ALA: From Cebu to the world

Thirty years since the inception of the ALA Boxing Gym in Alang-Alang, Mandaue City by its founder Antonio Lopez Aldeguer, whose initials bear the company’s name, it has staged promotion after promotion on Philippine soil, produced world champions like Gerry Peñalosa and Malcolm Tuñacao, became the pride of Cebu with “Pinoy Pride,” as it traveled to the Middle East and, amidst the 450,000-strong Filipino residents there, staged two spectacles named “Duel in Dubai.”

Six weeks from now, it’s another continent. ALA Sports Promotions Internaitional, Inc., codenamed ALASPI, is landing in America — the first time that a company from Asia is promoting a boxing show on American soil.

The date is October 17 and, like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which labels its promotions by numbers (it’s UFC 191: Johnson vs. Dodson 2 this weekend), the ALA group does the same: it’s Pinoy Pride XXXIII. For short, that’s PP33.

The main attraction is ALA’s star attraction: Donnie “Ahas” Nietes, the longest-reigning Filipino world boxing champion.

“Donnie Nietes’s opponent is Juan Alejo of Mexico,” said Michael Aldeguer, the President/CEO of ALASPI.

Alejo is world rated No. 8 in the Light Flyweight division. And while a No. 8-ranked fighter looks already-beaten against Nietes, consider this credential of Alejo: He hasn’t lost a bout since Dec, 2009, sporting a 21-fight winning streak. But, like the 36 others who’ve bowed to Nietes (who hasn’t been beaten since 2004), the Mexican will have difficulty against the Murcia-born world champion.

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Donnie Nietes with Michael and Tony Aldeguer

“The public wants to see Nietes fight a Mexican because of the rivalry between the Phils. and Mexico,” said Michael. “You can never take a Mexican fighter for granted.”

The Oct. 17 event is called “Filipinos contras Latinos” as there will be others from Latin countries. In the undercard will be the Pagara brothers Jason and Albert and ALA’s top bet, Mark “Magnifico” Magsayo. They will be joined by other Pinoy fighters based in the U.S and the venue is the 8,000-seater Stub Hub Center in Carson, Los Angeles.

The American invasion is not the only dream of father and son, Tony and Michael Aldeguer. They’ve set their vision to conquer the world through this sport that’s called “The Sweet Science.”

“The 10-year plan is to build ALA Boxing in the U.S. the way we did it in the Phils. The plan is to draw Fil-Ams to fight and train under the ALA banner. We hope to have an office and a gym in the coming years as next year we are looking to do more events every quarter in California and it should grow as the years come. That’s for the U.S.,” said Michael.

For Europe, the first target is London in 2017 or 2018. “Boxing has become big in Europe with some world champs and we plan to build something there,” he said. “Not to mention the thousands of Filipinos living in Europe.”

With the Middle East, since ALA has already staged two successful events in Dubai, the goal is to promote in Doha and in Saudi Arabia. Of the latter, it is acknowledged as the largest hirer of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), with nearly two million Filipinos residing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“From 2020-25, we hope to do Canada, Japan, Singapore and Australia, where a lot of Filipinos are,” said Michael. “The thrust is to grow the sport and connecting it closer to the heart of the Filipinos around the world as it is only in boxing we can excel and be respected around the world. Once we achieve that, the business side of things will come as the fan base becomes bigger. Naturally, more international promoters, advertisers and networks would want to work with us which will help us achieve our goal to be in an equal playing field.”

The target is for ALA to conquer America next month and the rest of the world in the coming decade.

“Gone are the days when international advertisers, TV networks and promoters just think of ALA Sports Promotions International Inc. (ALASPI) as based only in the Philippines,” said Michael.

ALA’s dream: A Filipino-owned company based all over the world.

Michael Aldeguer: ALA invades USA

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(Michael Aldeguer with California State Athletic Commission Executive Officer Andy Foster)

No promotional boxing outfit from Asia had ever secured a U.S. license before. Many have tried but all have failed. Until now.

It took Michael P. Aldeguer years and years of shuttling back and forth California and Cebu; thousands of dollars of phone bills and innumerable hours on the phone; hundreds of emails exchanged until finally.. Yes.

“It was difficult and painstaking,” admitted Michael, a friend whom I’ve known since high school when we competed in basketball. “At first, we felt it couldn’t be done as no one in Asia had done it before but we had focus and perseverance in finding ways to make it happen.”

The Aldeguers have always been persevering and successful, be it in business or in sport. In boxing, having conquered Cebu and Manila and, just recently, Dubai, it was clear that the next major hurdle was the American market — a huge, huge market for Pinoy boxing, given that there are over four million Filipinos residing in America. Nearly half of all Filipinos, if my research is correct, reside in California. Thus, next month’s October 17 promotion of ALA Boxing is ideally situated in the 8,000-seater Stub Hub Center in Carson, Los Angeles.

Michael Aldeguer credits his company’s securing of the U.S. boxing license not solely on himself — although he is the CEO.

“The credibility of the name ‘ALA’ helped a lot in putting us in the map,” he said. Ever mindful of how they started, he pays tribute to his father, Antonio Lopez Aldeguer, who, thirty years ago in 1985, founded and started the ALA Gym.

“It was because of my dad’s love and passion for the sport — and mainly because he wanted to help poor kids out of poverty,” said Michael. “The tradition and history dad has built through the fighters and trainers made the difference. The ALA Boxing group wouldn’t be where we are now without my father who is still the Chairman.”

Michael also gives credit to ABS-CBN, in particular to Gabby and Raffy Lopez, the owners of the TV giant, for believing in their vision and plans. He cites one other ABS-CBN top official, Peter Musngi, the VP for Sports (and also the voice of ABS-CBN and now the consultant for sports), for bringing their plans to Gabby and making things happen. “Without ABS-CBN,” says Michael, “we wouldn’t be here.”

The ALA Sports Promotions International Inc. (ALASPI) — the full name of the company — has a clear direction, thanks to their CEO.

“We have a strong foundation in our organization and the employees follow the culture,” he added. “There is a path they need to follow to carry the tradition and values we expect at ALA. If they don’t, then we take them out and replace the positions with the right people to ensure that they carry the values in the organization for the future.”

Finally, in our Q & A via email, Michael complimented one sector for helping promote boxing.

“The last but certainly not the least is the Cebu media,” he said. “The Cebu media has helped our organization the past years to be recognized, at first, nationally, then in Asia, and now the world.”

The goal of being in Ameica is what Mr. Aldeguer has always sought after. “You have to be in the U.S. to be taken seriously in the boxing world,” he said, citing the great Manny Pacquiao as the leader in promoting Philippine boxing.

“Donnie Nietes, Nonito Donaire and Brian Villoria have also carried the torch,” he said. “And they will soon pass it on to the new stars of the sport. It is for this reason that we worked hard in getting a U.S. license so our future stars don’t have to rely on American promoters and TV networks to be able to fight in the US. We can show the world too that not only do we have great Filipino fighters but we have a capable promotional company and TV network.”

As to making Cebu known worldwide, thanks to ‘Pinoy Pride’ and ALA Boxing, Michael says: “During our international interviews or write-ups, we always use ‘Cebu-based ALA Promotions.’ We are so proud to be a Cebu-based company and it is our pride to be Cebuano.”

Maxime Rooney

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Maxime holding his FINA World Junior Championships gold medal with dad Kennan and relative Annette Ompad Ycong in Singapore (photo courtesy of Maxime’s grandma, Mrs. Amy Radaza Jessup)

Though his family name sounds foreign, Maxime Rooney is half-Filipino. His father, Kennan Rooney, is pure Pinoy. Kennan’s mother is Radaza — she’s Mrs. Amy R. Jessup, the older sister of former congressman Arturo “Boy” Radaza.

Who is Maxime Rooney? Well, let’s just say that he broke two swimming world records this month. Yes, no mistyping there. Maxime broke the world junior record in the 200-meter freestyle. He clocked a super fast 1:47.10 time for the 200m. Then, while swimming in a relay team last Friday, he broke another junior world record with his three other teammates.

This performance is stunning because the South East Asian Games record in the same 200m distance is 1:47.79. This was achieved just last June by Singaporean Joseph Isaac Schooling.

What this means is, had Maxime joined the SEA Games and clocked the same time, he would have won gold and set the all time SEA Games record.

To add to Maxime’s record-shattering feat (he achieved this at the US Nationals last August 7), he joined the 2015 FINA World Junior Championships. This, too, was held in Singapore this week.

The result? The same medal color. Gold. Maxime defeated all the world’s best junior swimmers with a time of 1:47.78.

I talk about Maxime because I’m dreaming of him representing the Philippines all the way to the Olympics. Five years from now during the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Maxime will be 22 years old — the perfect age to medal in the Olympics.

But there’s a problem: Given how he’s performed and how he’s been developed and nurtured by Americans, it’s a long, long, long shot that he’ll switch nationalities and swim for us.

As far back as 2012, I wrote about Maxime. It was Lapu-Lapu City Councilor Harry Radaza, the uncle of Maxime, who first informed me about his celebrated nephew. The then 14-year-old Maxime was breaking age group records in California and in the entire America. Maybe, during that time when Maxime was not as popular and accomplished as he is now — maybe, the Philippines could have requested him to represent the Philippine flag. (Maxime is a dual citizen of both the U.S. and the Phils.)

But now, I believe it’s too late.

In that July 2012 article that I wrote, the piece was entitled, “The Michael Phelps of the Philippines?” That was three years ago when Maxime was still growing, physically and mentally. Now, he’s stronger, faster, bigger. He is, given the results, a potential “next Michael Phelps.” The problem is, I don’t think the country named “U.S.A.” will let go of someone they’ve cultivated and nourished.

Going back to the Olympics, next year it’s Brazil. I checked the qualifying time for the U.S. team and, if I read it correctly, it’s 1:51.89 — much slower than Maxime’s time. I checked further the Olympic Qualifying Time (OQT), the quota time to join the Olympics, and it’s 1:47.97.

Maxime’s 200m record-setting time of 1:47.10 qualifies him to join the Olympics. Amazing.

Studying the numbers further, if we look back and check the 2012 London Games winning times, the gold medalist (Yannick Angel of France) won with a time of 1:43.14. The eighth and final placer in the 200-meter Final clocked 1:47.75. This means that Maxime swam faster than one of the Olympic finalists. Amazing.

To add to his list of Phelps-like achievements, just last Friday at the 2015 FINA World Junior Championships in Singapore, he joined the US 4 x 200 relay of Team USA. The result: Gold. And another world junior record. According to the website www.swimswam.com, “Rooney’s excellent split actually would have made the U.S. relay at Worlds, a team that won silver. Rooney would have been the third-best split on that relay behind Ryan Lochte and Conor Dwyer.”

Imagine being mentioned in the same line as the great Ryan Lochte, someone who has amassed five Olympic gold medals, three silver and three bronze.

Maxime’s 200m relay time? It’s 1:46.55.

Incredible for one who’s only 17 years old.

Lightning Bolt

Usain-Bolt

(Reuters photo)

Last Sunday, right after a late night dinner with Jasmin, I hurried upstairs to switch on the TV. It was the IAAF World Championships — an event that happens only once every 24 months. Next to the Olympics, this gathering is the most prestigious. It’s being held at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing — the same 80,000-seater arena that Jasmin and I were at seven Augusts ago when China hosted the Olympics.

In this August 22 to 30 tournament, one spectacle is the most awaited. It’s the quickest-running event. It’s the shortest, in terms of time elapsed. But, if we speak of drama and adrenaline, nothing is grander.

It’s the 100-meter dash. The winner gets to be called “The World’s Fastest Man.” Of our planet’s 7.37 billion inhabitants, imagine being that one human being who’s fastest?

This year and last year, one person has been the earth’s quickest. No, he’s not Mr. Bolt (we’ll get to him later). He’s Justin Gatlin. He stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 183 lbs. He was born in New York and resides in Orlando but he’s most at home on the rubberized circle called the track oval.

Before Sunday, Gatlin was undefeated in 28 races since Sept. 2013. Though no longer young at 33 years old, Gatlin was also the quickest during qualifying, posting a 9.77-sec. time in the semis.

Usain Bolt? He was recovering from a leg injury (“a blocked sacroiliac joint which restricts his movement and puts pressure on his knee and ankle.”) And so last Sunday, it was a head-to-head battle between Bolt and Gatlin. What made this fight more enticing was this: There was a “good” vs. “evil” plot.

Bolt is good. Not only on the track but he’s never tested positive for drugs. He’s as clean as Lance Armstrong was “dirty.” Gatlin is the opposite. Back in 2001, he tested positive for drugs. But during that time, the regulators concluded that he was given medicine to treat his attention deficit disorder; something he’s been diagnosed with since he was nine. He was absolved. But not in 2006 when the 2004 Athens Olympic champion tested positive again. This time, there was no escape. It was for testosterone and, while the IAAF asked for an 8-year ban, he was sentenced to four. He was banned from 2006 to 2010.

When Gatlin returned, capturing bronze at the 2012 London Games and silver at the world championships two years ago in Moscow, he was criticized as a drug cheat. Thus, the good vs. evil setting.

Fast forward to the 100m race last weekend, you know what happened: Gatlin, in the last 15 meters and while neck to neck with Bolt, appeared to have stumbled and leaned too early.

Bolt won gold with a time of 9.79. Gatlin snatched the No. 2 spot — losing by 0.01 seconds! Ouch. To add to Gatlin’s misery, his fellow Jamaican Asafa Powell, himself a former drug cheat who was banned six months last year, said: “No one wanted Gatlin to win.”

He’s right. Everybody loves Bolt and nobody roots for a former drug cheat.

“I never doubt myself,” said Bolt, after the win that was hailed by sprint legend Michael Johnson as “Usain Bolt’s best race ever.”

Bolt added: “I know my ability. It wasn’t a perfect race but I got it done. I definitely think this was my hardest race. I’ ve been through a lot this season, it’s been rough and Justin been running great showing up running fast times. I knew it wouldn’t be easy.”

This victory solidifies Bolt’s standing as the greatest sprinter of all time. He holds the 100m world record of 9.58. By comparison, Eric Cray holds the Phil. record at 10.25, which he set last June at the SEA Games in Singapore.

(On a personal note, our family is such a huge Bolt fan that we named our only dog (a chocolate Labrador Retriever) after him. It helped that we got “Bolt” on Aug. 8, 2012 — the day when Bolt won gold in London.)

On Bolt-Gatlin, the contest isn’t finished. There’s the 200-meter final. It’s at 8:55 p.m. tonight. If you have cable TV, it’s being shown live. Let’s watch it!

Dr. iRONman Eullaran

He does not possess the lean physique of an Antonio San Juan nor has he finished the New York City Marathon and numerous other 42-K races like Vicente Verallo. But what this fellow doctor of Tony and Vic possesses, like the two, is a determination and willpower that cannot be bought or taught in Med School.

Dr. Ronald Navaja Eullaran joined the Cobra Ironman 70.3 race. I call him “Partner” because, together with Dr. Ronnie Medalle, we are the best of friends. Two Sundays ago, we left our homes at Ma. Luisa at 4 a.m. and did a convoy towards Shangri-La.

Our journey towards swimming 1.9 kms., biking 90-K and running a half-marathon began 12 months ago. After we joined the IM70.3 relay event (with Rap Sios-e as swimmer, Ron as biker and myself as runner), we vowed to join again in 2015; this time, as individual participants.

Ron and I trained. We’d bike the hills of Ma. Luisa. Often, we’d swim in Casino Español on early evenings. Ron has no problems biking. (It was him, many years back during one of our Rotary Club of Cebu West meetings, who invited me to go mountain-biking.) So, of the three sports, biking was his strength. Last year, given only a few weeks’ notice since we registered late, he finished the 90K distance in 3:40.

Running? This was a concern. Swimming? An even bigger concern.

With running, he was convinced by his wife, my childhood friend Raycia Patuasi Eullaran — a many-time half-marathoner and a 42K finisher of the Cebu Marathon — to join the Sunday fun runs. From 5K to 10K to 21K, he ran. Never mind if his time was not the fastest (3 hours, 10+ minutes for the 21K), he endured the leg pains — all for the bigger goal to be an Ironman.

His two main challenges were his workload and his body weight. Working all day and night, often past 9 p.m., he didn’t have extra time to train, not even on Saturdays. Worse, because he loved to eat (who doesn’t?), despite the increasing hours that he spent on exercising, he wasn’t losing 10 or 20 lbs. like the other triathletes. Undeterred, he pressed on.

With the swim, although he came from Gen. Santos City and grew up near the sea and swam often as a child, he wasn’t a fast swimmer. In the numerous occasions when we swam — often at the Costabella Tropical Beach Resort — though he was unafraid to swim in deep waters and swam steady, his only problem was he was a slow swimmer.

For the Ironman 70.3 race, this posed a problem. There was a cutoff time of 70 minutes. No matter how well-trained you are for the bike, you won’t be allowed to mount your Cervelo if you exceed the time limit.

Ron was deeply concerned with missing the swim cutoff. The Thursday before the race, we practiced in Shangri-La together with Melbourne Ironman Meyrick Jacalan and Jojo Veloso and while the three of us had long finished, he was still on the water, toiling hard with his freestyle.

But mental strength can often work wonders. As one saying goes, “The river cuts through rock not because of its power but its persistence.”

Ron, like a rock, is persistent. He showed this last May when we joined the 8080 race in Sogod. Having slept a total of one hour (he was called at midnight to rush to Chong Hua Hospital and attend to a patient), he could have called me early morning to say he won’t join. He joined. He finished last in the swim (taking over an hour to complete 1.8-K) and, as darkness fell and everybody else was having dinner and drinking San Mig Light, he arrived as the last finisher. Downtrodden? Not Ron, never. All-smiling and accompanied by his two legs named grit and tenacity, he crossed the finish to thunderous applause as Steve and Maricel Maniquis and Quinito Moras of the Cornerstone Group ignited the fireworks. Amazing determination to complete 80.8 kms. (1.8K swim, 65K bike and 14K run) — despite an hour of sleep.

But that was just the preliminary bout because the main event happened last Aug. 2. With the swim, given the current, I thought my best friend would be cutoff. But, I saw him on the bike. I knew he was a good cyclist but I was worried with his running. With the sun so hot, he’d be cooked. But, ever the fighter like his fellow GenSan native Pacquiao, Ron ran. With doggedness, he crossed the finish line and a medal was hung on his shoulders, finishing 10 minutes before the cutoff to become the country’s only “Ironman Rheumatologist.” Fitting because his name is embedded with the celebrated word: I-Ron-man.

In David vs. Goliath fight, Yao Ming beats Pacquiao

Head to head, if we compare our 100-million-strong nation to the 1,400-million strong giant that’s China, we’re dwarfed. That’s why we appealed to the heart. Puso. We spoke about our heart. Our puso. That, despite our smallness and lack of height — both as a people, compared to Westerners; and as a nation, compared to China — that we have the heart. The fighting spirit.

We came so close. If this were an Olympic contest, we reached the finals. The gold was within our reach. But, in the end last Friday, when the FIBA Central Board gathered to decide on the host of the FIBA Basketball World Championships four years from now, we lost.

As close as we were, the final tally wasn’t close. It was 14-7. Heading towards Tokyo last week, I’m sure the members of the FIBA board already decided on which letters to choose: CHN or PHL.

As important as the final presentations were, I’m sure there was intense lobbying in the months prior to last weekend. The final vote was a formality. Still, what an accomplishment. As my colleague (and sports editor) Mike Limpag aptly put it last Sunday, the Philippines will have a mighty difficult time hosting an event as huge as, say, the Asian Games (with 10,000 athletes). But the FIBA World Cup — given that as few as four venues make us eligible — was within our grasp.

If there’s one video clip that you ought to see, it’s this one: “FIBA 2019: Philippines’ bid presentation.” Go to YouTube, type those words and you’ll be treated to an inspiring and enthusiastic presentation. I don’t want to be a “movie spoiler” but the show and the words uttered were outstanding. If the contest revolved purely on presentation, we’d have won.

Manny V. Pangilinan opened the 20-minute final proposal. Highly-respected not only in the business community but also in the basketball world, MVP spoke of this day being one of his proudest.

Lou Diamond Phillips was very, very passionate. Born in Subic, the movie actor and director was animated. He spoke from the heart when he talked about the Filipino heart. Next up was the man who best symbolizes the small-player/big-heart of the Pinoys. He’s Jimmy Alapag. He was fluent and motivating. Coach Chot Reyes was also very passionate. Finally, the most famous Pinoy on earth, it was Manny Pacquiao who pitched for us. Watch the video! You’ll enjoy it and will feel inspired.

Had the Phils. won the bidding, it would have been a major, major 2019 for Cebu sports. Because apart from the Phil. Arena, the Smart Araneta Coliseum and SM’s  MOA Arena, our very own SM Seaside City Arena would have been the fourth venue. Imagine the world’s greatest ballplayers (NBA stars) visiting?

In the end, China was too big and Yao Ming was too tall an opponent. China’s eight city-venues and world-class infrastructure — plus, this will be their first-ever FIBA World Cup hosting — were too compelling.

I thought our age-old Pinoy adage “Give others a chance” would come into play. China hosted the 2008 Olympic Summer Games. Come 2022, they’ll host the Winter Olympic Games. Maybe the decision-makers will choose the Philippines, to give “others a chance?” Ha-ha. No chance.

Biking and running the Cobra IM70.3 race

I peed on my shorts while standing in the middle of the transition area. I wasn’t inside the restroom or Portalet – I stood public beside my bike, all-needing to unload that liquid off my bladder and it was the fastest way to pee. Yes, it’s one of those crazy, no-choice, I-have-to-go moments doing this crazy, our-choice, let’s-go sport of triathlon.

While swimming the harrowing 1.9-km. leg of the Cobra Ironman 70.3 race the other Sunday, I felt like peeing. But, given the effort and the challenges while swimming, nothing would come out. And so, bahala na, I did it beside the bike. (Good thing I still had the sense to do it before putting on my cycling shoes! Ha-ha.) No wonder, together with eating a banana and Cloud 9 chocolates, I took over nine minutes for this transition phase.

Off the bike we sped. Passing through the Mactan Newtown Megaworld complex, we headed out towards the airport road. If you’re a long-time fan of this sport that involves pedalling and crouching low and embracing the wind, you’ll love the bike portion of the Half-Ironman. No cars, no tricycles criss-crossing the road; the asphalted and cemented roads are all yours for the morning. In no other time of the year other than the first Sunday of August can you experience this.

Climbing the Marcelo Fernan Bridge is a highlight. It’s not a difficult ascent; it’s gradual and it offers a view of the channel and the cities of Mandaue and Cebu that you can’t find anywhere else.

My complaint was this: While heading down the bridge, all the bikers are crammed in one lane of one side of the road. Unlike the previous time I joined the bike (three years ago, during the 2012 edition), the entire side was closed for the cyclists. While manuevering down, a portion of the buntings that helped cordon the road was blown away; it cut further the road space and made it scary when the elite cyclists started heading back at the opposite direction.

Plaridel St. in Mandaue City, that stretch of a few hundred meters that was littered with potholes, wasn’t too bad. They cleared the newly-cemented portion and let us traverse there. Good move. And I’m sure this portion will be fully-cemented in 2016.

Passing the SRP Tunnel while pedalling on two thin wheels is an unforgettable experience that only those who participated can explain. As you enter, the bright sunlight from outside turns dark. Screams from eager triathletes echo and bounce off the walls. It’s both eerie and exhilarating. And it passes quickly; after one kilometer, you’re out, back to sunbathe.

The South Road Properties (SRP) segment is enjoyable. Again, completely no-vehicles, no spectators running. (The scary moments are when kids shout for you to throw your empty water bottles and they run in the middle of the road to grab them.)

The route was “M” shaped, meaning it’s twice an out-and-back loop (towards the tip of Talisay and back to Parkmall, twice); it meant that heading towards Talisay City, you’d experience headwinds but coming back, you’d be easy-pedaling because of the wind pushing you from behind.

To me, my two prayers to the Lord were not to crash and not to get into mechanical trouble. Though most participants brought along inner tubes and bike pumps, a flat busted tire can often mean the end of your adventure. I biked easy and relaxed. Knowing that there still loomed a 21-K run after 90 kms. of biking, I knew I had to reserve energy. Upon reaching T2 (Transition 2, bike-to-run), you’re all thankful to God for keeping you safe.

After changing footwear to running shoes, you’re off unaided by the bike. And the question starts: What happened to the rain? Forecasts declared a 60 percent chance of rain. Instead, the sun melted the gray clouds and exposed itself to bake the runners. It was a hot, good-for-sunbathing day. Unlike most Fun Runs that start at 5 a.m., at the IM70.3 event, you’re starting mid-day. I started around 12 noon. Can you imagine, after that swim and bike, running a half-marathon from 12 to 3 p.m.?

Luckily for the runners, there was plenty of shade found along Punta Engano, starting from Shangri-La down to Be Resort, until you reach the end. The challenge arrives when you enter Amisa and Discovery Bay and are forced to run naked, with no tree cover. The run is two loops. After you conquer these scorching hot portions and head back to Shangri-La, you’ve got to do it again. It’s a physical and mental Mt. Everest. All this time, you drink Gatorade and bathe yourself in ice and water.

By the end of the first loop, I was cramping; I walked, slow-jogged, strolled. Around Km. 15 and after consuming multiple GU energy gels, I felt like vomiting with the thought of swallowing another Gu gel. (Since I had lost my watch during the swim, I repeatedly had to resort to asking the spectators for the time.) I needed to take something refreshing. What? I thought.

Coke! Ha-ha. I love this drink and I know it would re-energize me. Forgetting to bring money, I had to plead from a store owner to loan me a Coke. It certainly helped because moments later, I felt better and was able to take the Gu. This, I know, is true: Coke adds life.

Finally, starting at 7 a.m. and finishing at nearly 3 p.m., I crossed the finish line fully exhausted, near-dizzy but enveloped with that indescribable sense of fulfillment that can only be felt by those who suffered the same.

Surviving the Ironman 70.3 Swim

Of the three disciplines in this multi-sport craze that has positively afflicted our nation and the sporting world — I’m referring, of course, to triathlon — to me, the most difficult is the swim.

Biking and running, I’ve always enjoyed. I grew up pedalling BMW bikes with my brother Charlie in Bacolod City. Running, thanks to those elementary days dribbling the basketball in La Salle, is easy and natural. We are land-based creatures and cycling and jogging are not performed at sea. The swim? Unlike others who grew up on water, my comfort level when wearing goggles and moving forward horizontally is bad. In my two previous triathlon events (the “8080” races organized by Steve Maniquis and the Cornerstone Group), the stress levels just thinking of the swim were “high tide.”

I joined the Cobra Energy Drink Ironman 70.3 race last Sunday. How was the swim?Brutal. Scary. Difficult. Physically and mentally exhausting.

I positioned myself among the very last triathletes to do the swim. Since the new ruling was no longer based on your age grouping but on your “expected split times,” I didn’t want to get swum over by faster swimmers. I stayed at the back and chatted with Atty. Jess Garcia.

As I stepped on the timing mat before entering the water, I checked my watch. It read “7:00.” Good, I told myself. It will be easier for me to check the cutoff time of one hour 10 minutes. That would be at 8:10 a.m.

The first 100 meters was a straight path. I swam relaxed. Having warmed-up properly, I deliberately swam slow. “Relax, relax, relax” were the words my mind uttered to itself. Surprisingly, the start was easy. Wow. If it will continue like this, it will be a good day. At the end of the initial start, we all turned left. This time, it was a 400-meter stretch. (The entire swim is 1.9 kms.) Even better, the current was behind us and many swam in long and smooth strokes. Yes! Upon reaching the giant yellow buoy, we turned to deeper waters for another 50 meters.

After that short path, we turned right. This stretch, the longest in the rectangular-shaped route, was 850 meters. This was when the torture started.

You’re swimming free-style, punching one arm after another into the Hilutungan Channel, trying to move forward — but you’re barely moving. You exert more effort; slow-motion, fatiguing, arduous. Worse, you’re not swimming in a wide ocean that’s free of obstacles. In front of you are fellow strugglers. To your left is someone doing a wide-open breast-stroke. To your right is another swimmer. Behind you is someone pulling your leg.All this time, you’re surrounded by bubbles and splashes and waves and kicks.

The key word is “relax” but how can you when you’re struggling and barely moving forward?I was hit in the face where my goggles got dislodged. Once — not to the same swimmer and it was accidental — I elbowed hard a participant’s nose. That hurt. I wanted to apologize but he just kept on going.

Many times, I held the buoy just to keep afloat. Five seconds later and having taken a few deep breaths, you’re off again. This isn’t an all-day-I-can-relax Sunday. There’s a time limit and the current was too strong.

My improvised strategy was to breakdown the long stretch into short segments. Big red buoys would be recognizable (in between were the smaller yellow ones). “Just swim to the red buoy!” would be my mantra.Midway through the route, I saw Tinago Brgy. Captain Joel Garganera. We both complained. But there was no choice: either you go or quit.

Slowly, meter-by-meter, red buoy after yellow buoy and swimming like a cha-cha dance where you’d move forward then backward then forward, we charged on. Towards the end of the 850-meter stretch, just when we were yards away from the big yellow marker, people were shouting. A jetski and several boats circled the area. Waves grew taller and the current was at its worst. We were told to cross to the other side. I had to shout to a boat marshal so I could hang-on for a few seconds.

After crossing, I checked my watch. It read “8:02.” Oh no! I was dangerously close to being cutoff. With the current behind our backs, we torpedoed as hard as we could. It was the final few hundred meters. Luckily, as I reached the shore, I made it in1:08. The sad part was: I lost my watch. While going all-out in this final stretch, it must have been hit by a fellow swimmer or just fell off my wrist. And this was the inaugural (2012) Timex commemorative edition given by Princess G. Anyway, after surviving the swim, I trudged on.

A FEW THOUGHTS…

BE PROUD. To all who braved the waters last Sunday, finisher or not, kudos to you! Everybody concludes that, in the seven-year history of IM70.3 Philippines (three in CamSur and four in Cebu), that was the toughest swim leg.

DISTANCE. I did a quick survey with some friends on the swim distance and a few recorded a distance of 2.2 kms. Jonel Borromeo’s Garmin recorded that length. A friend told me his was 2.5K. It might have been the back-and-forth due to the strong current; I’m not sure if the rope/buoys got carried farther because of the current.

STAGGERED SWIM START. I think this is favorable to the participants. The idea that you can swim alongside your coach or spouse (as many did), or at least swim with those of the same ability — that’s good. I believe this is better than a “mass start” (the same one as the previous years).

As explained in the excellent blog by Betsy Medalla (justaddwaterph.blogspot.com), the problem was that majority of the swimmers swam that 850-stretch around 7:30 a.m. onwards. We swam during the worst possible two hours of the month of August. As we say in Bisaya, “Malas lang gyud” (just plain unlucky).

Given the low/high tide information, the only thing the organizers could have done differently was to reverse the sequence. The slowest swimmers swim first! The elite triathletes swim last — and they’ll endure the current.Ha ha. This would have provided us (slower ones) with calm waters at the start. Obviously, this is a preposterous idea. Not possible. But there’s nothing much the organizers could have done, except….

TIME EXTENSION. Good that the organisers extended the time. Can you imagine if they did not? Hundreds and hundreds would have been cutoff — you can easily check it by scanning through the finishing times in the website. Some exceeded1:30 or 1:40. Because this 70-minute (timing chip) cutoff time ruling was disregarded, this favored those who swam earlier. They had extra time (head start) compared to those who started at the back..

(QUESTION: Why only 70 mins. cutoff for the swim? And a generous 4:30+ for the bike? There should be more “allowance” for the swim…)

NEXT YEAR… For the August 7, 2016 race (Asia-Pacific Championships), I checked the tide chart and it looks to be very favorable.

Next year: Low tide of 0.3 meters is at 7:09 a.m. (right smack when the majority of the swimmers are in the water). High tide at 1.6 meters is still at 1:26 p.m. This compares to last Sunday when the low tide was an early 5:32 a.m. This one hour 37-minute gap should be very favorable to us. Hopefully (barring other weather factors such as typhoon, etc.), the Mactan waters next year should be kinder..

Conclusion: In 2016, perfect conditions to Tri’ again!

70.3 miles

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The biggest sporting event in Cebu is happening next weekend. Over two thousand athletes will swim, pedal and run when the fourth edition of the Cobra Energy Drink Ironman 70.3 race starts at 6:27 a.m. on August 2, 2015. In all, this is the seventh time that Sunrise Events, Inc. has brought the IM 70.3 race to the Philippines.

The first three years were held in Camarines Sur (or CamSur). After the venue had become too small to accommodate hundreds more who wanted to join, the event traveled south and landed in the Queen City of the South. That’s Cebu.

The swim will start the event on the white sand beach front of Shangri-La Resort in Mactan. After the 1.9 kilometer free-style strokes, the triathletes mount their bikes at the Megaworld-owned property beside Shangri-La. They exit the Mactan Newtown (Megaworld) mega-project then bike towards the Marcelo Fernan Bridge. While up there, the view of the waters down below and the Busay mountains straight ahead will be terrific.

The cycling portion is 90 kilometers in distance. It will require the participants to enter the South Road Properties (SRP) Tunnel and will lead them all the way to Talisay City. An “M” loop will ensue, bringing back the cyclists to the Parkmall U-turn area before going back to Talisay. After that second loop, it’s back to the Mactan Bridge then back to Shangri-La. That’s not all.

After hours of swimming and biking, it’s on the asphalted pavement of Punta Engaño for the final stage: a half-marathon. That’s 21,000 meters of running, walking, pouring cold water over one’s overheated body. Until finally, finally, the finish at Shangri-La. To all the visitors and participants, enjoy Cebu and enjoy the race.

The Swiss not named Roger

When you’re asked to name a champion from Switzerland who plays right-handed and swings that backhand with one arm, chances are your answer will be Roger Federer. And why not? With 17 major trophies that adorn his palatial home with wife Mirka and their two sets of twins (two girls and two boys), when you combine the words “Swiss” and “tennis,” it’s almost always two initials: RF.

Well, not last Sunday. Not when the Serbian world number one named Novak Djokovic was ready to be crowned champion but lost. Novak was on a 28-match winning streak. He hadn’t lost the entire clay court season, winning in Monte Carlo and Rome. In the quarterfinals of the French Open, he embarrassed the 9-time champion Rafael Nadal. Two afternoons later, he met Andy Murray and defeated the Scot in five sets. The only piece of shiny hardware missing from his collection was the one they don’t sell in Paris. Because you have to earn a Roland Garros trophy.

Facing Stanislas Wawrinka in the finals two days ago, Djokovic won the first set. He was 90 minutes and just two sets away from completing a career Grand Slam. Until Stan concocted a mix of powerful Federer-like winners that bewildered Novak. At day’s end, it was a lopsided display of power tennis: While Novak connected on 30 winners, Stan smothered 60.

This wasn’t the first time that Wawrinka was seeded 8th and expected to lose in the championship round. In January of last year, he was such a sure-to-be runner-up that Nadal fans already dreamt of their Spanish maestro winning the Australian Open. Stan stunned Rafa in four sets.

Last Sunday was a replica: he was No. 8 facing No. 1 with the top-seed an almost-undefeated player this 2015. The result? The same shocker: Stan stuns Novak in four.

I got to see the Swiss the other week. After his match against Dusan Lajovic, I entered the press room and was seated on the third row, about 15 feet away from the small stage arranged with one seat ready. Stan enters the room with no fuss. He’s no mega-star in Paris like a Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or a Gael Monfils. In fact, en route to winning seven matches to win Roland Garros, he had to endure beating two Frenchmen and was often derided and booed by the partisan Parisians who longed for their own to triumph.

During the press conference, Stan was relaxed. First, he took questions in English. With zero emotion, he spoke. I don’t even remember what he talked about. He next spoke in French. Samot! I couldn’t understand his fluent French as the mediamen peppered him with queries.

Midway through his interview, I pulled out my phone and snapped a shot. I was quickly approached by a coordinator and told that taking photos was disallowed. Ooops. I didn’t know. I was asked to delete the picture.

Moments after the non-dramatic Q & A, he stood up and walked out of the room — which wasn’t filled to capacity.

Then, as Stan exited, a different atmosphere ensued. The mediamen entered quickly and sat on every available chair. There was a high-strung mood. I soon found out why: like a movie star would enter a hushed room, Mr. Federer gallantly strides inside. There are no claps, obviously; this wasn’t a meet-and-greet with the Roger Federer Fans Club. These were unbiased ladies and gentlemen. But you can’t help the added buzz when he sits across you, face to face.

Ever the gentleman, Roger is polite and respectful. He takes much longer because of more questions.

This happened on Day 3 of the two-week long tournament. And, if you had a crystal ball and predicted that a Swiss would win the men’s title, it wouldn’t have been so surprising. Roger is acknowledged as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).

Only this time, the Swiss isn’t Roger. It’s a Swiss who, last year in Paris, lost in the first round and who, entering the finals last Sunday, previously lost 17 of 20 to Novak.

Never mind him wearing the funniest pair of boxer-like shorts, it’s “Stan The Man.”

NBA Finals: A Preview

Ace sports journalist Jonas Panerio of CDN, legendary coach (and Provincial Board Member) Yayoy Alcoseba and businessman Mark Garcia provide commentary on the NBA Finals…

JONAS PANERIO. How would thee Warriors claim thy NBA title? Let me count the ways: While it’s true that the Warriors players lack NBA Finals experience, they have passed a battery of tests in the mighty Western Conference, which includes beating future MVP Anthony Davis, “outhustling” the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies before completing a “gentleman’s sweep” of the Houston Rockets. Along the way, the Warriors have laid taste to the who’s-who of the All-NBA First Team – Davis, Marc Gasol and James Harden. The Warriors have proven without a doubt that they can emerge victorious in whichever way possible – be it a slow-down, low-scoring affair, a fast-paced shootout and everything in between.

In comparison, Cleveland dispatched of a sub-500 Celtics squad, a Bulls team that forgot how to play basketball and a Hawks team that while willing, did not have the manpower needed to make Cleveland sweat.

Let’s get this out of the way: LeBron James is the best player drawing breath on the planet right now. But as Warriors forward Draymond Green so succinctly pointed out, “He is not god.” The Warriors will trust on their disciplined defense, not to mention their platoon of like-sized, long-limbed wings in Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston and of course, First Team All-Defense Green to keep the “King” at bay. If all else fails, there’s always NBA 2nd Team All-Defense member Andrew Bogut as the Warriors last line of defense.

In contrast, who will Cleveland assign to defend the reigning league MVP, Steph Curry? The choices don’t offer much in the way of answers. A less-than 100% Kyrie Irving defending the cat-quick Curry will prove to be disastrous. Okay, so place Iman Shumpert on Curry then. But where does that leave Irving? Against the larger Thompson and Barnes? Get the picture now?

And finally, the Warriors have a rocking, uber-loud arena to call home. It’s not fondly called the “Roaracle” for no reason at all. The Warriors are 7-1 at Oracle Arena in the Playoffs and the Cavs will soon find out how tough it is to come away with a victory there. Come to think of it, only three teams have won at Oracle this season. Three.

YAYOY ALCOSEBA. I tip my hat to LeBron James; going to the Finals five straight times is no easy task. I think Cleveland will take the championship. No disrespect to Golden State, who is equally up to to the task. But for me being a coach for the longest time, having experience will play a crucial role in winning the championship. I don’t have to explain the championship pedigree LeBron brings to table. The Xs and Os is there but at the end of the day it’s the team who wants it more. The team who controls the rebounds will win the championship. Every position in this type of game is crucial. More rebounds, more positions.

MARK GARCIA. This year’s Finals will have all the intrigue since it will be a matchup of the current MVP vs the 4-time MVP. It will be interesting to see how Curry performs in the biggest stage as well as how LeBron would respond especially after last year’s loss to the Spurs. Both teams are on a roll heading to the Finals. The Warriors would rely on their high-powered motion offense and lock down defense while the Cavs will rely on their much-improved playoff defense, LeBron’s post up game and passing ability.

It will be interesting who the Warriors would use to defend LeBron as well as who the Cavs will use to defend Curry and Thompson. Will the Warriors double LeBron in the post to force him to pass out to other guys for the open shot? Or would they play LeBron one on one and won’t mind letting him score 40 to 50 points as long as the other Cavs players aren’t involved in the game?

Will a jump-shooting team like the Warriors finally win a championship? Can the Cavs win it by isolating LeBron all game long? Will LeBron’s experience put the Cavs over the top?

In the end, I think that the Warriors motion offense, outside shooting, fast break game, bench play, and multiple LeBron defenders (Barnes, Iguodala, Green) would overwhelm the Cavs. I pick the Warriors to win it in 6 but I would never count out the Cavs just because they have LeBron who, together with Kobe and Curry, are my favorite NBA players to watch.

Sightseeing with Jana

PARIS — One item that I never fail to carry each time I travel is my pair of Asics Gel Kayano 19 shoes. Almost every morning during our European sojourn here, I get up earlier than the two girls; I lace my shoes, sip a cup of jolt-awakening coffee and I’m speeding out of the hotel door.

A few mornings ago was different. That’s because I was paired with a running buddy: my only child Jana. Jasmin was supposed to join our trio but she woke up feeling not too well. And so it was a father-and-daughter date along the romantic streets of this most romantic city.

Starting near the Opera district where we’re housed, we slow-walked to stretch our cold muscles until our steps turned into a relaxed jog.

Prior to our trip, we had planned to go sightseeing via running. And so Jana was fully-equipped: wearing her pink Nike shoes, she wore 2XU compression tights and snapped-on a Garmin 15 GPS watch to track our distance.

In many of the quaint side streets here, you’ll be stepping on cobblestones and brick-layered floor. Watching your steps for uneven bricks is part of the challenge. And while Paris is one of our planet’s most luxurious of cities, home to iconic art galleries and fashionable people, the streets are often littered with trash and cigarette butts. It was part of the maze, zigzagging to avoid the obstacles.

As Jana and I exited the narrow alleys, we soon arrived at a majestic building: The Louvre. Jogging beside this incredible structure — with 10 million visitors each year — was surreal.

The next stop was refreshing: the Seine River. It cuts across the heart of Paris and snakes through the city. We climbed the bridge to inhale the cold wind that cooled our heating bodies. It was 14C degrees. This is the beauty of running with this aircon-like temperature that envelopes this continent. You don’t tire easily. That’s why you’ll notice hundreds of slim-figured people doing the same forward-movement activity.

I brought along my phone and with the help of Google Maps (the most important App in any travel), we traversed through the Jardin des Tuileries. This historic open space built in 1667 is awash with gardens (“Jardin”), fountains, forest-like trees, picnic grounds. From the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde, we sprinted a straight path on soft clay and pebbles.

We did not run nonstop. The intersections provided the mini-stops to relax. They forced us to look around 360 degrees each time we arrived, gazing at these monuments where Napoleon Bonaparte once walked.

Continuing our journey, we headed north-west to trek along possibly the most famous street anywhere: the Champs Elysees. It’s not flat but a steady incline. At 8:30 in the morning, the shops were still closed, including the seven-story flagship store of Louis Vuitton.

Thirsting for water, we found a store and bought a bottle for 2 Euro. That’s expensive. A tiny bottle for over P100. The price you pay in Champs Elysees.

At the top of the 1.9-km. avenue stood another stunning masterpiece. It’s the Arc de Triomphe. It stands erect at the center of a rotunda — imagine a giant-size Fuente Osmeña — with 12 outer roads that lead throughout the city. Pausing to recharge our legs after the climb, Jana and I stood in amazement.

We plotted our next move: We ran along Avenue George V. It was a welcome downhill drive, running past the Four Seasons Hotel and the Crazy Horse cabaret stop. We emerged back to La Seine and coasted along the riverside.

Then we heard sirens and police cars. Thinking that there was some operation on-going (maybe they were trying to catch a thief), we continued our hike. At the end of the bend, a policeman approached us and, upon closer inspection, said in classic French accent, “You are not a suz-pect!”

Whew! We were relieved. Only later did we realize the truth: There was a race going on and, not wearing race bibs, we were ushered into a different road.

Finally, as the Garmin watch showed 8.0 (kms.), Jana and I stopped. We high-fived, smiled, snapped a photo and looked up. Ahh, the Eiffel Tower.

9 thoughts on the French Open

PARIS — My daily trips riding the Metro and disembarking on Michel-Ange-Molitor to walk 1,100 meters before entering Stade Roland Garros have come to an end. Here are some thoughts on the only Grand Slam event played on clay:

1) If you want a sampling of the same red clay in Paris, there’s one in Cebu. It’s called CitiGreen Tennis Resort and it’s found in Labangon. Operated by Jade Abangan and her team, which includes the Siso siblings (Niño and Em-Em), the two red-clay courts in CitiGreen resemble RG. Both possess the same color. Both are slippery and have sand at the surface. For those who have yet to visit CitiGreen, you must. What’s better in Cebu than in Paris? CitiGreen is indoor.

2) Yesterday, I focused on the power game in men’s tennis. Boom-boom, bang, smash! It’s all about obliterating that ball as hard as one’s muscles could. Well, that’s true. But you know what tactic I’ve also observed here? Finesse. And nobody employs this one-two, power-and-finesse manuever than the world no. 1 Novak Djokovic. It’s called the drop shot. And on clay, it’s essential. Because players stand so far behind the baseline (because of the looping topspin), the occasional drop shot is essential. Djokovic has been using this surprise often. It has worked.

3) How much money does the champion earn? First, you have to win seven times. From the first round until the Finals, you play seven times. The prize: 1.8 million Euro. Multiplied by P50 to a Euro, that’s P90 million. That’s a lot of pesos. (But compared to Pacman’s earnings in Las Vegas, the RG champ, after two weeks of hard-hitting work, his take-home pay is miniscule.) The men and the women receive the same reward — even though the men play 3 out of 5 and the girls play only 2 out of 3. It’s called equal rights. A rightful decision.

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4) Did the French invent the game of tennis? Based on my research, it’s possible that the word “tennis” was derived from “tenez.” That’s a French word for “hold” or “take, receive,” which might mean getting ready before one receives the serve.

5) Roland Garros, now on its 114th edition, is the most difficult tennis tournament to win. All matches are best of five. Many turn into marathons, at times running past four hours. The reason: clay-court tennis is tedious. Unlike Wimbledon’s grass or the US and Australian Opens which have fast hard-court surfaces, clay dampens the ball’s speed. That’s why you’ll see back and forth rallies lasting 24 or more shots. It’s physical. It’s sweat-inducing. It’s the most excruciating tenez event.

6) How expensive are the RG tickets? Surprisingly, they’re not overly pricey. During the first days of the week (the best time to visit a Grand Slam), when all the side courts are filled with top names, an Outside Pass entry costs 30 Euro. That’s about P1,500. Not bad for an 11 a.m.-until-8 p.m. stay. For the Philippe Chatrier (center court) tickets, they go for around 60 Euro in the early days. That’s P3,000. Expensive? Sure. But this is a Grand Slam event. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it’s worth saving-up for. Of course, when you go to the later rounds (semis and finals), they’re exorbitant: as high as 948 Euro.

7)  Tennis is an outdoor sport but RG has followed the route of Wimbledon and the Australian Open by their plan to install a retractable roof on their center court. This is expected to be finished in 2019. The weather here is erratic. One hour it’s sunny; the next it’s cloudy and drops of cold rain sprinkle the 19 degrees air. The French Tennis Federation is also adding another show (covered) court, all targeted for completion in four years.

8) What’s the food like here in Paris? Bread, pan, baguette, croissant, Pain au lait. I miss our garlic rice and sinugbang baboy.

9) To help popularize RG, the organizers did an ingenious act: right in the middle of the Eiffel Tower (the most “selfied” place on earth), they hung an illuminated giant tennis ball with the words “Roland Garros.” Merveilleux!

Nishikori stands tall in the game of giants

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PARIS — Height is might. That age-old adage holds true for basketball, swimming, badminton, volleyball and a long list of other sports.

With tennis, height is a tall advantage. You serve from a higher trajectory. You sprint left and reach that backhand faster. Your long legs assist you in that dash to flick the drop shot. When you stretch for a volley, those added inches help.

The average height of the top men’s tennis pro: around 6-foot-1. That’s the height of Roger and Rafa and Pete Sampras. Novak is an inch taller. Andy Murray stands 6’3”. Marin Cilic, the reigning US Open champion and whom I watched from a few feet away this week, has two Eiffel Tower-like legs. He stands 6’6”.

The other day, a giant of a server slammed 219-kph aces against his French opponent. (Although the crowd reveled in their local player’s win.) That American is John Isner, looming tall at 6-foot-10.

Tennis today is different from tennis in the ‘70s or ‘80s. Ushered in by Boom-Boom himself — 6-foot-2 Boris Becker, who continues to be an attraction here, sitting on the stands as his student Novak Djokovic plays — the game today is all-power.

Gone were the days of Ken Rosewall’s slice backhands or Rod Laver’s chip and charge. In the countless hours that I’ve sat by the sideline to watch the professionals at Roland Garros, they do mostly one thing: smother, destroy, crush and butcher. Their weapon of choice is a tennis racket and their unfortunate target is a yellow ball.

In one of the first matches we saw here, I joined Jasmin and Jana in watching Treat Huey. You know Treat! He’s our top Filipino player who’s traveled from America to Cebu several times for Davis Cup action.

Treat and his partner Scott Lipsky won the first set in men’s doubles. We were ecstatic and hoped for victory. Sadly, they lost the next two sets and bombed-out in the first round. Their opponents, two unknowns from Europe, employed a simple tactic: they mutilated the ball. They must have stood 6-foot-4 tall and they just ravaged their shots.

Kei Nishikori is the exception. The Japanese hits clean and hard, but he’s no physical giant. Compared to the Sam Querreys and Ivo Karlovics, he’s small at 5’10”. Yet, he’s winning. He won in Barcelona a few weeks ago and, thus far, he’s into the fourth round in Paris.

At Court Philippe Chatrier earlier this week, I watched him play a dangerous opponent in Thomas Bellucci. He clobbered him in straight sets.

The 25-year-old Kei is an exceptional talent. Given his small physique, he has terrific hands and amazing eye-to-hand coordination. He doesn’t stand 15 feet from the baseline like Nadal; he stands inside the baseline to pound on his ground-strokes. He hits on the rise. That’s why he’s world No. 5 — possibly the highest-ever ranking for an Asian.

CORIC. The best match I’ve seen here: Borna Coric defeating Tommy Robredo in five sets. They played in Court 2 last Thursday and I was fortunate to sit on the third row. Behind me sat Goran Ivanisevic (who, like Coric, hails from Croatia) and three seats to my left was Thomas Johansson, the former Australian Open champion who now coaches Coric.

This kid is a future champ. His serve reaches 205-kph and I like his two-fisted backhand. He steps forward and, armed with a compact swing, delivers a deadly crosscourt drive.

Only 18, he also defeated Sam Querrey in the first round and, if he wins his upcoming encounter against Jack Sock, he’ll meet Nadal in the fourth round — a titillating contest given that Coric upset the Spaniard last year. Watch out for Coric.

AJ LIM. There’s one other Filipino who’s joining here: Alberto Lim, Jr., one of our bright prospects in PHI tennis. He joined the qualifying round of the junior category in Roland Garros but lost a French player.

AJ is only 16 but he was world-ranked 45 last month in the juniors (he’s now 74.). We hope someday that he’ll be the Kei Nishikori of the Philippines.

Viva La France! The locals go 5-0

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PARIS — The French are an expressive and artistic people. This was reflected on the tennis courts at the Stade Roland Garros.

In an “Italy vs. France” contest two afternoons ago, the French thumped their feet on the bleachers surrounding Court 7. They stood with arms punching the air. They screamed “Allez!” They clapped to disrupt the Italian and they clapped to uplift their Frenchman. The Italian was Fabio Fognini, world no. 27. Twice this year, he’s beaten Rafael Nadal and was expected to win the slugfest against Benoit Paire. But, no; the locals wanted Paire, who hails from Avignon, to win. Midway through the match, a fight among the spectators ensued. The details were sketchy but it was possibly a local guy throwing a punch to an Italian adversary.

Paire triumphed in Paris. As Fognini exited the stadium in a huff, I stood two meters away. His face looked desolate. His head was pointed down. Inside the court, a different atmosphere reverberated. Paire was signing autographs. The French spectators wouldn’t let him go. Photos and selfies were snapped. It’s as if he won the French Open!

This scene is duplicated each time a Frenchman plays. The day before, my seatmates Jana, Jasmin and I witnessed the same occurrence. An unknown in the tennis world, Maxime Hamou was treated like a rockstar when he played. His famous countryman, Jo Wilfried-Tsonga, sat on the stands to cheer. The crowd jammed the same Court 7, a mid-size arena. Hamou was losing to Jerzy Janowicz (from Poland) but the French wanted him to claw back from the precipice. They did all the cheering that they could — to no avail.

They booed. Yes. Booing here is normal. While, to us, it would seem too harsh or hostile a welcome to a foreign opponent, here it’s okay. They booed Janowicz. When he questioned a line call and approached the umpire, they booed. When he defeated Hamou, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, they booed. When the two players met at the net to shake hands, they didn’t shake hands — they pulled each other’s hands. Janowicz then pointed a finger to Hamou, gesturing for an apology on an earlier incident. They glared at each other. Hamou booed. The crowd booed. It was crazy and unlike anything I’ve seen.

The French are passionate. They were also winners last Wednesday.

Nicholas Mahut played Ernest Gulbis on Court No. 2. I enjoyed watching this match up-close. Gulbis, who comes from Latvia, was ranked as high as 10 in the world. He was expected to romp into victory against the Frenchman. But again, the crowd roused him to snatch the prize. Mahut won in four sets. Same with no. 12 seed Gilles Simon, winning against Martin Klizan.

Over at Court Suzanne Lenglen (named after an 8-time Grand Slam champion who reigned in the early 1900s), it was another Frenchman: Tsonga. Everybody loves Tsonga — including those who watched him play the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) in Manila, where he represented the Philippine Mavericks.

Tsonga is forever smiling. He’s a young-looking version of Muhammad Ali who clasps not boxing gloves but a tennis racket. Wearing all-black and looking like Batman on the red clay, he slammed aces and fired crosscourt winners. He was a winner against Dudi Sela.

But nothing beats Gael Monfils. On Court Philippe Chatrier, the 6-foot-4 Monfils was Goliath. He faced a player nine inches shorter in 5-foot-7 Diego Schwartzman. On paper, this was a no-contest. Monfils is the 13th seed while the Argentine lingers at 57.

But in the David vs. Goliath clash, it was the diminutive Argentine who was winning. He won the first set 6-4. Monfils battled back to win the second. In the third, Schwartzman won 6-4. Holding a two sets to one lead, the crowd grew tense. But, energized by the partisan Parisians, Monfils won the next two sets, 6-2, 6-3, punctuating the win with an ace on match point.

“Today I won because I had the crowd behind me,” Monfils said. “They give me, let’s say, some wings.”

Can Rafael Nadal win No. 10?

rafael-nadal-in-actio-against-quentin-halys-at-roland-garros-2015-1(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe)

PARIS — This is the question that lingers in everyone’s minds here.

On his first visit inside Roland-Garros, the 19-year-old triumphed. Every May and June since 2005, he hasn’t lost. The only aberration was in 2009 when he lost in the fourth round to Robin Soderling, the Swede who has since being plagued by injury. In all, that’s 66 matches won in 67 tries.

Rafa has been victorious 9 times and he’s going for that double-digit here in Paris. Can he make it? From what I saw about four rows up on the stands inside the center court, the answer is Yes.

If Floyd Mayweather, Jr. calls MGM Garden his personal garden and if Michael Jordan soared in his airspace called the United Center in Chicago — then Stade Roland Garros is the home away from the Mallorcan home of Rafa.

Court Philippe Chatrier, their center court here, is not massive. I’ve been inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium and that 22,547-seater complex is humongous. While typing this, I’m looking around the rectangular-shaped arena and it’s magnifique. Green seats abound. Glass-enclosed partitions cover the TV booths. Digital screens sit on corners displaying scores. Down below, where, on a full-capacity house, the 14,840 pairs of eyes will focus, is the centerpiece tennis court.

It’s color brown. Officially, it’s “red clay” but, to my brown eyes, they’re brown. What makes this court different is the back-stop. It’s that open space behind the baseline. It’s a huge area — the ideal canvas where Nadal weaves his magic.

I watched Nadal’s match here on a “Super Tuesday.” Why super? Because you’ve got three salivating matches: Nadal first, Novak Djokovic next, followed by Serena Williams.

Rafa played a Frechman named Quentin Halys. The organizers couldn’t have picked (by the luck of draw) a better first-round opponent for the Spaniard. The French here, obviously the majority who watch, are fiercely patriotic. They clap; no, make that they “chant while clapping.” In unison, they all clap like a symphony orchestra to motivate their local guy. Because while they cheered for their adopted Parisian named Rafa, they cheered even louder for Halys. In the end, while the 18-year-old produced his slew of winners, he was no match to Rafa. The score: 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

Djokovic followed. Wearing an orange shirt by Uniqlo, he looks supremely confident and tall at 6’2”. He should be. He’s been almost undefeated this entire season, including a win at the Australian Open last January. He’s won 8 Grand Slam singles titles but never the French Open. Twice, in 2012 and last year, he reached the final only to be thwarted by Rafa.

Will 2015 be Novak’s year? As much as I’m a confessed Rafa fan — I count Bobby Aboitiz, Frank Malilong, Fabby Borromeo, Ernie Delco, Bobby Lozada, Noy and Amale Jopson, and Fr. Joy Danao in the same camp — I think Rafa will lose next week. He’s ranked a lowly 7 and, by the bad luck of the draw (he himself picked the ball during the Draw Ceremony), he’ll meet Djokovic in the quarterfinals. That will be titanic. It’s sad that the two have to meet so early; but then maybe Rafa will leave in the same stage as he did against Soderling.
I closely watched Novak’s game and while he trailed 2-5 against Jarkko Nieminen, he clawed his way back to win in straight sets. The Serb has no weaknesses. His backhand is better than his forehand. His return of serve is as good as Agassi’s. His mind, that unseen mass that determines a win or loss, is as strong as Lance Armstrong on the bike. Like most here, I’m voting for him to win next Sunday.

Around here, you’ll see tennis greats lingering. Boris Becker occupies his usual spot at the players box. I watched how he took off his red jacket when the weather warmed. Seated four seats away was Novak’s wife, the blonde and beautiful Jelena. She wasn’t interested in her husband. She fiddled away with her phone.

In Rafa’s camp, the Spanish armada was all-present: coach/uncle Toni, Rafa’s parents, and his girlfriend, the beauteous Xisca Perello.

Roland-Garros

PARIS — After three days of gazing at bicycles in Amsterdam and after an overnight hop to Brussels to sample Belgian chocolates and waffles, we arrived at the City of Light.

Yes, would you believe here in Europe now, at 9:40 at night… it’s still bright. The sun arises early before 6 and it doesn’t set until nearly 10 p.m. Which means, for this city with the illuminated Eiffel Tower, you’ll have endless time to walk the gardens, snap photos of the Louvre and crave on crepes and croissants.

The first stop for this tennis-crazy writer? Where else: Roland-Garros.

Here in Paris, they don’t call their tennis tournament “French Open.” That would make it too obvious. Roland Garros is the name of a World War I fighter pilot (not of a tennis legend). It is also the name of the Parisian tennis garden where, for two weeks, rackets will pulverize balls and rubber shoes will slide on sand.

My wife Jasmin, our 16-year-old daughter Jana and I are staying near the Opera district. On Monday morning at 9:25, I walked to the Metro station in Grands Boulevards and descended the flight of stairs. A speedy 25 minutes later, I emerged from Michel Ange Molitor.

As soon as I alighted from the Metro station, I knew I was in the correct place. A “STADE ROLAND GARROS” signage pointed the way. On the asphalted sidewalk, there was a spray-painted sign that read, “1100 meters away.”

Walking briskly (I didn’t want to look overly-excited by sprinting), I reached the gate alongside hordes of other tennis fanatics.

This is my second time inside Roland-Garros. But the first one was different: Back in 2001 with the Mendez family of my wife, we entered the empty complex in Sept. and toured staring at empty green seats and no one firing backhands on the 20 courts.

Last Monday was different. It was a holiday in France and thousands congregated inside (I couldn’t even buy tickets for Jasmin and Jana).

Roland-Garros is special because, like many landmarks that stand here like the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Versailles Palace, it is rich in history. Founded in 1891, it began as a tennis event limited only to male members of French clubs. Six years later, women competed in their own category. It wasn’t until 1925 when international netters were welcome.

I attempted to soak in all of this history two days ago. Before watching any balls being hit from right to left, I walked the hallowed grounds. Sculptures of tennis legends adorn the gardens. A museum houses the memories and moments. Names like Henri Cochet and Jean Borotra are sprinkled around walls.

Rene Lacoste, world famous for his clothing brand, is a three-time French Open champion. During his playing days, he was nicknamed the “Crocodile” for his ferocity on-court; thus, the logo of Lacoste.

Everyone here, naturally, wears Lacoste. All the umpires wear blue coats or T-shirts with the the crocodile logo. Same with the officials and linesman, in honor of their French star.

I got to see plenty of boxing last Monday. Yes, like Manny’s sport, tennis is one on one. (More challenging than boxing: no coach is allowed to converse with you.)

Fabio Fognini was a magnet for spectators in Court 2. He played Tatsumi Ito. For those who went to Plantation Bay in 2011 for the Davis Cup tie when we played Japan, you’ll remember the tall Japanese. He promptly lost to Fognini.

Soon after, Jasmin asked me on Viber: How are you doing? My reply: “I’m in tennis Disneyland.”

Two youngsters impressed me the most. One was Dominic Thiem. Only 21, the Austrian smothers that serve and forehand. Another kid to watch is Borna Coric, the former No.1 junior, who defeated Sam Querrey. That first-set tiebreaker was a thrill. Coric, only 18, is the youngest player in the Top 100 (he’s 46).

At Court Suzanne Lenglen, it was Gael Monfils who fueled much applause. He’s French and he reminds me of Yannick Noah. Remember the 6-foot-4 serve-and-volleyer (who’s the dad of the Chicago Bulls star, Joakim)? He won Roland-Garros in 1983 — the last Frenchman to win the men’s singles crown.

Biking in Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM — Jasmin, Jana and I spent three days in the “biking capital of the world.” Yes, if you’ve been to the top destination of The Netherlands, you’ll notice that everyone is riding a two-wheeled, human-powered vehicle.

“Amsterdam is the most bicycle-friendly capital city in the world,” says Wikipedia. “In Amsterdam, over 60% of trips are made by bike in the inner city and 40% of trips are made by bike overall in the greater city area.”

Would you believe that six out of every 10 trips that the Amsterdammers take are not on jeepneys (just kidding, they have trams and buses) but via the bicycle.

Amsterdam is not large. The population is one million and, all over the side streets and near the canals (it is home to over one hundred kilometers of canals), you see bicycles parked everywhere.

Here’s the interesting part: their bicycles are ugly. Pardon the word but they pay no attention to the looks of their bikes. The more “taya” (rusty), the better. The reason is because they park their bikes anywhere and they can easily be stolen. Thus, they opt for dirty, old and rotten bikes.

During our stay here, we did the traditional visits to their famous sights. The Van Gogh Museum is amazing. One of the great painters of all time, the Dutch artist has on display hundreds of art works. It’s a must-visit in this city. The canal cruise is another worthwhile trek. We also sat alongside the locals listening to classical Mozart music performed by the orchestra at the famous Concertgebouw

At the Vondelpark, the largest park in Amsterdam, Jasmin and I ran seven kilometers. It’s a beautiful and refreshing open space filled with gardens, ponds and grass fields. You see so many into sports: football, jogging, cycling, roller-blading. (A not-so-funny sight that proliferates this city and the park? Coffee-inhaling people. By “coffee,” I don’t mean Starbucks aroma but marijuana. Yes, smoking pot is legal in Amsterdam — same with prostitution — and you see “coffee shops” everywhere.)

On running, thousands and thousands here run. I recall, back in October 2009, our closest buddies joining the Amsterdam Marathon. Doctors Albert Santos and Vic Verallo were joined by Meyrick “Jacs” Jacalan and the Ong siblings, Jane-Jane, Andrew and Nica, in finishing the Amsterdam Marathon. Perl Jacalan did the 21K.

Back to our three-day trek here, the activity that we enjoyed most was the four-hour Biking Tour. We enlisted in Mike’s Bike Tours and, among the choices that included a City Tour, we enrolled in the Countryside Tour.

Starting at 11 a.m. here last Friday, we joined 30 others. After a briefing by our tour guide Vincent, we chose our individual bikes and started pedaling. Riding single-file, it’s a terrific way to explore Amsterdam. Every roadway here has a bike lane. Located between the road (for cars) and the sidewalk (for pedestrians), the clearly-marked bike pathway is that safe area for bikers.

We toured the city streets before heading towards the famous Amstel River. It’s a scenic ride. The temperature was a cool 17C degrees and we pedaled inhaling fresh air and gazing at countryside homes.

The windmill was one of our major stops. The Riekermolen Windmill, built in 1636, was huge. After posing for some photos and visiting the statue of Rembrandt, we headed off and visited the Rembrandthoeve farm. We listened to Dutch farmers explain how to make Gouda cheese and they demonstrated how to make the traditional art of making wooden shoes. Next, it was back to the bike and a lot more pedaling through, as their official website reads, “the polder landscape with it’s rectilinear ditches and dikes.” By 3 p.m., we were back to the garage to park the bikes.

My realization: Biking is good. It’s free exercise. I know our roads are narrow and there are no dedicated bike lanes. (On a positive note, I applaud the DPWH for extending the road for bikers in the climb up to Busay.)

We should bike more. Just ask the Dutch.

Vios Cup in Cebu

To move forward. That’s the Latin meaning of the word “Vios.”

Yesterday and today, it’s all about moving forward. Forty four modified racing vehicles — all Toyota Vios cars colored red, black and gray — will move fast forward as they compete in the Vios Cup race in Cebu.

I passed-by the SRP yesterday morning. White tents stood erect. Barricades cordoned the road. Clean asphalt glistened in the 33-degree sun. A large stage where non-stop partying will transpire loomed tall at the Sugbu Building. It’s the Vios Cup — a first for Cebu!

Vios-cup(www.motioncars.inquirer.net)

“The much-acclaimed One Make Race in the country,” read the official website, “will be held for the first time in the Visayas region wherein gearheads and car fans can witness what waku-doki is all about!”

What’s “waku-doki?” It’s a Japanese term for feeling super-excited. It’s that adrenaline rush that envelopes the body before a racing event.

Toyota, the world’s top-selling automaker (they sold an estimated 10.23 million vehicles last year), is bringing the Vios Cup outside of Luzon. Consider ourselves lucky. Cebu doesn’t own a race track like the Clark International Speedway — but we have the South Road Properties. And all the racing this weekend will converge at the SRP.

The Qualifying Rounds took place yesterday. Today, the main event happens. As early as 7 a.m., the participants are expected to arrive at the SRP. Between 8 to 9 a.m. today, they’ll rev their engines, check their tires and perform some warm-up circles. The Opening Program commences at 11 and, by 12 noon, the race proper begins.

The Vios Cup offers two categories: the Sporting Class and the Promotional Class. The Sporting Class riders are composed of the top tier of racers; the Promotional Class involves the celebrities and those who did not make the cuf-off in the Sporting Class.

The race track or “circuit” at the SRP will be near the Sugbu Building and Lantaw Native Restaurant. According to race director JP Tuason of the Toyota Racing School, the circuit is 2.2 kms. long. It’s not a long uninterrupted stretch but several winding turns and stops. Tuason describes it as “a medium to high-speed track featuring several chicanes (turns).”

You want to see celebrities? Derek Ramsey is joining. There’s also a DK Drift Exhibition by Japanese expert Keiichi Tsuchiya. If you watched Tokyo Drift (the Fast and Furious movie), you’ll watch the real performance today, slated around 12:45 p.m.

But more than the celebrities, the ones to look for are our homegrown Cebuano participants. Jette Calderon, the famous go-kart champion from Cebu, is joining. He’s bannering the “Toyota Cebu Mandaue South” team. The others from Cebu include Lord Seno, Sean Velasco, Harold Ong and Oscar Suarez.

Another Cebuano is Daniel Miranda. Although he now lives in Manila, he was a long-time Cebuano resident. We’ve known Daniel — the son of Martin and Angie Miranda — as a go-kart champion; he’s one of the top riders to watch this weekend.

In the Cebu Daily News article “Race Ready” yesterday by my fellow sportswriters Jonas Panerio and Dale Rosal, the 18-year-old Miranda was quoted as saying, “It’s good (I’m here) because it’s  an opportunity for my friends to see me race.”

The CDN article continues: “‘Getting the right set-up and to be consistent with driving,’ said Miranda on what he thinks will be the significant keys to taking home the crown this weekend… The youngster also believes that the valuable experience he gained in karting will serve him well in the one-make race that features Toyota’s most salable vehicle, the Vios.

“‘It’s an advantage that I have background in karting, it makes it easier to adapt with the race conditions,’ boldly proclaimed Miranda.”

I repeat: The Vios Cup is the first of its kind ever in Cebu. Thanks to Toyota (and with the help of Meyrick and Perl Jacalan of ASAP Advertising), we’ll all be witnesses to this road race. Admission is free. The race proper runs from 12 noon to 5 p.m.

What’s wrong with Rafa?

He’s slipped to No. 7. He lost to Andy Murray, whom he’s never lost to before on clay, in Madrid. He’s on a four-loss record on clay (the worst since he was a teenager). Heading into Rome, this is the worst preparation he’s encountered so far.

His reply? Classic Nadal. “I cannot leave Madrid not happy. I have to leave happy and just delete what happened today. I will just stay with the good things that happened this week, and there are a lot of them, more good than bad. I will try to recover the good feelings in Rome.”

Champions, they say, need to have both long and short memories. Long memories to remember how good they are (Nadal’s a 14-time Grand Slam champ) and short enough to forget the most recent loss.

With the major prize coming up in Paris in two weeks, I can’t wait. First-hand, I’ll watch if Rafa can win his 10th French Open trophy.