Everything was on the line. Every match, every set, every point, every practice and every sacrifice invested by each of his teammates came down to this moment, one shared by everyone in a once bustling stadium that had suddenly become frozen in breathless silence.
Mitchell Frank, the University of Virginia’s steadiest singles player who had only lost one match this season, found himself down 5-3 to his UCLA opponent in the decisive third set of the NCAA Tennis Championship’s final match Tuesday evening. Absorbing the gaze of every eyeball in sight, he bent low and stared straight ahead, awaiting his opponent’s serve on championship point.
All the failure and heartache suffered by the players before him — men who dominated college tennis year after year only to lose in the NCAA Tournament’s final stages — it all boiled into this agonizing crescendo.
When UCLA junior Adrien Puget charged the net to put away Frank’s volley, it looked as if fate would wield its axe again and hand the national title to the Bruins. Frank reached for the ensuing hit and was able to return a lob, but the referee halted play. Puget’s foot, he said, had touched the net, automatically handing the point to Frank to bring the game to deuce.
The Virginia sophomore won the next two points to get back on serve and rode the momentum to take a 6-5 lead and serve for the match. Suddenly fate was on his side, and when fate sides with Mitchell Frank, you don’t want to be facing him across the net.
Sure enough, Puget soon gave way on a hit that went wide, and with that, Frank fell to his knees and was buried by a pile of delirious teammates.
“It was very special and a moment of pure joy and excitement,” said Frank, who attended Annandale High School. “It was something that I’ll never forget. I’m just super appreciative of the opportunity I had to win that match, and I’m so proud to be able to do it for this team.”
Frank’s triumph was a display of astonishing resolve, one reflected in the final score line: 0-6, 6-4, 7-5. Even seeing his prized sophomore playing his worst tennis of the season in the first set wasn’t enough to sway the faith of Virginia coach Brian Boland, not even for a moment.
“When you’re talking about Mitchell Frank, you know that until that last point is played, he always has a chance no matter what the score is,” Boland said. “I honestly did not think for a minute that he was going to lose that match, even after losing the first set 6-0. He’s a special competitor. He’s got a lot of great moments ahead of him in the sport of tennis.”
Frank’s match gained importance as the circumstances around it took shape in UCLA’s favor. Leading 3-2 late into the afternoon, the Cavaliers needed to win one of the two remaining singles matches to claim the trophy seemingly destined to elude them. Early in his third set, Frank realized it was likely all down to him when he saw their No. 6 player, Julen Uriguen, trailing 4-1 in his third set.
Uriguen went on to lose that set 6-2, setting the stage for Mitchell’s late heroics.
“Obviously I felt a lot of pressure, but I was able to keep my composure,” said Frank, who played at the No. 3 singles spot this season. “I’ve been in a lot of big moments before, and that definitely helped me in this moment. Even when I was down I was able to stay very calm and composed and was able to get it done.”
The victory was the first-ever for a program consistently ranked in the top 5 nationally but unable to get over the hump at the NCAA Championships in the spring. Numerous ACC championships and ITA National Team Indoor titles have been racked up in recent years, but Virginia lost in the NCAA semifinal three times and fell to Southern California in the NCAA final each of the last two years.
Falls Church native and JEB Stuart grad Justin Shane helped the Cavaliers reach their long-awaited accomplishment by winning both his doubles and singles matches Tuesday, highlighted by a convincing 6-2, 6-2 win over Clay Thompson at the No. 5 singles spot. It was a form of redemption for Shane, who had lost critical battles in the previous two national championships. It was also the culmination of a rough spring season marred by a sports hernia.
“He saved his best match for the national championship,” Boland said. “Talk about toughness, resilience, hard work and staying positive throughout the course of dealing with a great deal of adversity. I feel like good things come to good people like Mitchell Frank and Justin Shane.”
But Tuesday’s spotlight shined brightest on Mitchell, one of the world’s top-ranked juniors who finished his freshman season as the country’s top singles player. A meniscus tear sidelined him last fall, but he quickly regained form going into this spring season.
Thanks to rare talent molded by the best work ethic his coach has ever seen, it’s been a road paved in gold for a 20-year-old whose biggest achievements might still lie ahead.
“I’ve done a lot of great things in college so far, but my goal is obviously still to be a professional, so there’s a lot of things that I need to improve on in my game,” Mitchell said. “These moments only help you down the line when you’re playing in big matches. All that I’ve accomplished so far is going to help me down the line. I can enjoy all these experiences, and I’m in a very exciting place right now.”