Plum native Fratangelo proves resilient as tennis pro
During the first few days of July, with his 21st birthday about two weeks away, Bjorn Fratangelo worried about the condition of his gifts.
He thought not of the presents that awaited back home in Plum, but of the tennis talents that created so many opportunities in his life, including the seven-week trip in Italy that spanned from late May to earlier this month.
Within those final two weeks in Italy, the Plum native experienced the worst match of his year if not his professional career and his best tournament performance in many months.
Fratangelo, named after tennis legend Bjorn Borg and regarded as one of the most promising young Americans in the sport, boarded a plane that brought him back to the United States July 14 and reviewed the most tumultuous stretch of tennis in his life. His body and his mind had betrayed him at times in the first half of 2014. But Fratangelo sensed he had cleared an obstacle on his path to a more satisfying place in the pro world.
“I thought about calling it quits (and leaving Italy early),” Fratangelo said. “And (United States Tennis Association coach Stanford Boster) told me to stay over there — ‘Don't come home, don't bail.' I didn't, and I'm glad I didn't.”
In the 48 hours before he left Europe, Fratangelo won International Tennis Federation singles and doubles titles at a clay court Futures tournament in Sassuolo, Italy.
Those championships were his second and third of 2014 — Fratangelo won his first title of the year at a clay court Futures tournament in Tampa, Fla., in May. But the wins failed to create even a fraction of the buzz generated by Fratangelo's greatest achievement, a Junior French Open championship in 2011.
When Fratangelo topped Austria's Dominic Thiem in Paris three years ago, he became the first American male to win the Junior French Open's singles title since John McEnroe, who won in 1977. By ending the drought and linking his legacy with the legendary McEnroe, Fratangelo vaulted himself to the forefront of American youth tennis for the rest of that summer.
Though he's a year and a half into his pro career and an owner of five ITF Futures singles titles, two ITF Futures doubles titles and top-500 world rankings in both disciplines, Fratangelo still finds that most interactions with American fans and media members dwell on what he did at Roland Garros.
“I want that to be forgotten,” Fratangelo said. “And I know I'm going to have to do something pretty big to have that forgotten.”
The French Open trophy, a silver plate, ended up on display in the Fratangelo family kitchen. It has sat there and slowly gathered dust as Fratangelo has trained at the USTA facility in Boca Raton, Fla., and traveled the world for tournaments. He has competed in Italy, Colombia, Panama, Canada and Brazil — his semifinals appearance in an ATP Challenger event in Campinas, Brazil, in September 2013 helped him rise as high as 292 in the world.
Fratangelo finished 2013 ranked 301 as a singles player and felt ready to take on additional Challenger events, which offer more ranking points (75-125 to winners) and prize money ($35,000-150,000) than Futures tournaments (18-35 points and $10,000-15,000) but also feature considerably better competition.
But in January, he experienced pain in his right foot. An MRI revealed a stress fracture and bone spurs. A doctor advised Fratangelo to take several weeks off.
For the first time in his life, Fratangelo found himself sidelined with a significant injury.
Almost two months passed before he returned to action. Stuck in Boca Raton from mid-January through early March with a training regimen limited to swimming, upper-body lifting and hitting balls while seated in a chair, he missed many of the late-winter tournaments in which he had earned ranking points in 2013. Consequently, his world ranking fell more than 100 spots.
“As much as I tried to not look at it and tried to relax, your ranking tells your whole story,” Fratangelo said. “That was tough to see.”
Eager to rebound, Fratangelo returned to action with a string of Challengers in South America and southeastern United States. He struggled to advance out of the qualifying draws, let alone compete for prize money and ranking points.
“You kind of have to groove your way back in, which I understood at first,” he said. “But as you keep playing, you're like, ‘All right, c'mon, c'mon.' You don't see the results, and you get discouraged.”
Before his title-winning performance in Sassuolo, Fratangelo failed to advance past the round of 16 as a singles player in four straight Futures tournaments in Italy.
Boster, the USTA coach, came to several conclusions: Fratangelo needed to increase his physical strength, learn how to fight through frustrating matches, and develop his identity as a pro.
“He had to know why he was playing,” Boster said. “I think maturing and taking control of his own destiny is going to be a big step for him.”
Mario Fratangelo, Bjorn's father and coach throughout the son's Junior career, formed his own theory: He believed he needed to re-establish an on-court relationship with his son. Mario stopped serving as Fratangelo's coach when Fratangelo left to train full-time in Boca Raton, and the father kept his distance out of respect for the USTA's player development program. But after talks with his son, Mario believed his son needed some sort of rejuvenation.
Mario and his wife, Pam, flew to Italy in the final days of June. And what they witnessed from Fratangelo July 1 confirmed Mario's concerns.
Up a set against No. 2 seed Luca Vanni of Italy in a clay court Futures tournament at Mantova, Fratangelo proceeded to spray balls into adjacent courts, abuse his racquet and unravel mentally. The father didn't detect fun or a competitive fire in his son. Embarrassed, he left his seat in the stands and walked away before the match's end — Vanni won 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 on the way to the tournament's title.
“That definitely was not my kid,” Mario said.
The father sat down with his son in the days that followed and spoke about getting back to basics and building confidence in small, point-by-point pieces rather than in tournament-size chunks. Mario hadn't celebrated Fratangelo's success in 2013 with fervor — “It was OK,” he said, “but it wasn't good enough for me, personally, and I wanted to let him know that.” But he knew at that moment in Italy, he needed to nurture, not nitpick.
At Sassuolo six days later, Fratangelo rediscovered his championship form.
He left his family's home in Plum — the one with a Batman-logoed wall in the basement that served as his hitting partner during childhood — this weekend as a 21-year-old with big plans for the second half of 2014. And he now knows that his gifts are safe and sound, and no slump or hot streak is everlasting.
“Guys that have been my peers, two of them (including Austria's Thiem from the 2011 Junior French Open final) have already broken the top 100,” Fratangelo said. “It shows me that it can be done. They figured it out a little sooner than I have, but I'm young.
“By the time I'm 23, that's when I want to be in the top 100.”