Just teens, Tiafoe and Kozlov acted wise beyond their years in 2015

Kozlov lost a marathon match in Michigan, but won many new fans. (USTA Boys’ 18-16 National Championships/Mark Riley)

It’s been more than 35 years since Ronald Reagan stated, during his first inaugural address, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We discovered heroes in every state, starting with the determined 69-year-old who won a match at an ITF Pro Circuit event earlier this year in the Alabama town of Pelham, and culminating with the coach who has overcome multiple sclerosis to build a winning program at the University of Wyoming. Their compelling stories of courage, perseverance and achievement demonstrate that the message delivered by our 40th President rings as true today as it did then.

As classic tennis moments go, the 2012 Australian Open final will forever linger as one of the best of all time. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, unable to stand after a nearly six-hour final, sat in hastily delivered chairs as tournament officials completed the lengthy trophy ceremony. Two seasoned professionals—one exhilarated, one disappointed and both exhausted—spoke eloquently and graciously with their remaining scraps of energy.

Fast forward to the summer of 2015 in a quiet Michigan town, where a match unfolded in much the same way. The USTA Boys’ 18s National Championship had reached its final day at Stowe Stadium on the Kalamazoo College campus, with two of America’s brightest tennis hopes left standing. Frances Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov, competing for the grandest prize in junior tennis—a U.S. Open main draw wild card—left an indelible mark on the crowd that day, and not only because of their skills on court.

Top-seeded Tiafoe, then 17, took the first two sets of the best-of-five contest and looked to have that coveted wild card easily within his reach. After all, it had been 23 years since the last five-set final in Kalamazoo. Kozlov, whose lanky six-foot build and baby face made him look much younger than his 17 years, figured it was about time for another. Despite cramping in the fourth set, he sent the match to a decider, much to the delight of the near-capacity crowd.

Third-seeded Kozlov collected an early break in the fifth set, perhaps utilizing the cache of confidence he collected with his semifinal defeat of Taylor Fritz, another well-known junior. But his 4-2 lead would evaporate quickly as his opponent kicked himself back into gear.

“I’m down a break in the fifth and about to lose my mind,” Tiafoe told post-match. “Two sets to love, and I’m going to lose this match?”

After four hours and 24 minutes on the court, Tiafoe answered that question with a resounding no, clinching a 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4 victory. The two teenagers, physically spent after the first five-set battle of their careers, remained in their chairs as compassionate tournament organizers took a page from the Australian Open playbook and brought the trophy presentation courtside.

Just minutes after letting a U.S. Open main-draw berth escape his grasp, Kozlov put together a masterful runner-up speech. He genuinely congratulated his opponent, thanked sponsors and acknowledged the crowd, much like Nadal did after his heartbreaking five-set loss to Djokovic in Melbourne.

“To have poignant words to share with fans after such an epic match was truly remarkable,” said tournament director Mark Riley. “Incredible stuff for 17-year-old kids.”

Following their seated trophy ceremony, Tiafoe spoke with local reporters before Kozlov interrupted. He wanted to make sure that he and Tiafoe got a photo with the facilities crew as thanks for their service. The act left a mark on Riley.

“What struck me was that Frances took Stefan’s lead,” he said, “and both athletes had the presence of mind, even though exhausted and probably still focused on the outcome of their match, to appreciate the crew for their work.”

Far from the seasoned professionals seen in Grand Slam finals, Tiafoe and Kozlov acted like them on that summer day in August. It’s no surprise that just one year later, both had broken into the Top 200 on the ATP tour. And while neither player grew up in Michigan, they gave local fans their very own classic tennis moment.