With the US Open series taking place and the Grand Slam fast approaching, America is at the center of attention when it comes to tennis. Here are some of the juniors who are currently making the country proud.
In early August, the boys 16’s and 18’s national tournament took place in Kalamazoo for the best players in the country. Names in this year’s tournament to take note of were Francis Tiafoe, who recently signed a deal with Jay-Z’s sports management company Roc Nation Sports, Stefan Kozlov, Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul. The final came down to Tiafoe and Kozlov and, running well over 4 hours, it just so happened to be one of the longest Kalamazoo finals the tournament had ever seen. Tiafoe seized the victory, winning 6-4 in the fifth set, and earned himself a wildcard into his second grand slam main draw at The US Open.
So, who is Francis Tiafoe?
Well, he was born in College Park Maryland in 1997 and his parents, immigrants from Sierra Leone, worked at the Junior Tennis Champions Center as a custodian. Spending all day at the tennis center with his brother, Francis was the first to pick up a racquet and is even said to have slept with it at night. It was a relationship destined to be and thus in December 2013, when Tiafoe was 15, he became the youngest player to ever win the Orange Bowl. (Which led him to be the top seed at the French Open junior draw)
Success kept coming as Tiafoe began getting into qualifying draws of professional tournaments and made his first Grand Slam appearance at the French Open in July of 2015. I had the opportunity to watch Tiafoe play in the final at Kalamazoo and, with the large backswing on his groundstrokes, swagger on the court, and the explosive forehand, he seems to fit in with the elite group of players America has to offer. 2016 holds much in store for this young gun.
And what about Stefan Kozlov?
Well, he was born in Macedonia and immigrated to the United States when he was
younger and currently trains in Pembroke Pines in Florida. While not much about Kozlov’s personal life is known, the 17 year old’s results on the court are calling for attention.
In 2013, Kozlov cracked the top-20 on the ITF rankings, shooting to #17 in the international rankings. In 2013, he also made his ATP World Tour debut at the Newport Tournament but lost first round. In 2015, Kozlov made it to the final of the Sacramento Challenger but lost in straight sets to Sam Querrey. Since then, Kozlov has made impressive runs at Kalamazoo, beating top 10 opponents with outstanding scorelines. Kozlov’s consistency can be compared to nearly anyone on the tour and the rest of his game working in sync nearly perfectly. Kozlov is most likely to receive a wildcard into the US Open and should be one to keep look out for. With another year of playing at his level, he should be a hopeful American to watch for on the pro circuit.
As for Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul, they are the American hopefuls with Grand Slam titles to their name. Opelka, 6ft 10 with a hefty serve, was this year’s Wimbledon Boys’ singles champion and a finalist in the boys’ doubles while Paul was this year’s French Open boys’ single champion and runner up in the doubles (where he played with fellow American William Blumberg)
Tennis in America is sadly a dying sport. From a time when we had players such as James Blake, Andy Roddick, and Andre Agassi, it’s become a rarity to see an American in a semi-Final or quarterfinal at that. There have of course been Americans having good runs in 2015 such as Stevie Johnson, John Isner and Sam Querrey but focus is also shifting to the juniors in hopes that we can carry on a breeding tradition of tennis players that once was evident.
Written by James