South Floridian Stefan Kozlov a star in the making

Stefan Kozlov is 15 years old, too young to drive himself to tennis practice. But already the Pembroke Pines prodigy is making international headlines and making men twice his age sweat.

Last week, he reached the quarterfinals at the Wimbledon juniors tournament as the second-youngest player in the field. On Monday, he battled for two and a half hours on Center Court in Newport, R.I., against a 29-year-old opponent in the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships. It was Kozlov’s debut on the ATP World Tour, and he is the youngest player ever to compete in the main draw at the event.

Though he lost Monday’s match to veteran Michael Przysiezny of Poland 6-3, 6-7 (9-11), 6-4, Kozlov displayed the skill and grit that make him one of the most promising prospects coming up the U.S. Tennis Association pipeline.

“Normally, you can’t even practice with a guy 15, and here, I almost lost the match to him,” said Przysiezny, who is ranked 113th. “For sure, he’s very good for his age.”

The teen saved four match points in the second-set tiebreak to force a third set. He went up a break 4-3 in the third, but then called for medical assistance. His left hip was bothering him, perhaps from a slip in the first set, and then he began to cramp. Przysiezny seized the opportunity to put the kid away.

Kozlov collapsed to the grass after the match, and his 12-year-old brother, Boris, a rising star in the junior ranks, came on the court to help big brother gather himself and his belongings. The Kozlov brothers learned the game from their father, Andrei, who moved to South Florida from Macedonia when Stefan was a baby and runs the Kozlov Tennis Academy in Pembroke Pines.

Despite the loss Monday, Kozlov heads home with a giant boost of confidence.

“The last few weeks were really good for me because I played well on big stages, and there was a lot of pressure,” Kozlov said by phone Monday afternoon. “This was my first ATP Tour match, and I played really, really well on the clutch points against a guy with a lot more experience. I wasn’t nervous, I was just excited. In the end, I was tired and he stepped up and deserved to win.”

Przysiezny certainly was impressed.

“He played tricky, with a lot of slice, and made it very tough for me,” he said. “After the match, I wished him good luck and told him this was a good first match for him. He is great for this age. In five or six years, he’ll be very good.”

Kozlov is smallish for the men’s tour at 5-10, but he has a solid build and a game that can cause problems for even a seasoned veteran such as Przysiezny. He is a baseliner with crafty hands, smart tactics and a tricky backhand slice.

His lack of size has never stopped him from playing above his age group.

As an unseeded 11-year-old four years ago, Kozlov won the AEGON Teen Tennis tournament in Bolton, England, becoming the youngest player ever to win the prestigious event for players 14 and under.

Kozlov’s father had been his only coach until three years ago, when they decided Stefan would be better off training fulltime at the USTA center in Boca Raton. He has been training with coach Nicolas Todero and still gets plenty of advice from Dad, who was with him at Wimbledon and Newport. Knowing early on he wanted to pursue a pro career over college, Stefan turned pro a year ago and signed with the Octagon agency.

He had earned a grand total of $656 in prize money from second-tier Futures events heading into Monday’s match. He added $4,430 to his earnings Monday. Kozlov will continue to play junior events and mix in some pro tournaments.

“I’m learning how to play against the pros, which is much tougher because they are stronger and serve better, and it’s harder to break serve against them,” he said. “I learn from each experience.”

Kozlov said he was exhausted after playing so much high-level tennis the past few weeks. He will fly back to South Florida Tuesday morning and take some time off before getting ready for the USTA Boys Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich., Aug. 2-11.