Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kozlov, 16, escapes again to reach Sacramento final

Stefan Kozlov, 16, falls onto his back to celebrate his victory over No. 2 seed
Tim Smyczek in the semifinals of the $100,000 Sacramento Challenger. It was
Kozlov's first win over a top-100 player. Photo by Paul Bauman
   SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Stefan Kozlov has pulled off more amazing escapes than Houdini this week.
   Kozlov, a 16-year-old wild card, somehow managed to stun No. 2 seed and fellow American Tim Smyczek 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (1) on Saturday in the semifinals of the $100,000 Sacramento Pro Circuit Challenger.
   Kozlov recorded his first victory over a top-100 player — Smyczek (pronounced SMEE-check) is No. 99 — and reached his first Challenger final in only his third attempt.
   He will face top-seeded Sam Querrey, a San Francisco native and former Sacramento Capital in World TeamTennis, today after the 10:30 a.m. doubles final.
No. 1 seed Sam Querrey defeated John Millman in three
sets for his 11th straight victory. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Querrey beat unseeded John Millman of Australia 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 for his 11th straight victory since losing to top-ranked Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the third round of the U.S. Open.
   Millman, the 2010 Sacramento champion, returned to competition in April after missing 11 months because of shoulder surgery.   
   Kozlov has won all four of his matches at the Natomas Racquet Club in three sets, and each battle has been closer than the last. 
   This time, the 5-foot-10 (1.78-meter) right-hander encountered:
    —Tightness in his right elbow that almost caused him to retire from the match.
    —A ball accidentally drilled at him at the net. It missed Kozlov.
    —A collision with a fence.
    —Three game points for Smyczek to lead 4-1 (one service break) in the third set.
    —Two break points at 3-4 in the third set. If Smyczek had converted either, he would have served for the match.
    —A cramp in his left quadricep in the 3-4 game.
    —The decisive tiebreaker.
   It was the tennis version of being locked in handcuffs and leg irons, placed in a nailed box with ropes tied around it and lowered into a river.
   No way Kozlov gets out of his predicament.
   But he did.
   "That just shows you how much heart I have out there," Kozlov explained. "I didn't quit on one point. At 3-1, 40-0 (for Smyczek) to go up 4-1 in the third, I honestly thought the match was over if he would have held there. But I showed a lot of heart and somehow got back in that game and got back in the match."
Kozlov, right, strongly resembles Brian Martinez, left,
the Sacramento tournament director. Martinez joked
that Kozlov is his son. Photo by Paul Bauman

   Kozlov said he gets his determination from his Russian father. Andrei and Larissa Kozlov moved to the Southeastern European country of Macedonia, where Stefan was born, in search of better tennis opportunities and to South Florida when Stefan was 1.
   Stefan and his 14-year-old brother were named after International Tennis Hall of Famers Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, respectively. 
   Andrei runs the Kozlov Tennis Academy in Pembroke Pines, a suburb of Miami.
   "We don't live in the biggest house or have the nicest cars," admitted Stefan, who speaks fluent Russian. "We grind day by day. If I do well here, I'm earning money for my family and my brother so he can travel to tournaments.
   "I'm not playing for myself. I'm playing for my family. I'm playing for a lot of things."
   Kozlov, who turned pro at 14, added that he has two major endorsement contracts but wouldn't say how much they're worth. Some of the money is guaranteed and some is based on incentives, he said.  
   The winner of the Challenger, equivalent to Triple A in baseball, will collect $14,400 and the runner-up $8,480.
   Kozlov prevented Smyczek from reaching his second consecutive Sacramento Challenger final. He lost last year to Donald Young, who played in Tokyo on the elite ATP World Tour this week and lost to U.S. Open runner-up Kei Nishikori in the second round.
   "I got off to a good start and then just wasn't able to maintain it the rest of the day," said Smyczek, 26. "He kind of took me out of my game a little bit, and I never really found it after the first set.
   "He plays a real unconventional style ... He uses the slice a lot — (including on) the forehand, which you don't see much — and he's good at sneaking into the net and knocking volleys off. You don't see the variety that he brings very much."
   Kozlov will skyrocket from No. 763 in the world to approximately No. 450 if he loses to Querrey and to about No. 350 if he pulls off another upset.
   Kozlov will go from playing one of the smallest players on the tour to one of the biggest. Smyczek is 5-foot-9 (1.75 meters) and Querrey 6-foot-6 (1.98 meters).
   Querrey, ranked No. 47 after reaching a career-high No. 17 in 2011, will try to win his second Challenger title in two weeks. The 26-year-old U.S. Davis Cup veteran routed Smyczek for the $50,000 Napa Challenger.
   Although he has never played Kozlov, Querrey said: "I know him well. I've hit with him a bunch. He's a great talent. ... I'm going to have to play well to beat him. He makes you win points."
   Querrey blasts serves at up to 141 mph (227 kph) and bludgeons his forehand, but Kozlov is not fazed by power. He extended Australian Sam Groth, who holds the record of 163.7 mph (263.4 kph), to 6-4 in the third set in the first round of qualifying in Washington, D.C., on the ATP tour in July and eliminated hard-hitting Ryan Harrison in the first round of the Sacramento Challenger.
At Natomas Racquet Club
Singles semifinals
   Stefan Kozlov, United States, def. Tim Smyczek (2), United States, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (1).
   Sam Querrey (1), United States, def. John Millman, Australia, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3.
Doubles semifinals
   Adam Hubble and John-Patrick Smith, Australia, def. Marcus Daniell and Artem Sitak (1), New Zealand, 6-4, 6-7 (5) [16-14].
Today's schedule
(Starting at 10:30 a.m.)
Court 1
   Peter Polansky and Adil Shamasdin (2), Canada, vs. Adam Hubble and John-Patrick Smith, Australia.
   Sam Querrey (1), United States, vs. Stefan Kozlov, United States (not before 12:30 p.m.).

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