©Colette Lewis 2012--
Mitchell Kreuger was in a difficult position in the final of the International Spring Championships, played at the Home Depot Center on an unseasonably warm Easter morning.
Not only was the 18-year-old from Aledo, Texas the top seed, he was facing 14-year-old prodigy Stefan Kozlov, who specializes in forcing his older and stronger opponents in uncomfortable places on the tennis court.
Krueger survived, defeating the 12th-seeded Kozlov 6-3, 6-4 in just under two hours, but he was effusive in his praise of the young Floridian.
"The way he plays is really unique, really different," said Krueger, who had never played Kozlov before, and had only hit with him once previously. "I think he makes you play a lot slower than you would want to. He gets you into the trap of doing what he wants you to do and if you bite, you're right where he wants you."
Krueger found out quickly what a difficult match it would be, when he was forced to save four break points in the first game.
Kozlov showed no sign of nerves--he said after the match that he "just came out and played my game, and if I lost, I lost"--enabling him to hit his usual array of lobs, touch volleys, slices and angles. He had plenty of chances to break Krueger, but didn't capitalize, with the only break of the first set coming with Kozlov serving at 3-4.
Kozlov saved several break points in that game, but was adamant that the last one should have been his ad, not Krueger's. Krueger had hit a backhand down the line winner that the linesman and the chair ruled good, but Kozlov was certain it was wide, resulting in a lengthy discussion with the chair about the call. To compound his frustration, Kozlov was on the wrong end of a net cord on the next point, giving Krueger the chance to serve out the set, which he did with a love game.
"I got lucky to win the first set, I think," Krueger said. "He was playing better than me, and I just played one good return game and that's all it took. The second set he was up pretty much the whole set."
Kozlov got his first break of Krueger in the second game, taking a 2-0 lead, but Krueger got it back in the next game, and saved break points to make it 3-3. Serving at 4-4, Kozlov made two errors, a very rare occurrence, netting a forehand and missing a forehand volley. With two Krueger winners sandwiched around those errors, the Texan had his break, and would serve for the match.
When Krueger fell behind 15-40 after two Kozlov winners, it looked as if the match would enter its third hour, but Krueger's serve saved him. A good first serve and an ace made it deuce, but Kozlov got break point number three when Krueger netted a forehand. Krueger's overhead, solid all morning despite a cloudless sky, saved that break point, which would be the last one Kozlov would have.
But the drama was far from over.
Krueger earned a match point with another overhead winner, but double faulted, one of the rare times he didn't get his first serve in during the six-deuce game. He made up for it with an ace, to earn match point number two, but let a Kozlov passing shot go without making a play on it. Krueger regretted his decision when a moment later, when it fell on the baseline.
Match point number three came and went on a backhand wide, and after a kind net cord on a drop volley gave Krueger match point number four, that too was saved by Kozlov with a forehand winner.
During these tense points, Krueger was calm, but Kozlov was getting increasingly agitated by the service line calls.
"I'm going to say I got unlucky a little bit, but the calls were just getting to me," said Kozlov. "The calls, they were first serves, but they were long. But whatever, whatever."
After Kozlov hit a backhand volley long, Krueger had his fifth match point, which he converted with yet another overhead winner.
"It was so nerve-wracking," Krueger said. "But I hit some big serves when I really needed it. I hadn't really served that big throughout the whole match, but I felt like going for it. Thank god it worked out."
Kozlov regretted not converting his chances, but will go into his first round match at the Easter Bowl Tuesday with a lot of confidence, given his performance this week.
"I thought I played well," said Kozlov, who will be the youngest boy in the top 100 when the new ITF rankings are released on Tuesday. "I'm a little bit physically tired, but I fought. It was a good week anyway."
Krueger believes Kozlov has the skills to equal the junior accomplishments of another American prodigy.
"He definitely makes you think," Krueger said. "He's got incredible potential--I don't think that I've ever seen a player like this, maybe Donald Young--and I think he has a chance to maybe do what Donald did. If he keeps going, he'll do very well.
"I don't know how to describe his game. A lot of slices, drop shots, lobs, just a lot of kind of nothing balls that make you create a lot. He doesn't miss much and can pull the trigger all of a sudden. I think I did well just to hang in there as well as I could."
In contrast to the boys final, the girls final between No. 7 seed Allie Kiick and No. 3 seed Chalena Scholl didn't feature an age difference or a new matchup. Long time rivals in Florida, the two 16-year-olds were meeting for the third time in eight months having split their previous two matches, with Kiick taking Sunday's contest 6-0, 6-2.
Kiick won the first set in under 30 minutes, with Scholl struggling to find the court, and Kiick winning the important points.
"I was lucky," Kiick said, knowing she had caught Scholl on an off-day. "Chalena didn't play her best match today. She was more aggressive. I was doing well at times, but at other times, I was behind the baseline, essentially waiting for her to make the mistake."
That she got those mistakes in the first set helped Kiick in the second, when Scholl, who had dropped only one set in her five previous wins, started to stay in points longer. Although Kiick never trailed in the second set, Scholl was able to get a break of serve to make it 3-2, only to be broken herself the next game, giving Kiick the cushion she needed.
"In the first set, I didn't really finish the points off," said Scholl, who won two ITF tournaments in South America last month. "She played really well today."
Kiick was able to find angles and finish at the net throughout the final match, skills she will need as she tries to reach her goal, not in a junior ranking, but a professional one. She credits USTA coaches Kathy Rinaldi and Troy Hahn with assisting her development in the past year.
"They've really helped me a lot, physically and mentally," said Kiick, who would like to reach the WTA Top 200 by the end of the year. "Especially mentally, I've really improved in that aspect of the game, and I can't thank them enough for everything they've done. Getting rid of the negativity, turning it into positive thinking, I've talked to some sports psychologists and they've really helped me out. It's been going a lot better, and playing the pro tournaments, I've seen that you can't act like an immature 16-year-old."
As for celebrating her victory in Carson, Kiick doesn't have time, with her first match at the Easter Bowl, where she was a semifinalist last year, scheduled for Monday. But she did have a phone call to make--to her father Jim Kiick, the former Miami Dolphin running back.
"I talked to him yesterday and he was really excited, so I can't wait to call him right now," Kiick said.
For Scholl, the quick turnaround required at the Easter Bowl is something of a relief.
"It's definitely difficult, but you think about this match and you're bummed a little bit, but there's another tournament," said Scholl. "It's a good thing, a chance to bounce back faster."
For complete draws from the International Spring Championships, see the tournament page at usta.com.