Tennis

Stefan Kozlov overcomes nerves, captures long-awaited Orange Bowl tennis title; Sonya Kenin wins Girls 18s title

Stefan Kozlov of Pembroke Pines plays against Stefanos Tsitsipas (Greece) during the Metropolia Orange Bowl International Tennis Championship Boys 18s final match on Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014, at Frank Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation.
Stefan Kozlov of Pembroke Pines plays against Stefanos Tsitsipas (Greece) during the Metropolia Orange Bowl International Tennis Championship Boys 18s final match on Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014, at Frank Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

The giant racket bag slung over his shoulder wasn’t the only thing weighing down Stefan Kozlov on Sunday afternoon as he walked onto the court for the Boys 18s finals of the Orange Bowl International Championship.

Second-seeded Kozlov, a Pembroke Pines 16-year-old, had made the Orange Bowl final three previous times — in the 12s, the 14s and the 18s last year — and lost every time. The loss last year was particularly painful because he led 4-1 in the first set, won the second set 6-0, but lost the match to lower-ranked Francis Tiafoe.

All those memories crept into Kozlov’s mind as he tried to tame unseeded Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece on a sunny Sunday at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center. The pressure mounted as the tall Greek with the go-for-broke game won the first set 6-2.

“Not again,” Kozlov thought to himself.

Kozlov changed his shirt, tried to clear his mind and rallied for a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 win. Later in the day he also won the doubles title with Michael Mmoh, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) over Korean pair Yunseong Chung and Seong Chan Hong.

A Pembroke Pines teen also won the Girls 18s title. Sixteen-year-old Sofia Kenin, who goes by “Sonya,” took control early and beat fellow American Ingrid Neel of Rochester, Minnesota, 6-3, 6-3. The girls doubles was won by American CiCi Bellis and Marketa Vondrusova, who outlasted Miriam Kolodziejova and Tereza Mihalikova 7-5, 2-6, 10-4.

“Losing in the finals three times, losing two times in Slam [junior] finals this year, I’m just really relieved, to be honest, that I finally won,” Kozlov said. “Hopefully, I don’t have to come back here again next year.”

Kozlov made history on the pro tour this year, becoming the youngest American to break the Top 500 since Michael Chang in 1989, and the youngest U.S. finalist at an ATP Challenger since Chang and Andre Agassi in 1989. But he wasn’t going to be satisfied until he added an Orange Bowl title to his résumé.

He was visibly nervous in the opening set, which led to a few uncharacteristic double faults.

“Every time he’s there, he’s there, but he gets nervous,” said Larissa Kozlov, Stefan’s mother. “I told him before the match, ‘If you get nervous, you will lose. Just play the unbelievable way you’ve played the last few days.’ But the first set, he was nervous. But I knew Stefan is not going to give up, no matter what.’’

He admitted his mind was getting in the way of his game.

“I was obviously really nervous the first set,” he said. “Nothing was going my way. He was playing unbelievable. I had never seen him before. He has really legit weapons, I didn’t expect that. He didn’t give me rhythm, was serving really well. His forehand is amazing.”

Tsitsipas, whose Russian mother Yulia Salnikova played pro tennis, upset No.1 seed Andrey Rublev in the semifinals. He said he ran out of gas Sunday.

“I was extremely exhausted in the third set,” he said. “I didn’t have any power. I couldn’t continue as good as I played the first set. But I beat good players out there [all week] and hope next year I’ll do better.’’

Kenin was delighted with her week, which included an upset of world No.1 Bellis in the semis.

“This is a very prestigious event, so I’m so happy,” she said. “It means a lot to win so close to home, too.’’

Neel, meanwhile, leaves “only with the fondest memories. I had an amazing week. I never expected to be in the finals.”

She lost in the first round of the 16s last year, and had to come through the qualifying rounds this week. “With each match, I was thinking, ‘How far can I take this?’ Pretty dang far, I guess. I’m putting this experience in the bag and running with it.’’

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