UVa's Mitchell Frank relishing in pressure as NCAA's No. 1 player
UVa's Mitchell Frank, 19, is the No. 1-ranked DI college player in tennis
Frank passed up an opportunity to go pro to improve at the collegiate level
UVa is No. 2 in the country and has sights set on the NCAA Championships
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Clank. The first orange cone, set up on the far right corner of the service box, goes flying.
Clank. Another, this one some 15 feet to the left, is sent into the air moments later.
That sound of a hard-hit ball meeting plastic is the only noise heard at the voluminous Boars Head Sports Club. University of Virginia freshman Mitchell Frank, working on the accuracy of his serve for the final 20 minutes of practice, rarely misses his desired target.
Some of it is his smooth technique. The rest is focus.
Both attributes have been showcased this season by the 19-year-old, already ranked as the No. 1 singles player in Division I by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. Frank made history in the fall by becoming only the fourth player ever to win ITA All-American and ITA National Indoor titles in the same season.
He's very confident in his abilities -- Frank claims to have never been intimidated at the collegiate level and will often gesture during match breaks to pump up the crowd -- but not to the point of arrogance.
"He believes in himself, but he also has a good reason to believe in himself," UVa coach Brian Boland told SI.com. "What makes Mitchell so special is that you know what you are going to get every day, whether it be in practice or a match. He just comes ready to play. He prepares as hard as anyone I've ever seen."
Frank practices about four hours each day, but it's on his mind most other moments. He reads about the sport daily and is constantly watching YouTube videos of professional players to find ways to improve his game.
Most of his spare time is spent with other first-years on his floor, but that's few and far between. When you're widely considered the best amateur tennis player in the nation, it's tough to enjoy college life if everyone else is aiming to dethrone you.
Frank, though, would have it no other way.
"I want their best shot. It forces me to really find a way to win," Frank said. "I'm happy that I'm getting the best from these players and I'm feeling the pressure. When you are on the pro circuit playing for money, there is going to be pressure."
Everything comes back to playing professionally. It's been his dream since he first picked up a racket at age four in the Washington D.C. suburb of Annandale, Va. The goal remained during high school while making the long commute to and from his training center in College Park, Md.
He had a chance to go pro last year -- Frank was the No. 5 juniors player in the world -- but instead joined the Cavaliers to continue developing his game.
After all, there was no need to rush the inevitable.
Vinh Do, Director of the Fairfax Racquet Club, remembers when he first realized Frank would be special.
Soon after the 11-year-old began taking classes with Do, he started competing in local tournaments. His first four matches were all against Jason Luu -- now on scholarship at Cornell -- who was a more experienced player taught by his father.
Frank won the first contest without much problem. But in each of the next three, Luu, according to Do, "would throw a different wrinkle each time."
The second match saw Luu consistently hitting drop shots. The next he focused on playing toward the net. The last match between the two boys had Luu hitting mostly slices down the middle.
None of it worked.
"I was just astonished in how well Mitchell responded to each of these adjustments," Do said. "It really showed me how good this kid was mentally. These are veteran type of adjustments and he was able to respond successfully at a very young age."
Frank practiced with Do most weekday afternoons for the next three years. He was progressing so fast, however, that his coach felt more serious training was needed.
The first call was to Vesa Ponkka, Senior Director of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md.
Initially the 14-year-old went to Annandale High School in the morning and trained at the JTCC for three hours in the afternoon. But after two years, Ponkka advised his player's family that a more demanding situation was needed if he wanted to eventually reach the next level.
"There are some players who can get by with an afternoon program, but it's difficult because the rest of the world is practicing full-time nowadays," Ponkka said. "Tennis is a game of repetitions, so you have to be able to get the repetitions down."
For the next two years, Frank would wake up at 5:45 a.m. each morning and drive seven miles to the Dunn Loring Metro station. He then had an-hour-and-15 minute commute and would arrive at the JTCC a little before 9:00 a.m.
Fitness came first for an hour, followed by tennis practice until noon. After a lunch break, Frank had online classes until 2:00 p.m. and then more training for two hours. Additional fitness came after with extra hitting, if he felt up for it.
Frank would get back to his home in Virginia around 7:30 p.m. each night.
"It worked out pretty well for me," he said. "The training was unbelievable, the coaches were great and everyone really cared for you. It was a great environment to be in."
That environment included playing with and against some of the top talent in the country. Frank was placed in a training group with Denis Kudla (now a pro ranked No. 170) and Junior Ore (Texas A&M), both top-20 junior players in the world at the time.
The trio pushed each other daily in practice and traveled more than 15 weeks a year together for tournaments. And though they competed in all four junior grand slams, the match that defined Frank took place in Brazil.
At the opening round of the 2009 Banana Bowl, one of the top clay-court tournaments, he trailed Austria's Tristan-Samuel Weissborn 6-1, 5-1 and 40-15. Frank proceeded to save five match points and eventually won 1-6, 7-6 (9), 6-3.
"The way he acted to win that match was awesome," Kudla said. "He was running around, saying 'come on' after every point, doing kangaroo jumps and was just going crazy on the court. From then on we started seeing a different person.
"He just became a machine."
The description fits Frank not only for his talent, but also his physical prowess.
Pat Etcheberry -- a former strength and conditioning coach for Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, among others -- once took Frank to Mexico for conditioning training. The pair worked out five hours for each of the 13 days in 8,000-foot altitudes.
Etcheberry came back to America and dubbed Frank "Baby Jim," based on his similarities to one of his star pupils: former world No. 1, Jim Courier.
Frank's decision to attend college wasn't easy. He had a real opportunity to turn pro. He also saw the success of Kudla, who entered the ATP at age 16, and felt he was of similar ability.
Then he faced reality.
"I didn't have the greatest year when I was signing and didn't feel like I was playing great tennis," Frank said. "I felt my game still needed to mature and college was the best place to do that."
He chose UVa over Duke and Texas A&M based on a strong relationship with the coaching staff, the close proximity to home (two-hour drive) and a chance to play for one of the best teams in the country.
So far, so good.
The Cavaliers are the No. 2-ranked team in Division I, largely thanks to Frank, Jarmere Jenkins, Alex Domijan, Justin Shane and Drew Courtney, all top 125 players.
Frank considers himself a counterpuncher, typically playing behind the baseline and creating offense with his defense. He said he's worked much of this year on "making the game as physical as possible" and improving on his play at the net.
According to Courtney, it's only a matter of time before that occurs.
"His work ethic is second to none," the senior said. "I think he's probably the most dedicated guy as far as putting in the time. It shows on the court."
Frank's success in the fall -- having won two of the biggest tournaments in college tennis -- hasn't diminished in the spring. Since losing his only match of the year to Ohio State's Peter Kobelt on Feb. 19, the freshman has won 10 consecutive including Sunday against North Carolina State.
Barring a miraculous summer filled with Futures and Challengers events, Frank expects to be back in Charlottesville again next fall. But he's not thinking that far ahead just yet.
"Our goals are to win the ACCs this season, then the national title," he said. "We're putting ourselves in a great position where we're at and it should be a very exciting year going forward."
Three seasons in a row, Virginia entered the NCAA Championships as the No. 1 seed and fell short of its goal.
Frank is doing all he can to make sure that doesn't happen again.