything, just getting better. It’s still my objective today.

OTR: You picked up a few trophies the last several months. Are those trophies important to you or is it all about the points?
SK: I don’t mind about either, I like challenging myself with the ranking, and keep going up. New career highs are very fun for me. I had good success winning some Futures at the beginning of the year and then I moved up, so now it’s a little bit tougher to win tournaments, but hopefully I can start doing it again (laughs).

OTR: If you were to envision yourself a year from now – I know it’s tough to do – but where would you like to be? Where Taylor Fritz [current ranking: #64] is now, where Alexander Zverev [current ranking: #27] is now?
SK: I don’t know where I’d like to be, it really depends on how things turn out. But of course I want to be as good as I can be and I honestly don’t know what that’s going to be, so hopefully where Zverev is or … I don’t know.

OTR: Finally, how has it been traveling with your brother [Boris, age 15] this week?

SK: A lot of fun. He's not much around.

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