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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Tiafoe Makes History with Orange Bowl Title; Flink Roars Back to Take Girls Championship

©Colette Lewis 2013--
Plantation, FL--

The celebration said it all.

The roars, the fist pumps and the racket spike after Francis Tiafoe's ace sealed a 7-6(3), 0-6, 6-3 victory over Stefan Kozlov in the Metropolia Orange Bowl final signaled just how much the championship meant to him.

Although only 15, Tiafoe is no rookie when it comes to big tournaments on big stages, having won Les Petits As, the prestigious 14-and-under tournament in Tarbes France in 2012, and more recently, the Pan American Closed, an ITF Grade B1 event in October, beating Americans in the finals, just as he did Sunday.

Yet beating No. 4 seed Kozlov--also 15, but long the alpha dog of the 1998 birth year they share--in front of a packed Stadium Court at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center, was special for the College Park, Maryland native.

"I've lost to Kozlov four or five times, I've never beaten him before," said the 13th-seeded Tiafoe, who became the youngest boys 18 winner in tournament history. "Today, I was for sure the underdog. Kozlov's done a lot this year, he's played unbelievable, so I was very happy."

Tiafoe's resilience played a major role in coming back from a 4-1 deficit in the first set. He got the break back with Kozlov serving at 4-2, when Kozlov double faulted to give Tiafoe a break point. It was an odd point, with Tiafoe shanking a ball and beginning to berate himself for his missed opportunity, only to see the ball land in. Fortunate not to be called for a hindrance, Tiafoe regrouped in time to return Kozlov's shot, and ended up winning the point, then held for 4-all.

Tiafoe saved two set points serving at 5-6, with Kozlov making a backhand error after a long rally on the first, and Tiafoe hitting a big serve and a big forehand to force an error on the second.

In the tiebreaker, Tiafoe took a 3-1 lead and never trailed, with Kozlov beginning to rely on his drop shot. At 5-3, Kozlov hit a bad one, which Tiafoe had no trouble retrieving, placing his reply out of Kozlov's reach. A backhand return wide on a Tiafoe second serve, gave Tiafoe the set, which had lasted well over an hour.

Kozlov took a bathroom break, and that too was lengthy, with Tiafoe fidgeting in his chair for eight minutes.  The delay didn't appear to initially bother Tiafoe, who took a 40-0 lead on serve, but Kozlov won the next five points, and the next five games as well.

"I thought, we're going the distance, why even try," Tiafoe said.

At the end of the second set, Tiafoe's shirt was soaked in the 83 degree heat and tropical humidity, but it was Kozlov who elected to take another bathroom break. Because he had taken the one he is allowed by ITF rules, this time he had to return by the time the court was groomed and ready for play.  He didn't make it, with the tournament referee and chair umpire giving him a point penalty for a time violation, with Kozlov rushing back to take his position on the return.

"That was surprising," said Tiafoe. "I didn't hear anything about that. I was happy, because he had started returning really well. I was hitting a lot of second serves and he was putting them away, so I was happy about that [point]. It gave me the confidence there to hold."

Tiafoe broke for a 2-0 lead, but was broken in the next game, the second of five consecutive breaks. Tiafoe's return, especially on the backhand side, was key in the three breaks, and he got plenty of looks at second serves. Tiafoe finally consolidated his break, unleashing a warp speed forehand that had the crowd gasping early in the game and another forehand winner and a big serve to close it out.

Kozlov, a deliberate player under any conditions, was moving even more slowly in the final few games. He held to force Tiafoe to serve it out, and won the first point of the final game with a perfect backhand pass. But Tiafoe came up with a backhand pass of his own, then a good first serve, and when Kozlov's attempt at a drop shot didn't even reach the net, it was suddenly match point.

"Before serving, I thought I'm just going to hit it as hard as I can down the T, it doesn't matter where it goes," Tiafoe said of his thoughts on match point. "I was feeling good, because his body language was getting really poor, and I thought if I make it, he won't even move for it. I hit it as hard as I can and probably the best [serve] of the whole match. It was unbelievable."

As for his celebration, Tiafoe said, "I didn't know what to do. I was too excited, so I slammed my racquet. I've never slammed by racquet in excitement before."

Kozlov put the loss squarely on his fitness.

"I've had a really tough week and some long matches, and my body's obviously not fully grown yet," said Kozlov, from nearby Pembroke Pines, Florida. "When I got here for the warm up this morning I was exhausted. The next time you guys see me I'm going to be a lot stronger, and this won't happen again."

Kozlov mentioned that his losses in the finals of the Junior Orange Bowl 12s and 14s only made this one more difficult.

"I'm going to have to get in a lot better shape if I want to keep playing, keep winning tournaments, because finals is not enough," said Kozlov.

Kozlov is heading to Australia, but Tiafoe is going to return to Florida in January for the Futures tournaments that start the 2014 Pro Circuit.

Although his longtime coach Mischa Kouznetsov flew in from wintery Maryland when he heard his pupil had made the final, Tiafoe's parents and brother did not attend, with an immediate phone call their first chance to congratulate him.

"I called my dad and my mom right after, my brother, I was very excited," said Tiafoe, who grew up at the Junior Tennis Champions Center, where his father was head of maintenance. "I usually call them at night after my matches. But this time I called them right away."

The USTA's head of men's tennis Jay Berger was at the match, and spoke of the precocious results of the 1998 birth year, which includes Kozlov, Tiafoe, Michael Mmoh, William Blumberg and others.

"In the first year of 18s, you would expect the kids to be vying for grand slam titles," said Berger. "So certainly having them play for such a prestigious title as the Orange Bowl at 15 years old and making history bodes well for their development and where they are in relationship to the rest of the world."

Berger understands that the American tennis fans are looking to some of these younger players to revive the men's game in this country.

"There's no question that the United States is looking for the next great player," Berger said. "But really, these kids, I think they really have great guidance, not to say the other kids don't. They know this is a stepping stone, and that their goals are a lot higher. The Americans are getting a little chip on their shoulder, and saying, we want to get US tennis back to where it belongs. It's an such an international sport now, with so many great athletes, but I think we're moving in the right direction."

The girls final, played under threatening skies and before decidedly fewer spectators, saw top seed Varvara Flink of Russia complete a remarkable comeback to post a 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 win over No. 2 seed Ivana Jorovic of Serbia.

Down 4-1 in the third set, with Jorovic serving, Flink found a new gear, rifling winners of every variety, eliminating the unforced errors that plagued her in the second set and the early part of the third.

"That break was unbelievably important," said Flink, who turned 17 on Friday. "I got that break and that was my chance. I was really happy, because I was really fighting against myself as well. She was putting pressure on my forehand, but I found myself, and I'm really happy."

Flink got the second break back on a lovely backhand slice drop shot, then held for 5-4.  Jorovic, a 16-year-old who had beaten Flink in the final of the Grade A Osaka Mayor's Cup in October, was holding on for dear life, somehow trying to withstand the flurry of winners coming off Flink's racquet.

With Jorovic now serving to stay in the match, the first two points went to Flink with a forehand volley winner and a forehand return winner. Jorovic responded with two winners of her own, but at 30-30, Jorovic failed to get a first serve in, and Flink made her pay, hitting a big forehand return that Jorovic couldn't handle.  Match point was played twice, with Flink hitting a forehand long, but then asking the ballperson for the ball and showing the chair umpire it was broken. As the rule requires, the point was replayed, and after a short rally Jorovic netted a forehand to give Flink the victory.

"I was lucky with this, but that's why I missed the ball because it was already broken," Flink said of the replayed point. "If the rally's done, but the ball was broken, you replay the point. That's the rule."

A tearful Jorovic blamed herself, as well as Flink's elevated play, for the loss.

"I had 4-1, 40-15 my serve and I lost the game," said Jorovic. "It's not normal to lose focus when you're up 4-1, but it happens. I was trying to play my game, I was trying to win every point, but I just lost my focus. She was serving every ball on the line. When you lose focus and the opponent wakes up, it's normal, it's tennis."

Jorovic is planning to play the Australian Open junior championships, while Flink is also hoping to play in Melbourne, although she said she has a visa problem that needs to be resolved first.

In the boys doubles championship, No. 2 seeds Filippo Baldi of Italy and Lucas Miedler of Austria squeezed past top seeds Andrey Rublev of Russia and Alexander Zverev of Germany 6-3, 6-7(6), 10-8.  At 8-all in the match tiebreaker, Miedler poached and knocked off the forehand volley winner, and on match point, he struck another perfect volley up the middle after a long rally.

"I saw the ball, and obviously I have to take it because it's my ball," said Miedler. "I was standing there, didn't know what to do, and then the ball came to me, and I just tried to put the ball over there."

"When it's like this, 8-all match tiebreak, you have to be a bit lucky," said Miedler. "And you have to take the opportunity. If you wait for the mistake, it won't work, so you have to get the chance and then take it."

Miedler and Baldi have played just three tournaments together and have won them all--the European Championships, the Eddie Herr and now the Orange Bowl.

"We play good together and play better every time we play," said Baldi. "That's a good thing."

"I like him more and more, and that's also good," Miedler said with a laugh.

The girls doubles champions were playing together for the first time, with Naiktha Bains of Australia and Tornado Alicia Black, the No. 5 seeds, defeating unseeded Sonya Kenin and Kaitlyn McCarthy 6-0, 6-1.

Bains, who won the Eddie Herr doubles title with Anna Bondar of Hungary, needed a partner for the Orange Bowl and with the help of her agent and Black's agent, they agreed to team up this week.

"I think we're both pretty solid," said Bains, who, like Black, is 15. "We get along really well," said Black. "Yeah, we do," Bains agreed, "and that helps on the court. We have good teamwork, work together well, and we have some fun too."

"And we don't get mad at each other," said Black, who expressed her affection for Obie, the Orange Bowl mascot, as he circulated among the dignitaries, players and fans.

With such a big lead in the final, Bains and Black had to keep their minds off the result.

"They fought hard, and at any stage it could have gotten close if we hadn't closed it out," said Bains. "So we focused on closing it out, did what we needed to do, didn't look at the finish line too soon."

For the complete results from the Metropolia Orange Bowl, see the tournament website.


Unknown said...

When is the video for this match coming out?

Tennisopolis said...

Great coverage!

One little typo here: "He got the break back with Kozlov serving at 4-3..." From the math, and your later description that Tiafoe held to reach 4-4, this should read "4-2".

Colette Lewis said...

Thanks for the correction. I've fixed it.

PTWahoo14 said...

I just made a post on Menstennisforum.com talking about how rare it is for a 15 year old to have finished not just in the top ten of itf, but even just the top 100 itf year end rankings. And I reference a little bit a discussion held on your website about junior players focusing on pros and that issue skewing the junior rankings.

my post: http://www.menstennisforums.com/showpost.php?p=19756705&postcount=975

But my resources for all my research is basically just google and the itf website, and I faced many strange inconsistencies. I was wondering if you might have more dependable resources for these rankings?

Also I thought it'd be a good discussion starter for commenters on here if they're interested in reading it at all.

RSQ said...

What do you think of Tiafoe's potential? I noticed his forehand had an unusual technique a year ago, but he seemed to have fixed that and looks to have made a jump in the last year. How do you compare his game to Mmoh's? Both seem like great kids and I wish them the best.

Colette Lewis said...

Thanks for the link to your post, and your research. The ITF rules requires players to compete in 3 Grade As and 3 tournaments outside their own countries to be included in the year-end rankings. That's why the seemingly random cutoffs. It also explains the dearth of young players you note. It's hard to get into 3 Grade As.

PTWahoo14 said...

Colette, thanks for your response. That's an interesting rule. I doubt that has any implications on how rare and profound it for Mmoh, Tiafoe, and Kozlov to end up in the top ten like they did.

However that might have implications on whether fewer or more top juniors have been forgoing junior competitions to work on futures and challengers as of late. It's really hard to tell which way things are trending, if they're changing at all.

Hoosier said...

Glad to hear Kozlov realizes he needs to step up and get in shape to compete against the other boys. Unfortunately, I don't know many of the girls that have realized that shortfall.