French Open Champion Cherishes Catholicism
2011 junior Titleist Bjorn Fratangelo finds deepest meaning in the Church.
Bjorn Fratangelo loves to play top-level tennis and could ask for nothing more this spring on a professional level than winning the French Open. However, the 2011 Boys’ Singles Champion also knows that there are more important things in life. He prays, not that he will win matches, but that he will make the most of his abilities and be pleasing to God.
Fratangelo, who is named after tennis great Bjorn Borg, has progressed hundreds of spots in the world rankings since turning pro in the summer of 2011. He finished last year ranked No. 114 and would like to crack the top 50 this year. The 23-year-old Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, native, who is a Steelers and Penguins fan, recently spoke of his tennis goals and lifelong Catholicism as the French Open, which starts May 29, awaits as the culmination of the clay-court season.
You won the 2011 French Open Boys’ Singles title, so is that the Grand Slam you think you’d be most likely to win on the professional tour?
It might be, but you never know for sure what will happen. No one expected Andre Agassi to win Wimbledon in 1992, since he was a baseliner with very little grass-court experience, but that was his first Grand Slam title.
I didn’t think I’d win the French junior title in 2011. It was my first trip overseas, my first tournament on red clay, and I was the No. 30 junior player in the world. I wasn’t one of the favorites going into the tournament in my mind or in the minds of others. I was just taking in all the sights and sounds of France for the first time.
In the matches I didn’t feel any pressure to win; I just went out and played freely. After a tough first round, I cruised into the finals. That’s where I had another tough match against Dominic Thiem, who is now ranked among the top 10 players in the world. I escaped that one 8-6 in the final set.
It was fun to win the tournament, of course, but it wasn’t until I got back home that I realized how big of a deal it was to everyone. It was the first time an American male won the junior title since John McEnroe did in 1977 — another example of someone winning a tournament on what is not his best surface — and I was suddenly seen as one of the players with big potential for the pros.
So you decided to skip college and play professionally?
I had considered playing tennis with the Ohio State Buckeyes or Georgia Bulldogs, which are both great programs, but the unexpected success at the French put college on the back burner. I knew that a chance to play a sport professionally only comes along once, so I wanted to take advantage of that time.
I’m happy I made that choice and have no regrets at all. I’ve been able to travel the world and play against the best players, so now my goal is to get into the top 50 in the world and stay there for as long as possible. The key things for that happening are being consistent and staying healthy. I had a good year in 2016, but this year I’ve had to deal with injuries and illness, so the health component hasn’t been there, but I’m still hopeful for the future.
Does your Catholic faith help you with that?
Being Catholic gives me hope, not so much professionally, but for all of life. I’m working toward things getting better on tour, but even if they don’t, tennis is not the most important thing. God has much more pressing concerns than whether or not I win a tennis match, so I never pray for a win or good results, just that I make the most of my abilities — and not only as a tennis player, but as a man.
I’ve been to a lot of Masses in my life, but I don’t remember hearing anything about winning a tennis match. I do remember things about sacraments, prayer and treating others respectfully. The Church is there to help us live good lives in order to live the best life possible eternally in heaven, so that’s what gives me hope and that’s what I see as being the most important thing.
Did you learn that through a Catholic education?
I attended St. John the Baptist in Plum, Pennsylvania, and the values instilled in me there are the same I carry with me today. Treating other people well is a big one, but also the general reminder that religion brings of how this life doesn’t last and that there’s another life beyond this one. That helps so much when things don’t work out how you’d like, or if you have certain crosses to bear, because you see that there’s a deeper meaning and God is working through everything for the best.
I was an altar boy at Christmas, Easter, school [and funeral] Masses, and I still go to St. John today when I’m home. That’s not often from spring though summer, though, so I don’t get to see my family as much as I’d like to — especially at Easter, since that’s usually when the European clay-court season is in full swing. I’m an only child, but my dad is one of five kids, so I have lots of cousins who are like brothers to me.
My parents didn’t have any children before or after me, but about 24 years ago, the story goes, my dad got to meet his favorite player, Bjorn Borg. Right around that time is when I came into being, got my name, and was then born nine months later. I’m happy to be around, for sure, and I probably benefited a lot from things my dad learned from Borg’s great play, but I don’t really think of Borg when I see my name. That’s just what I’m called.
Who was your favorite player to watch growing up?
Roger Federer is the best tennis role model around, since he can do basically anything, but I didn’t have just one player that I tried to model my game after. Since I’m kind of short for professional tennis — which today includes John Isner at 6-foot-10 — I tended to look at the smaller players and took things from a group of them to use in my one game. I liked to watch Agassi, David Ferrer, Guillermo Coria and Juan Carlos Ferrero. James Blake and Mardy Fish were good ones to watch, too.
Maybe my choice of tennis role models is similar to how I see the saints. I chose St. Anthony as my confirmation saint in eighth grade, but I wouldn’t say I have one patron. There are lots of holy Christians, starting with Mary and Joseph. I’m going to read two booklets that have quotes from a lot of saints — one called The Wonders of the Mass and the other called Prayer: The Great Means of Grace — so those will probably add to my list of older relatives in the faith to learn something from.
You said you don’t pray for wins, but do you have a prayer routine for matches?
The routine isn’t so much for matches as it is for life in general. I pray every morning and every night, and at different times in between. Before I get on a plane, I bless myself and pray a Hail Mary, and I carry rosary beads in my backpack. Prayer relaxes me and helps me to think logically instead of anxiously.
I know Tim Smyczek has found prayer — and the Rosary specifically — to be very helpful, too. We’re friends, but with all the travel and different schedules, we haven’t attended Mass together yet. We almost did one time in France, but we still haven’t done so. There are other Catholics on tour, but pro tennis isn’t known for being big on religion, so seeing a classy guy like Tim is reassuring. I try to be respectful of others and not yell or throw my racket, so the way Tim conducts himself reminds me of how to act.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports
interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.