Sony Open notebook

Top South Florida junior Stefan Kozlov serves as hitting partner for Rafael Nadal

 
 
Stefan Kozlov of Pembroke Pines plays in the Junior Orange Bowl International TEnnis Championship Boys’ 14 finals against Seongchan Hong of South Korea at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center on the campus of the University of Miami in Coral Gables on Dec. 23, 2011.
Stefan Kozlov of Pembroke Pines plays in the Junior Orange Bowl International TEnnis Championship Boys’ 14 finals against Seongchan Hong of South Korea at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center on the campus of the University of Miami in Coral Gables on Dec. 23, 2011.
Emily Michot / Miami Herald Staff

Special to the Miami Herald

It was one of those days a teenager will never forget for Stefan Kozlov, the world No. 2-ranked junior from Pembroke Pines on Friday.

The recently turned 16-year-old went for his driver’s permit in the morning.

Then in the afternoon he came to the Sony Open to be a hitting partner for world No. 1 Rafael Nadal.

Kozlov described both life events as “huge,” but admitted warming up Nadal trumped his dad letting him drive down to Key Biscayne.

The day, however, wasn’t without its drama for Kozlov.

“I came here and tried to pick up a credential and told the woman I’m trying to hit with Rafa,” Kozlov said. “She said, ‘We didn’t get anything about you.’ I gave her my ID because I got my permit [Friday].

“I got here at 1:30 and practice was delayed from 3:15 to 3:45 and I didn’t get let in until 3:35. Toni [Nadal’s uncle and coach] had to come out here and get me.”

Kozlov, who was born in Macedonia, is considered one of the most promising U.S. juniors in the American tennis pipeline. He reached the Australian Open junior boys’ final in January.

And in December he was a finalist at the prestigious Orange Bowl International Championship held at Frank Veltri Park in Plantation.

He’s also no stranger to hitting with Grand Slam champion superstars. He practiced with Roger Federer on four occasions and three times with Andy Murray here at Crandon Park.

Despite those previous opportunities, Kozlov admits he wasn’t prepared for the power and spin from the ball Nadal delivers.

“I think that’s one of the toughest hits I’ve ever had in my life,” said Kozlov, who admitted he was nervous at the start of their 45-minute hit. “I’ve heard people talking about his ball, but I didn’t realize it would be like that.

“If it lands near the baseline, I jumped five feet back and had to really spin it short. It was really physical, and I didn’t realize he was going to hit like that before a match.”

As it turned out Kozlov was the only opponent Nadal faced Friday. The Spaniard’s semifinal opponent, seventh-seeded Tomas Berdych, withdrew with gastroenteritis.

Kozlov, who described Nadal as “really cool,” is scheduled to hit with Nadal again Saturday.

In Sunday’s final, Nadal will play second-seeded Novak Djokovic, who also had a walkover into the final when Kei Nishikori withdrew from their semifinal with a left groin injury.

And coming off the court after the practice, Kozlov experienced a possible glimpse at the future if he becomes a top tennis star.

“I never signed so many autographs,” Kozlov said. “I signed liked 60.”

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