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ACC tennis standouts come up big at ITA Championships
The fall collegiate tennis season continues to pick up steam, and a pair of Atlantic Coast Conference student-athletes made headlines last weekend with major tournament championships.
Virginia junior Mitchell Frank claimed the prestigious ITA All-American Championships singles title at Tulsa, Okla., joining teammate Alex Domijan and two others as one of only four players in the 35-year history of the event to repeat as champion. Frank and Domijan have combined to win the last four ITA All-American singles titles. No other school has seen its players claim more than two consecutive championships.
At Pacific Palisades, Calif., North Carolina’s Jamie Loeb became the first freshman since 2004 and the first Tar Heel ever to win the Riviera/ITA Women's All-American Championships. Loeb played her way from Prequalifying through Sunday’s Championship against a nationally ranked field.
TWICE AS NICE
Virginia’s Frank also captured the ITA All-American singles title as a freshman in 2011, but the Annandale, Va., native found the task more difficult the second time.
“You go into that tournament and there are 64 players, if not more, that can play some serious tennis,” Frank said. “Honestly, winning the second championship was tougher than the first. It’s a different kind of scenario going in as kind of a favorite. Everyone out there is kind of gunning for you, and everyone out there can play. You can’t take any match lightly.”
The field was equally stacked two years ago, but Frank felt being a freshman gave him some advantage.
“I’d had a great summer coming in, but I didn’t have any experience at the college level,” Frank said. “You go in like that and win a couple of rounds, and people might say, ‘Well, this guy is pretty good,’ but they don’t know as much about your game. You are able to sneak up on people a little bit, and they might not realize what they are up against until it’s too late.”
Though Frank dropped just one set in his six match victories at this year’s event, he definitely sensed his opponents saw him coming.
“I was more well-known, and in that situation everyone talks and tries to figure out how to beat you,” he said. “It makes it more difficult when you are competing against guys who know what you’re going to do.”
In the four days since Frank defeated Oklahoma’s Guillermo Alcorta in the title match, he has reflected on the magnitude of being one of just four two-time winners in the history of the ITA All-American Championships.
“It is pretty special to be in company like that, and especially to be on the same team with somebody who’s done the same thing,” he said. “It’s a very special honor, and guys who were past champions have gone on to do great things. To be on kind of a list with those guys is a very special accomplishment and something that I’m very proud of.”
Frank and Domijan are roommates and close friends. With Domijan unable to attend this year’s tournament due to the death of his aunt, Frank felt some internal pressure to keep Virginia’s championship streak intact.
“Before I left, I was joking with Alex and saying, ‘If I win this year, I guess they should just hand us the trophy from now on,’” Frank said. “But when I got to the quarterfinals and started to see the finish line a little bit, it was difficult … You start to think about winning in the finals, holding the trophy, getting a fourth (straight) for Virginia.
“That is obviously is not the best outlook to have when you’re trying to play a match. So during the quarters, semifinals and finals, I was able to kind of get into a routine and focus on what I had to do to win the match and put thoughts like that behind me.”
Frank said Domijan texted him after his match wins in Tulsa.
“I’m great friends with everyone on the team, but I’m very close with him,” Frank said. “I feel like we’ve had very similar careers in college. He’s not only an unbelievable tennis player, but an unbelievable person. It’s very exciting being on a team with another two-time champion.
Frank’s’ individual success comes on the heels of a 2013 spring season in which Virginia secured the program’s first NCAA men’s tennis championship. That doesn’t meant the junior is out of challenges, and he senses the same feeling among his Cavalier teammates.
“We’re hungrier than ever,” Frank said. “We got that taste of victory, and I think that everyone wants to experience it again. Everyone is working hard, and we do have a great team again. We’re just going to focus on what we can control, keep going forward and hopefully good things will happen again. It should be a great journey.”
Eleven matches in nine days took their toll on North Carolina’s Loeb, but the Ossining, N.Y., native somehow kept her mental edge as she plowed through the Riviera/ITA Women's All-American Championships.
“I was hoping my body would hold up.” Loeb said. “That was one thing I was nervous about, with all the matches – how would I feel? But I felt fine for the most part. After Prequalifying I wasn’t sure if I would make it or not because my legs were getting really tired and heavy, but in Qualifying and in Main Draw, I was able to put that fatigue aside somehow.”
As the freshman continued to win matches – including several over higher-seeded opponents – staying “fresh” became easier.
“I think a lot of it was adrenaline,” Loeb said.” In the beginning, I was focusing on being tired and my legs were bothering me. But I think I got stronger as the tournament went on and was able to put that aside.”
Loeb didn’t lack for credentials entering the tournament. She was highly recruited, boasted a wealth of national and international tennis experience, and began the fall season ranked No. 3 by the ITA among college newcomers.
“I knew I had the ability to do it,” Loeb said. “I just don’t know if at first I had the belief and confidence that I could actually do it.”
Upon studying the gauntlet of matches laid out for her, Loeb had little choice but to adhere to the coaches’ cliché of “one match at a time.”
“It’s overwhelming looking at the big picture in Prequalifying, knowing how many matches you have to play just to get to Main Draw,” she said. “I knew I would have to play a lot of matches to get to that point, but I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself.”
The schedule Loeb faced at the Riviera/ITA All-American proved unlike anything she had previously faced at any level.
“I’ve never played a tournament with that many matches consecutively with no break,” Loeb said. “And it was pretty much high quality competition.”
That was accentuated in the quarterfinal, semifinal and championship matches, which saw Loeb defeat the top three tournament seeds.
“Just thinking about it makes me proud that I represented Carolina, my teammates and my coaches very well,” Loeb said. ”It just goes to show that even if you are in pre-qualifying and think you don’t have a chance of really winning it, or making it to the main draw – it shows if you have the right mindset, you can do it.”
Perhaps the most remarkable win in the championship run came in the title match, where Loeb swept top-seeded Robin Anderson of UCLA, 6-4, 6-0. Anderson, a junior ranked second nationally, was competing roughly 20 minutes from her home campus.
“I knew it was going to be tough because a lot of UCLA fans were there the whole week supporting the team. I had that against me,” Loeb said. “But I had (UNC assistant coach) Sara (Anundsen) with me, and the family I stayed with was very, very supportive.
“I didn’t think the fans were as loud as I thought they would be. It was a pretty fair match, and I thought both of us played well. It was great overcoming that and beating her on her home turf.”
With the win over Anderson, Loeb raised her overall singles match record for the fall season to 14-1. She defeated the nation’s second, third, fourth and 13th ranked players en route to the Riviera/ITA Women's All-American title. Thirteen of her 14 wins have come over players ranked in the ITA preseason top 125.
Loeb hopes that impressive run provides a springboard through the remainder of the fall and into next spring, when UNC will seek its 16th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and its 11th in a row under head coach Brian Kalbas.
“One of the main reasons I chose Carolina is because I wanted to be in the Atlantic Coast Conference, with so many great schools and players to compete against,” Loeb said. “I am really looking forward to it.”