April 16, 2003
Berkeley, Calif. - In a sport that seemingly relies so much on individual talent and effort, where success or failure is determined one-on-one against a single opponent, Fruttero has earned a different reputation.
Cal tennis coach Peter Wright paradoxically calls his star senior a consummate team player.
"You don't get that very often," Wright said. "He's able to not only get his job done where you're the focus of your own attention but he elevates the guys around him. JP would have been a great team player, whether it was volleyball, basketball or baseball. He takes that energy and enthusiasm, and he makes this team a great team."
Cal's No. 1 player since his arrival as a freshman in the fall of 1999, Fruttero has raised the level of his game every year. Ranked No. 11 in the country in singles at the end of last season, he entered this spring with possession of the nation's No. 4 spot.
Not coincidentally, Cal's ascent in the collegiate tennis scene has mirrored Fruttero's improvement. The year before he enrolled, the Bears completely missed the NCAA Tournament when they finished with a 7-13 record. But with a rookie Fruttero on the roster, Cal rose to a No. 36 ranking the next season. The following year, the Bears were 16th, and last season, Cal earned a No. 10 rating after compiling a 19-7 record that included victories over Stanford, UCLA and USC in the same year for the first time in school history.
Now, Cal is among the Top 5 teams in the country with a legitimate shot at the national title.
So how did Wright and Cal land a player of Fruttero's caliber, one of the most decorated recruits ever to join the Golden Bear program? After all, Fruttero had amassed a perfect 72-0 mark at San Marino High School, attained a national No. 4 under-18 ranking and practically had his pick of colleges to choose from.
"I wanted to go somewhere where I wasn't going to be a small fish in a big pond, where you're expected to do well, but not be much of an impact player," said Fruttero, who went against the advice of many of his friends and family when he signed with Cal. "I felt like I wanted to be a team leader and turn a program around. I thought Cal was the perfect place.
"There's no reason Cal cannot be a national championship contender every single year with its academics and its coach. I kind of went out on a limb and decided to come to Cal and try to do something special."
Fruttero, who will turn 22 March 30, began his long road toward the top of the tennis world when he was just four-and-a-half. With a net strung over a concrete surface between two trees, Fruttero and his father, Saul, would volley back and forth nearly every day.
Fruttero started playing in tournaments once he turned eight, achieving success rather quickly despite playing against kids two years his elder.
"I wanted to play other sports, but my dad always tried to emphasize that if you want to be good at a sport, you have to pick one or two," Fruttero said. "I love to compete, so that's when I realized I liked tennis as a sport."
With Saul providing daily instructions and Jose Higueras a two-time French Open semifinalist who later coached Jim Courrier and Michael Chang supplying tune-up lessons every six months, Fruttero moved up the tennis ladder. By the time he was 12, Fruttero was ranked No. 1 in his age group in Southern California, and he realized he had the potential to be an even more successful player.
Once he reached 15, Fruttero turned to his brother, John Pierre, for instruction. A former competitive tennis player himself and a graduate of Penn's Wharton School of Business, John Pierre helped prepare his younger sibling for the challenges ahead.
When Fruttero arrived in Berkeley, he was joined by another freshman Robert Kowalczyk, the No. 1 player in Florida and together they set a new standard for Cal tennis.
"Both John Paul and Robert have been All-Americans at Cal," Wright said. "They've really made a mark on the program. Taking a team that was doing fairly well, now in their senior year, the team is in the running for a national title."
In many ways, the breakthrough to elite status for the Bears came last season. First came a dramatic 4-3 win over top-ranked Stanford, a victory that ended a 21-match losing streak to the Cardinal. It also kicked off a 10-match winning streak third longest in school history. Cal later swept UCLA for the first time since 1953 and added a triumph over fifth-ranked Pepperdine.
"It was awesome, especially the win at Stanford when they were No. 1 in the country and undefeated, breaking their 75-match home win streak," Fruttero said of the 2002 season. "It really set the tone for us for the year."
To better prepare himself for life after Cal, Fruttero toured on the pro circuit during the summer and fall months, taking the semester off from classes. Traveling across the United States, as well as to Jamaica and Mexico, he played in a series of tournaments, but did not accept any money in order to maintain his amateur status. Fruttero won his first competition in Sunnyvale, then posted his first win over a Top 100 player. Before he returned to Berkeley in January, he had moved into the Top 500 in the world.
"What I really needed was experience," said Fruttero, who had limited success on his first try at the circuit during the fall of 2001. "The pro tour is pretty much my goal right now. I wanted to get a good base to launch my pro career full-time and not have to start from scratch."
In order to make a living playing tennis, Fruttero said he needs to move into the Top 200, and Wright believes his pupil has the game to reach that level.
"I think college has been a good step for him along the way," Wright said. "He's developed as a person, and he's developed his game. I think that he will bring that enthusiasm to the professional tour. He has the right attitude and the right type of game to be successful."
Fruttero, though, suffered a major setback to the start of his senior season when an MRI exam in January revealed that a ganglion cyst needed to be surgically removed from his wrist. The procedure meant six weeks of rehab, postponing his 2003 debut until late March.
Even without Fruttero in the lineup, Cal again defeated Stanford Feb. 1 in Berkeley, a feat that catapulted the Bears from 10th to fourth in the national polls. Once Fruttero reassumes his No. 1 spot, expect Cal to be an even stronger force on the court.
"Last year was a big stepping stone for us, but our NCAA performance left something to be desired," said Wright, whose Bears lost in the second round to Duke last spring. "I think we're going to draw on that experience to make sure that we take care of everything we possibly can. Of course, there's a little bit of luck involved, but you can make your own luck down the road. When we're ready to go at the NCAA's, that's when we'll need JP's services."
Anxious to get back to his more familiar spot leading the Bears, Fruttero speaks with confidence when making his own predictions.
"I wouldn't be satisfied with anything less than a national championship," he said. "This is our best team in quite a while. It's going to be a fun year."