The gusting winds at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex in Urbana, Ill., had been wreaking havoc on players for nearly two days, so Virginia’s Mitchell Frank initially thought the worst.
Down 5-3 and facing match point in the decisive third set against UCLA’s Adrien Puget in the NCAA men’s tennis national championship Tuesday afternoon, the sophomore watched helplessly as his return floated in the breeze to set up Puget for an easy backhand volley. With the two teams deadlocked at three in the best-of-seven-matches format, even a decent shot would have ended the Cavaliers’ title hopes.
“This is it,” Frank said to himself. “After everything we’ve been through . . . this is gonna be a repeat.”
Virginia had advanced to the NCAA finals the previous two years, falling short against Southern California both times. Frank was on the sideline in 2011, as an incoming recruit ineligible to help the cause. In 2012, the Annandale native played a role in both of Virginia’s victories during its 4-2 loss to the Trojans.
On Tuesday, though, Frank and the Cavaliers finally caught a break. Puget’s foot touched the net on his backhand volley, and the subsequent call by the chair umpire (UCLA Coach Billy Martin later told reporters he had no issue with the decision) forced deuce. Frank then proceeded to win the final four games of the match to secure a dramatic 0-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory and give Virginia its first men’s tennis national championship.
“It saved me,” Frank said by telephone late Tuesday night after emerging from a spirited dogpile following the conclusion of his victory. The Cavaliers ended the season with an unblemished 30-0 record.
During the comeback, Frank’s mind drifted to the 2004 movie “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” in which a foot fault forced sudden death and allowed the main characters to win at the end of the film. But despite playing in grand slams as a junior tennis player and earning national freshman of the year honors last spring, he couldn’t ignore the intensity of the situation.
“I’ve played in a lot of big moments and felt a lot of pressure at various points in my career, but it’s a very different feeling when you’ve got so many people that have invested so much in you,” Frank said. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt that kind of pressure. You prepare for moments like this and . . . it’s something that I was able to embrace.”
Frank, who trained tirelessly at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park during high school, realized his match would likely decide the national championship midway through the third set after a glance at the scoreboard. It was exactly the scenario Virginia Coach Brian Boland wanted.
“He’s always in the match and he’s a warrior,” Boland said of Frank, who is now 58-2 in two years at Virginia. “I think if every player on the team could pick one guy to be the last match on for the national championship, they would unanimously pick Mitchell.”
Frank didn’t have much time to celebrate Tuesday night because the individual portion of the NCAA championships began Wednesday. He advanced to the quarterfinals a year ago.
For Boland, though, Frank’s heroics completed “a long journey” for a tennis program that wasn’t even in the top 75 when he took over 12 years ago. During his tenure, however, the Cavaliers have won 10 ACC championships and advanced to the national semifinals six of the past seven years.
On Tuesday, Frank finally got Boland and the Cavaliers over that hump.
“It was a moment for this team, but at the same time, we were able to have this opportunity because of all those players that just came up short over the past several years,” Boland said. “I’m really happy for the players and no one is more deserving than Mitchell Frank.”