They battled for more than two hours and could barely be separated. But at the end of a classic boys’ singles final at Wimbledon on Sunday, American Noah Rubin held just a slight edge in power and composure over his compatriot Stefan Kozlov and emerged a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 winner.
Rubin brought up match point with an aggressive winner and claimed the title when Kozlov committed an error. Such a pattern of play encapsulated the match.
Despite being the younger player by two years, Kozlov was the tournament’s No.6 seed, while Rubin – who has played just one other junior event this season, at Roland Garros – was forced to qualify simply to take his place in the main draw. Eight wins later, he is a Wimbledon champion.
“Nothing said I couldn't be here. I believe in my competitiveness, my mental capability, and speed. I don't see why not,” Rubin replied when asked about if he could envisage winning the title from the qualifying rounds.
“But I wasn't thinking ahead to this. I wasn't at all. First round quallies, playing a big server that day, I was thinking I could possibly lose the first round of qualifying. It was just point by point, match by match. Eight matches later, this is where I am.”
Rubin and Kozlov’s styles made for an extremely evenly-matched contest. Both relatively undersized counter-punching baseliners, they are slightly more potent off their forehand wings but possess rock-solid backhands. Many of the match’s early rallies were backhand-to-backhand exchanges, before one player would invariably break the deadlock by dancing around the backhand to play a forehand, or sneak in a surprise drop shot.
They traded breaks, then holds, to open the match, but Rubin, two years Kozlov’s senior at 18, broke again for a 3-2 lead and rode that advantage throughout the rest of the first set. Kozlov fought valiantly, even diving for a volley and getting the ball over the net, but Rubin was quick to meet the challenge, sliding into the shot and knifing a backhand slice past his sprawled compatriot. He took the opening set in 37 minutes, having struck more winners and fewer errors.
Kozlov broke serve early in the second set to open up a 2-0 lead, but Rubin broke back to love in the third game, celebrating vociferously. This formed part of an extraordinary run of 10 consecutive points – he actually won 12 of 13 points from the beginning of the third game. Leading by a set and a break at 3-2, the title was his for the taking.
The No.6 seed appeared deflated, yet this was deceptive. Rubin’s level dropped as the Macedonian-born Kozlov roared back into contention with a break for 3-3, courtesy of a Rubin volley error. In the 10th game, errors again hurt the elder American – he erred on consecutive backhands to hand Kozlov both the break and the set.
Both gritty competitors, nether Rubin or Kozlov appeared likely to wilt. They held serve comfortably for the first six games until some cracks appeared in Kozlov’s game. With Rubin leading 0-30, the 16-year-old would soon float a backhand long to fall behind 15-40, prompting murmurs from the large crowd on No.1 Court. Although he levelled at deuce, two more errors from Kozlov – both long of the baseline – gave Rubin the crucial break and a 4-3 lead.
“Didn't expect (the court) to be that packed. I actually thought nobody was going to come out to the match, but that was not the case. They were all very enthusiastic to be out there. Kind of got the crowd into it a little bit. Just the atmosphere was unbelievable,” Rubin later recounted.
Rubin would not let this advantage slip. He hit out bravely, drawing an error from Kozlov in the next game to hold for 5-3. In the final game, he benefited from a costly error from Kozlov, who easily tracked down a poorly-struck Rubin drop-shot only to send the reply into the net. Swinging for the fences, Rubin’s forehand winner brought up match point, and although he missed that chance with an error, he clinched victory on his second match point when Kozlov dumped a backhand into the net.
Emotions flowed as the two friends embraced at net; Rubin’s father could be seen weeping. “It was almost surreal, but hopefully it will kick in in the next couple of days,” Rubin, who embraced his father courtside, said of the victory.
“I didn't expect much coming into these tournaments. I just wanted to get out here and enjoy myself. It's one of my final junior tournaments, so it's nice to have this under my belt. I'll always remember this time.”
Kozlov’s hopes of redeeming himself in the boys’ doubles final alongside Russia’s Andrey Rublev were dashed in dramatic fashion against No.3 seeds Orlando Luz and Marcelo Zormann.
After splitting the first two sets, the third lasted almost an hour before the decisive break went the way of the Brazilian duo.
There 6-4, 3-6, 8-6 victory makes them the first Brazilian players to claim a Junior title at The Championships.
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