Boys Will Be Boys

by: Peter Bodo | June 05, 2014

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PARIS—This morning, I took a walk out to Court 17, and not for purely professional reasons. Sixteen year-old Stefan Kozlov, the last American male left in any draw, was playing the boy seeded two spots above him at No. 4 in the quarterfinals of the junior event, Andrey Rublev.

But I was also going out to the Court 17 because, while it may be the court furthest from the mythic Court Philippe Chatrier, it’s also one of the prettiest at Roland Garros.

Kozlov and Rublev, who are also doubles partners in big junior events, were deep into the first set by the time I got there. Court 17 has a pastoral atmosphere. The west side and north end are surrounded and, in the case of the wall behind the baseline, overwhelmed by flora.

Between the Austrian pines, birches, and various dense shrubs, I counted seven different shades of green. The best part, though, is the way the electronic scoreboard is placed catty corner in the northwest corner, where it’s utterly surrounded and infringed upon by brush that ripples and undulates in the breeze, creating a somewhat surreal landscape—a Magritte painting, or something like that.

But I also was there to take in some junior tennis, which I enjoy doing at these big events.

It’s not like junior matches on other back courts are packed to the gills with fans. The reality is that it’s a good day (or match) when more than a hundred fans watch even a bit of any given junior tussle. And in most cases, half the spectators aren’t fans at all, but somehow associated with either of the two players. They are family members and coaches, agents, clothing company reps, fellow juniors, or secret spies from other camps. Once you pick out this one as the coach and that one as the mom, you feel kind of like an insider even if you’re not a journalist.

In this case, one of the most prominent watchers was the head of the USTA Player Development program, Patrick McEnroe. He was seated on an otherwise empty expanse of bench under the scoreboard. Jose Higueras, his second in command for the men’s program, sat across from Patrick and near me. Kozlov trains at the USTA facility at Boca Raton most of the time, although he still works out at his home in Pembroke Pines, Fla,. where his father has an eponymous tennis academy.

Kozlov broke for a 5-4 first-set lead, but Rublev took that moment to take an injury timeout. It was a long one, too, fully 15 minutes. The trainer strapped Rublev's upper left thigh while Kozlov walked around. Occasionally, Kozlov put his foot up on the netpost near his doubles partner/rival and stretched his hamstring, as if to say, “Look at me, nothing wrong with this leg, bub.”

When they resumed, Kozlov served and reached set point. But he double-faulted, and then made two errors to give up a break that made it 5-all.

The next two games were intense affairs. These kids are already excellent tennis players. They’re also very good at yelling, talking to themselves in a stage whisper, and bouncing their racquets off the clay, head-first. (I think the ITF must pass out those colorful rubber bracelets stamped with the letters, WWGD—What Would Gulbis Do?)

Rublev stood about 6’1”, and he’s a beanpole—an impression heightened by the Smurf-blue Nike shoes he was wearing that made his feet look huge, and his legs, by contrast, like matchsticks. This boy has a wingspan, and each time he cracked a winner, he whirled to face his coaches and parents with his arms flung out like a prophet.

That was when Kozlov decided it was a nice time to take a bathroom break.

He was right, I guess, because he returned to win the second set with some nifty power tennis from the baseline. But alas, although he was hollering between points (and his hot-headed opponent was punishing his racket and occasionally crying out, too), Rublev was getting the better of him. The Russian served well, and his big forehand was a real weapon. He went on to win this two-and-a-half hour match, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4.

The last American standing wasn’t, anymore.

But these kids are different from you or I. For one thing, they’re friends. They have a history with each other. After the match these two reconvened for a doubles match that they won handily. But I had wondered if Kozlov was irritated that Rublev had taken a medical timeout at that critical juncture in the first set. After their doubles, I had the chance to ask him about it.

“It did bother me, a lot.” Kozlov said. “It was a long time out, but I’m not going to use that as an excuse. I had a set point, I hit a second serve down the T. I missed. And then from there he took the set. But after that I recovered pretty well.”

Did you say anything to him about the medical timeout before or during the doubles?

“Yeah,” Kozlov said. “I knew he wasn’t injured, I asked him how his leg was in doubles and he laughed it off.”

As for the way he got over his loss of focus at the end of that set, Kozlov admitted, “I panicked a little bit; I had a sitter on top of the net to make it six-all. I blew that. After that I went to the bathroom and when I came back for the second set I thought I had a pretty good shot at it.”

The shot didn’t pan out, but that’s just how things sometimes work out on Court 17.

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