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By Pat Mitsch, special to USTA.com
PLANTATION, Fla. – It was a good year for American tennis, 1998. Pete Sampras was the world No. 1. Andre Agassi returned to the Top 10. Two young men who could make history at the Metropolia Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships were born.
Stefan Kozlov and Francis Tiafoe will play each other Sunday for the boys’ 18s singles title here at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center in the first all-American Orange Bowl boys’ 18s final since 2004, when Timothy Neilly overcame Donald Young. Whoever wins the matchup of 15-year-olds will become the youngest Orange Bowl boys’ 18s champion in the tournament’s 67-year history.
They refer to themselves as “The 98s,” for the year in which they were born, just 12 days apart. Tiafoe, who turns 16 on Jan. 20, is 12 days older than Kozlov. The only other 15-year-old to capture the 18-and-under championship here – Sweden’s Kent Carlsson, in 1983 – turned 16 on Jan. 3 of the following year.
“That’s awesome,” Kozlov said upon hearing that Tiafoe had won, setting up a final between Junior Davis Cup teammates. “Tomorrow, it’ll be a wonderful match, and I’m just blessed to be in it.”
“Unbelievable,” Tiafoe said, “for '98s, period, because we’re both '98s, and for American tennis, too, so we have an American that wins it for sure.”
Kozlov, seeded fourth, wore down Germany’s Alexander Zverev, the No. 1 seed and top-ranked junior player in the world, in a 7-6, 6-0 victory. After a first set that lasted 1 hour, 20 minutes, Kozlov, who had beaten the lanky German twice since July, deployed an arsenal of precision drop shots that seemed to frustrate Zverev.
“That wasn’t the plan going in,” said Kozlov, a Pembroke Pines, Fla., native. “I’ve never seen anything work like that before. I think he kind of gave up mentally, and I know him from previous times that if I had a big lead, he wouldn’t fight back.”
Tiafoe, meanwhile, did exactly that to defeat No. 2-seeded Johan Sebastien Tatlot of France, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. Tiafoe pointed to winning the first game of the second set – a grueling, back-and-forth battle – as the pivotal moment that swung momentum back on his side of the net.
“I started hitting my forehand a lot better, and that’s when I’m playing my best, when I’m hitting my forehand well,” said Tiafoe, who, last year, lost in the first round of the Orange Bowl 16s draw and wasn’t feeling confident following his quarterfinal loss in the Eddie Herr International Championships last week.
“I came here, on the practice courts, was still devastated from the loss, wasn’t really feeling the courts, and I was complaining a lot,” Tiafoe said. “I came into the first match and started feeling really good. Things are really going my way.”
Earlier in the day, 14-year-old Charlotte Robillard-Millette became the third straight Canadian to win the Orange Bowl girls’ 16s singles title, beating a resilient Alexis Nelson, 6-0, 1-6, 6-4.
“She’s a great player. She’s a great competitor. She really fought well, and she’s amazing. I wasn't surprised that she’d come back and play that well,” Robillard-Millette said of the St. Paul, Minn., native.
“It’s the tournament of the year that you want to do good because it’s international. All the best players in this age group are here, and I’m only 14, so I’m really proud of myself,” added Robillard-Millette, who is from Montreal. “Hopefully I can come back next year and win it again. It’s a great tournament, and it means a lot.”
In the all-Korean boys’ 16s final, No. 1 seed Yunseong Chung overcame Chan-Yeong Oh, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, to become the second Korean to win the boys’ 16s title here in the last three years (Hyeon Chung, 2011).
The top two seeds in the girls’ 18s draw – No. 1 Varvara Flink of Russia and No. 2 Ivana Jorovic of Serbia – will play each other for the singles title on Sunday. Flink beat No. 6 seed Ioana Ducu of Romania, 6-4, 6-4, while Jorovic ousted Sofia “Sonya” Kenin, the tough 15-year-old from Pembroke Pines, Fla., 6-2, 7-6.
Kenin will still play for the girls’ 18s doubles title on Sunday, with Kaitlyn McCarthy, against fifth-seeded team of fellow American Tornado Alicia Black and Australia’s Naiktha Bains.
Zverev and Andrey Rublev, the top-seeded doubles team, defeated Tiafoe and Michael Mmoh, another 15-year-old included in the group of "'98s," in the semfinals to set up a boys' 18s doubles final against No. 2 seeds Filippo Baldi of Italy and Lucas Miedler of Austria.
See full results from Saturday's matches below. For complete tournament information, visit www.orangebowltennis.org.
Boys’ 18s Singles:
No. 4 Stefan Kozlov, USA d. No. 1 Alexander Zverev, GER, 7-6(2), 6-0
No. 13 Francis Tiafoe, USA d. No. 2 Johan Sebastien Tatlot, FRA, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2
Boys' 18s Doubles:
No. 1 Alexander Zverev, GER/Andrey Rublev, RUS
d. Stefan Kozlov, USA/Henrik Wiersholm, USA, 6-2, 7-5
No. 1 Alexander Zverev, GER/Andrey Rublev, RUS
d. No. 3 Michael Mmoh, USA/Francis Tiafoe, USA, 7-6(9), 6-7(4) [10-8]
No. 2 Filippo Baldi, ITA/Lucas Miedler, AUT
d. No. 4 Roman Safiullin, RUS/Nino Serdarusic, CRO, 7-6(4), 6-4
Girls’ 18s Singles:
No. 1 Varvara Flink, RUS d. No. 6 Ioana Ducu, ROU 6-4, 6-4
No. 2 Ivana Jorovic, SRB d. Sofia Kenin, USA, 6-2, 7-6(6)
Girls' 18s Doubles:
No. 5 Naiktha Bains, AUS/Tornado Alicia Black, USA
d. Emilie Francati, DEN/Tereza Mihalikova, SVK, 6-4, 4-6 [10-6]
Sofia Kenin, USA/Kaitlyn McCarthy, USA
d. Jaqueline Cristian, ROU/Fanny Stollar, HUN, 2-6, 6-2 [10-6]
Boys’ 16s Singles:
No. 1 Yunseong Chung, KOR d. No. 2 Chan-Yeong Oh, KOR, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1
Girls’ 16s Singles:
No. 5 Charlotte Robillard-Millette, CAN d. Alexis Nelson, USA, 6-0, 1-6, 6-4
For more on junior tennis, and to find a kids' tennis program and facility near you, go to YouthTennis.com.