Tennis

American wins French boys' title

Bjorn Fratangelo (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
American Bjorn Fratangelo has a big name to live up to.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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PARIS

Bjorn Fratangelo, a 17-year-old from Pittsburgh, became the first American to win the Junior singles title at Roland Garros since John McEnroe in 1977 when Fratangelo defeated Austria's Dominic Thiem 3-6, 6-3, 8-6 in a final of high quality.

This was an impressive performance from a young player who had not stepped onto a red clay court before playing a warm-up tournament in Milan three weeks ago. Fratangelo reached the quarterfinals there, but his tennis has moved up a notch with each match he has played here in the French Open. He needed to produce the best performance of his young career to beat back the challenge of a worthy opponent.

Thiem has an excellent serve and a big forehand, and he used both weapons to dominate in the first set. But Fratangelo, who is trained by his father in Naples, Fla., worked his way back into a match that was punctuated by long, testing rallies. A whippy forehand and a solid two-handed backhand are the backbone of Fratangelo's game, and he used both to break serve to establish a 4-0 lead in the second. He lost one of his breaks but served out coolly to level the match.

Thiem was having a bigger struggle to hold his serve toward the end of the third and needed to get out of break point in the eleventh game as the American stepped up the pressure.

"I knew that if I could make him work on his serve, then maybe it could possibly break down," Fratangelo said. "I think I did well at that and did well to hold my nerve at the end to close it out."

Fratangelo wasn't boasting, just giving a well-ordered, articulate account of what had happened on Court 2 where nearly 2,000 people had watched an intriguing contest between two youngsters who seem primed to make the big step up to the pro ranks. Not yet, perhaps, because the days of top teenage players are over, but there was enough evidence here to suggest that both could make it. From an American point of view, that would be a huge bonus because players who feel at home on clay do not grow on trees in the United States.

"I grew up in Pittsburgh where there are not a lot of good hard courts around," he explained. "I mainly trained on clay. I really learned how to slide, how to move well on the surface."

That, of course, was green-gray Har-Tru clay, but Fratangelo doesn't think there is too much difference between that and the red clay in Europe.

"People make too much of it," says a young man who now can talk with some authority on the subject.

SLAM DANCE

Take a look back at each of Rafael Nadal's 13 Grand Slam titles.

Inevitably, Fratangelo had to answer questions about his name. His father, who was born in Italy, was a huge fan of Bjorn Borg.

"Yea, you know, Bjorn, I was named after Borg," Fratangelo said with a slightly world-weary air. "But it's just my name. The toughest thing is for people to pronounce it if they don't know Borg."

Young Bjorn has never met Borg, nor even McEnroe for that matter, but that will be just a matter of time. Fratangelo occasionally drives over to the USTA training headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., where Patrick McEnroe is in charge of operations, and Fratangelo was quick to point out how much help USTA coach Jay Berger and the team had given him this past week.

Fratangelo never had won a junior match at Grand Slam level before, having lost twice at Flushing Meadows.

"Thank God I finally got the first round out of the way," he said when asked about his expectations going in. "After that, each match got better and better. This surface was suiting my game well. It helps my forehand jump through the court. I guess I never looked back, never got nervous. I was having a blast out there. And the USTA totally helped us – Jay Berger, Dave Licker, Satoshi Ochi – we have to thank them for everything they did."

A victory AND gratitude? Patrick McEnroe must be purring.

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