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Stefan Kozlov takes full advantage of his lucky loser entry into the Acapulco main draw.

Kozlov’s Acapulco Odyssey: Jet Ski Rescue, Borrowed Clothes & Standing Up Rafa

Amazing lead-in culminates with victory over Dimitrov in longest match in tournament history

What would it take for you to stand up Rafael Nadal on the practice court?

Stefan Kozlov found out Monday when he discovered an urgent Whatsapp message alerting him to his last-minute inclusion into the Acapulco main draw as a lucky loser. But cutting short his session with Rafa was only part of the story, one of the most remarkable match-day tales that culminated in a victory over former World No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov.

The 24-yer-old was playing a set on Monday with Nadal on the farthest practice court from the new Abierto Mexicano Telcel presentado por HSBC complex. Having lost in the final round of qualifying, and with little chance of making it into the main draw as a lucky loser, Kozlov was perfectly happy to help the Spaniard prepare for his match the next day against Denis Kudla. However, he was about to find out that it was Rafa who was helping him get ready.

When Nadal was serving at 3-3, 0/15 in the practice set, the Spaniard broke a string. While the Spaniard was looking for a new racquet in his bag, Kozlov took the opportunity to check his phone. Much to his astonishment, his phone was brimming with WhatsApp messages telling him that he had to be on court in the next match in the stadium instead of Maxime Cressy, a last-minute withdrawal from the Acapulco ATP 500.

How could he do that? He didn’t even have the right outfit to play in. “All of my clothes were wet because they were at the laundry,” Kozlov told ATPTour.com. Additionally, he would have to abandon his practice with the man with more majors than any other. “He jokingly told me ‘You can’t go, we have to finish the set.’ I quipped back: ‘No Rafa, I have to go, but I’ll put this down as a win because I was one point ahead’.”

Kozlov’s smile disappeared as soon as he had said goodbye to Rafa. He was overcome with worry. “I went as quickly as I could to prepare as well as possible. And I had to borrow clothes from the tournament staff, as many clothes as I could get my hands on to be able to play because I didn’t have anything that was dry,” explained Kozlov.

Together with his coach Chris Wettengel and his physio Andy Hanley, he managed to reach the new tournament venue on time, after a five-minute car journey from his hotel. However, there was still one concern: Would he be fit enough to withstand an opponent like Grigor Dimitrov after an entire day enjoying the Pacific ocean as a tourist?

“I wasn’t expecting to play, at all. Two guys had already dropped out of the tournament, I didn’t think there would be a third lucky loser. That’s why I was on the beach all day. Also, I had a slight problem with a jet ski. I capsized it and crashed into some rocks. So I was stranded out there for 30 minutes, just swimming to get away from the rocks,” recounted the No. 130 in the ATP Rankings. After being rescued [by the jet ski manager], I was expecting an intense practice session with Rafa at 6 o’clock.”

The adrenaline from the day seemed to dissipate when he faced Dimitrov. But, deep into the match, his body reminded him when he started to cramp on the verge of victory at 7-6(8), 5-3. Just after winning a point and breaking to give himself the chance to serve for the biggest win of his career, he fell to the ground in pain.

He struggled on as best as he could, but the second set slipped from his grasp. It looked like victory would, too. Limping as he went, he saved six break points in the first game of the third set, and the cramps slowly resided. The full support of the Mexican fans, excited by the American’s gargantuan efforts, was enough to help him rediscover the path that would take him to a win he would eventually claim after three hours and 21 minutes of play, the longest match in tournament history.

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It would be another three hours until he made his way into bed. After eating and an near 2-hour physio session, Kozlov left the tournament venue at 4 a.m., just after Alexander Zverev won the second set against Jenson Brooksby in the same stadium where he produced the biggest win of his career just a few hours earlier.

“It was a long, crazy day!” Kozlov said, still excited about his achievement. “I really had to fight for it, but I’m happy to have had the spirit to fight and to have played my best tennis until the end.” His reward? A potential second-round clash against his sparring partner from last night: Nadal!

“It would be amazing, it would be a great honour for me. I think he’s a fantastic person, and I have great respect for him. I’ll really enjoy it, definitely,” added Kozlov. He has practised numerous times with the 36-time ATP Masters 1000 champion, but he has never faced him on the ATP Tour. Competing against one of his idols will be another reward for the heart he has shown in Mexico.

“Yesterday, I thought I had no chance of playing; now I’m in the best tournament of my career and close to facing Rafa Nadal. Sometimes God works in mysterious ways.” One thing is certain; until his next match, there will be no more beach days for Stefan Kozlov in Acapulco.

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