By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’d been a student at the University of Virginia for about six weeks when, in October 2011, he won his first singles championship as a college tennis player: the ITA All-American. A month later, Mitchell Frank won another major title: the USTA/ITA National Indoor.
In retrospect, Frank said this week, he might have preferred those victories come later in his UVa career.
“When you come in, you have a view of how college may go for you, but I think it’s been in some ways very different for me, just because I came in and had all this success and kind of set the bar super high,” said Frank, the ITA national freshman of the year in 2011-12.
“The tough thing is when you kind of set the expectations that high, and if you’re not living up to those standards, which are pretty much the highest achievements in college tennis, everyone’s like, `Oh, this guy’s struggling, he’s kind of having problems and not really developing.’ ”
Every player should “struggle” as much as Frank. In the spring of his sophomore year, he clinched Virginia’s first NCAA team title with a dramatic comeback win in the final match, at No. 3 singles. As a junior, he became only the fourth player to win a second ITA All-American singles title and also helped the Cavaliers capture their eighth straight ACC championship.
And now, as a senior, he leads a UVa team that’s peaking as postseason approaches. Frank, 12-2 overall in singles this season, is 7-2 at No. 1 and 5-0 at No. 2, and he’s No. 22 in the latest ITA rankings. In doubles, Frank and his partner, freshman Collin Altamirano, are 10-2.
Working with Frank, the team’s captain this season, has been “one of the greatest honors and blessings of my life as a coach,” said head coach Brian Boland, who’s in his 14th year at Virginia.
“I think coaches spend their entire lives hoping to coach someone with the resilience, persistence and love of the game that Mitchell Frank has. With most players, you would have to continue to push them and motivate them to put in those extra minutes. In Mitchell’s case, it’s the opposite. You have to peel him off the court and tell him, `You’re doing great’ and `Enough’s enough.’
“At the same time you’d much rather have that problem, and it’s something I’ve always admired about him. He’s a special young man who puts his heart and soul into everything he does, including his academics.”
Frank, a graduate of Annandale High School, was the lone recruit to join Boland’s program in 2011, and he’s still a one-man class. He’ll be honored Friday in a Senior Day ceremony during Virginia’s match against ACC rival Georgia Tech. The match, originally scheduled for the Snyder Tennis Center, has been moved indoors to the Boyd Tinsley Courts at the Boar’s Head Sports Club.
At 3 p.m., the Wahoos (16-3, 8-0) host the Yellow Jackets (11-8, 3-5), and Frank, who also was a team captain last season, will be recognized between doubles and singles. Virginia has won 132 consecutive matches against ACC opponents, the longest streak in conference history in any sport.
Frank’s cheering section Friday afternoon will include his parents, Janet and Richard.
“It’s been a great ride,” said Frank, whose career record in singles is 93-11. “Coming in, I don’t think I would have ever imagined buying into the team concept as I did. When I first came in, I still felt like that first year I was still kind of an individual playing in college.
“I’ve met a lot of great people, made a lot of great friends, competed on some of the best teams in the country, won a national championship. I feel like I’ve accomplished pretty much anything anybody could ever dream of coming into college. Obviously it would be nice to get an individual [NCAA] singles title, but I think overall I’ve done a lot of what I came in here hoping to do.”
He’s distinguished himself off the court as well. As a junior, Frank was named the ACC’s scholar-athlete of the year in men’s tennis.
“He’s a very serious young man who wants to be successful on and off the court, and he’s turned into a tremendous leader for us,” Boland said. “I’ve been just so impressed with his willingness to play for something bigger than himself in his last semester.
“He cares deeply about the University of Virginia men’s tennis program and all of his teammates and friends, and he’s really playing for the orange and blue.”
Frank is set to graduate next month with a bachelor’s in foreign affairs. Also in May is the NCAA tournament in Waco, Texas, after which he’ll turn pro.
“I have a lot of belief in myself,” Frank said. “I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily going out there just saying, `Oh, I’ll see how I’m going to do.’ I’m going out there with the full intention to be a successful professional tennis player. I’m definitely not scared to say that. I’m not scared to dedicate my life to doing it.”
Tennis has been Frank’s passion for most of his life, and his work ethic is legendary.
“I definitely feel that’s a source of strength and a source of my beliefs,” he said.
His serve isn’t the fastest, and his groundstrokes aren’t the most powerful. But Frank is relentless on the court, and his doggedness often frustrates opponents. So does his seemingly endless reservoir of stamina. Frank has been known to run sprints on the court during changeovers instead of resting.
“When I’m playing good tennis, I’m trying to make guys uncomfortable, I’m trying to pick up on their weaknesses, I’m trying to play my strengths to their weaknesses,” Frank said.
“I feel like a lot of times when I come into the match, guys see me out there, and they’re maybe intimidated, maybe a little bit like, `Oh, this is going to be a lot of work.’ It’s fun for me, and I hopefully try to make it not fun for them. I enjoy it [when an opponent] starts to give up because it gets too hard or starts to spray balls or starts to go for too much or starts to panic or mentally lose it. Because that really shows me that I’m getting to them and I’m putting them in a very uncomfortable situation.”
Sounds a lot like the effect the UVa men’s basketball team’s Pack-Line defense can have on opponents.
“Mitchell’s definitely a Tony Bennett-type of guy,” Boland said, laughing, “in terms of his integrity, hard work, discipline, and his willingness to leave it all on the courts every single day and get the most out of himself and everybody around him. If he played basketball, playing for Tony would certainly be the right thing for him to do.”
The grueling workouts, often late at night, for which Frank is renowned are designed to do more than improve his fitness.
“Obviously I do it because I enjoy it, but I do it so that when it comes down to the big moment, that I believe and I know that I did all this kind of [unpleasant] work that the other guy didn’t,” Frank said, “So in the big moment that’s huge mentally, that’s huge physically, that’s huge just knowing that you’ve outworked the other guy and that you can go through more pain than him. Especially in the tennis world, a lot of guys don’t want to go through that kind of pain.”
In the NCAA singles tournament, Frank reached the quarterfinals as a freshman. He was ousted in the round of 32 as a sophomore and in the first round last year.
“Each year’s been a very different experience for me,” Frank said. “This year my goal is obviously first the team, but I’m definitely keeping in mind the individual tournament and hoping to put myself in the best position to have a good run there. Obviously this year it’s also different, just because you’re going into a professional career and it would be a great way to start it off.”
Boland said: “I’ve enjoyed Mitchell immensely. I’m going to miss him tremendously as he moves on to the professional tour. But at the same time I’m excited for him. This is something he’s patiently waited for, for a long a time.”
College tennis occasionally has been “a rocky road” for him, Frank acknowledged, and he’s had to learn to handle adversity better.
Early in his UVa career, Frank recalled, “I wanted it so bad to the point that it almost hurt me a little bit [to lose]. I feel like now I have a little bit better balance in my life with understanding that all I can do is give it my best, and if I leave it all out there, then that’s all I can do. And having that little bit better perspective has I think really helped me grow a lot over the course of the years. I think I volley better, I think I serve better, I think I return better.
“Overall, I think I’ve just become a better player. It’s been a long process, a lot of hours, definitely a lot of frustration, a lot of happiness, too. But overall it’s been a rewarding experience for me.”