Pacman’s finale: calculated, brilliant — but boring

The last time Manny Pacquiao climbed the 20’ x 20’ boxing ring, he lost. That was last May against Mayweather. The last thing Manny Pacquiao wants to happen when he enters the boxing ring for the last time in his career — this April — is another loss.

Against a Junior named Floyd, he lost. That’s why he picked another Junior to win. Thus explains the safeguarded, humdrum, please-not-a-third-time decision to fight Timothy Ray Bradley, Jr.

The choices were plenty. There was Adrien Broner, an American like Bradley who’s fought 34 times, won 31 times, with 23 of those Ws by knockout. He’s the WBA super lightweight champ. There was Amir Khan, the 29-year-old Briton who won the 2004 Olympic silver medal in Athens. And exactly like Broner, he’s climbed the stage on 34 tries and won 31. Finally, Terence Crawford. Nicknamed “Bud” and only 28, he’s the WBO light welterweight champion.

Didn’t Bob Arum himself proclaim last November that the choice had narrowed down to either Amir Khan or Terence Crawford? In the end, familiarity wins. Caution is the parent of safety, a proverb goes. In this case, caution won.

Why risk Manny’s last act to an undefeated 27-0 Crawford? Why risk the last time we’ll remember him shirtless, sweaty and bloodied on the MGM Grand stage to Adrien Broner, who’s Ring Magazine’s No. 6 in the pound for pound rankings?

And so here we are again and again, our Pambansang Kamao facing Desert Storm — their third meeting in Manny’s last seven fights. Why? Maybe Arum has this penchant with even numbers: MP-TB met in 2012… in 2014… in 2016. It’s an every-other-year date.

What do the cynics say about April 9? Ha-ha. Brutal. It ranges from “Morales: Manny Pacquiao Choosing Timothy Bradley Not Thrilling” to “PB3 Would Continue The Wrong Tradition” to “Pacquiao vs. Bradley III: A Fight For The Delusional.”

Arum himself admits that this will be a difficult sell for his Pay-Per-View (PPV) numbers. Coming from Pacquiao’s last outing which generated over 4.4 million buys (majority of whom were very disappointed), the expectations this time are lowly.

“Will we do the same numbers for the first two Bradley fights?” Arum asked. “Probably not. We’re going to try to come as close as we can, and hopefully exceed it, but I understand what we’re up against. I’ve run my numbers and I have done my math. I’m not out here with my head up my ass.”

As charming and smiling as Bob Arum is in person (my dad Bunny and I met him in Macau two years ago), he’s the most astute and cunning of sports promoters.

The 84-year-old Arum knows his figures. The 2012 Manny-Tim bout raked in 890,000 PPV buys. Two years later, it went down to 800,000. This time, 700k? Maybe less? Arum can trumpet the contest this way: Bradley is the new Bradley; he has a new trainer in Teddy Atlas and he KO’d Brandon Rios in the 9th round last November. Plus, this is Manny’s last fight.

As to the rumors circulating that Pac-Man will fight one last time after Bradley — a rematch against Mayweather? I doubt it. It’s possible but very, very, very unlikely.

The month after Pacquiao defeats Bradley to cap an outlandish career that saw him earn billions and win the hearts of millions, he’ll win as senator of the Philippines. By then, Pacquiao’s total focus and time will be centered on another type of slugfest: the political circus.

My take on all this? Like I mentioned before in previous articles, I wished Manny would have ended his career fronting his fellow Pinoys inside the 55,000-seater Philippine Arena. But money talks. And the voice of money is, to Arum, louder than Manny’s. And it points to Las Vegas, not Bulacan.

This Bradley move, years from now, will end up to be an excellent choice for Sen. Pacquiao. He pockets $20 million. He ends his career with a bang — from his Cleto Reyes gloves. And he gains free advertising as all ears and eyes will be fixated on his victory a month before May 9.

Three shockers and a superstar

Seven days have passed since that 13-seconder of a bombshell when Conor McGregor one-punched Jose Aldo into tears and, watching the replay videos and reading the post-fight commentaries, the UFC 194 clash is still talked about as arguably one of the most shocking of fight nights.

Jose Aldo, to the non-MMA follower, is near-invicible. Or, shall I now put it, was unbeatable. He not only won 25 of his 26 fights before last weekend — he was considered the No.1 pound for pound fighter in all of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He’s the Floyd Mayweather, Jr. (minus the loud-mouth) of mixed-martial arts. And, for the past 18 fights spanning 10 years, he had never lost.

To be embarrassed and subdued and to crumble to the ground with his head wobbly and dazed in the shortest UFC championship fight in history makes that victory as one of 2015’s most incredible of stories.

Did the antics and mind games played by McGregor infiltrate the steely mind of the Brazilian? Definitely. Their clash was supposed to happen last July — until Aldo backed out because of injury. Since then, when McGregor defeated Chad Mendes, the Irishman has unleashed one verbal punch after another, insulting Aldo and taunting him. There’s no doubt that the once-inpenetrable brain of Aldo was pierced and wounded even before they stepped into the eight-sided ring.

What’s amazing was how McGregor looked so loose and relaxed, as if this were some rock concert in Dublin where he’d sing and dance while everyone clapped. This was the biggest Saturday of his life. And while many questioned his showboatmanship and moviestar-like publicity stunts prior to Dec. 12, after UFC 194, nobody will question his talent and gift.

It’s like that advertisement: “Blood. Sweat. And Respect. The first two you give; the last you earn.” Surely, given the years of sweat that McGregor has poured, he’s earned our respect.

What’s exciting about McGregor is his personality. While some superstars are reserved (Aldo) or gentlemen-like (Federer and Nadal; thus, not attracting controversy), the 27-year-old, 5-foot-9, 145-lb. featherweight champ is all about hoopla, hysteria and notoriety. That’s why he’s labeled The Notorious.

Sport is entertainment. And this man, to match his skill inside the octagon, is a wild beast of an entertainer whose body is littered with tattoos and whose English accent spews invectives. His being articulate is a huge plus for his appeal. Interviewed by Joe Rogan, the new champ delivers seven words onstage that should be memorized by every fighter: “Precision beats power and timing beats speed.”

As McGregor was ready for the win, he, too, was ready with that quotable quote. His conquest was massive. It goes beyond the personal triumph of a former plumber turned MMA celebrity; it was a major score for UFC’s popularity.

Speaking of upsets — as this was an upset win over Aldo — who would have pictured the all-red, all-swollen, all-demolished face of Chris Weidman. He looked smaller than Luke Rockhold. He looked less confident; his kicks stung less than the challenger’s. He was totally outclassed. Where was Anderson Silva’s tormentor? Given that bloody mess that carved Weidman’s face, Herb Dean should have stopped the bout at the end of the 3rd. Maybe the referee had too much respect for Weidman, thinking that the previously-undefeated New Yorker would resurrect himself? Maybe. Still, that was too brutal and grisly an ending.

The worst upset of all? The previous UFC event (UFC 193) held in Melbourne. Who’d have expected Ronda Rousey to be downed in Down Under. Wasn’t she the person whom Joe Rogan called, “Once in a lifetime doesn’t apply to Ronday Rousey. It’s once EVER in human history?” Those words were a bad omen. (On RR, you should read ESPN’s exclusive story, “Rousey Says She’s Down But Not Out,” her first interview since that embarrassment.)

Aldo. Weidman. Rousey. What does this teach us? “To never let success get to your head and to never let failure get to your heart.”

Will the Golden State Warriors ever lose?

Ha-ha. Of course they will. The NBA regular season stretches to 82 games per team and, thus far, we’re wrapping up the first quarter; 24 percent of the games have been played and GSW has been spotless.

“After coming off a championship run, one would think that the Golden State Warriors would still be hung over from winning it all,” said Jonas Panerio of Cebu Daily News, in an email yesterday. “But no; fuelled (or more like, angered) by naysayers and doubters who threw shade on what they did the past year, the Warriors took what already was a well-oiled machine and turned it into an unstoppable juggernaut, winning 20 in a row behind a beautiful brand of basketball that have made them the biggest draw in the league.”

Twenty-zero. Since their first game last October 27 until today, they’ve faced 15 different squads and defeated each one. When they met the Brooklyn Nets last Nov. 14, the team from New York led by three points with 10 seconds left. But a long-range missile from Andre Iguodala tied the game, sent it to OT, and after 34 total points from Mr. Curry, the Warriors smiled at game’s end, 107-99. Against the LA Clippers days later (Nov. 19), the Clippers led by as much as 23. In the 2nd quarter, the score posted at the giant screen of Staples Center was 50-27, in favor of Griffin & Co. But like Houdini, GSW escaped and clawed its way back to snatch the prize, 124-117.

“When will they lose?” asked Panerio. “Nearly 20 teams have tried. All have failed. Pundits are saying that they will at some point during their current seven-game road trip. Your guess is as good as mine.”

At 6 a.m. today (Phil. time), GSW’s record-breaking run is again under threat when they face the Toronto Raptors (who possess a 12-8 record). This is their second meeting. Last Nov. 17, the squad from Canada came close, losing 110-115 after 37 points from Steph Curry.

After today’s trip to Toronto, it will be four more visits for Golden State (in Brooklyn, Indiana, Boston and Milwaukee) before they play five straight at home. We all know, at some point, that the Warriors will lose. But we can’t help but root for their perfect run. When this golden episode ends, Panerio adds tackeld GSW’s next target: “The talks have been ripe of the possibility of touching or even breaking the 1995-96 Bulls’ regular season record of 72-10.”

One lucky father-and-son tandem who recently saw the Warriors was Dr. Ronald Eullaran and his son Ron Ryane.

Cebu’s top rheumatologist, Dr. Ron attended a conference in San Francisco and for one week bonded with his son. They toured the headquarters of Google, Apple and Facebook. And, to celebrate his 13th birthday during the trip, one stop that the young Ron “Yani” Eullaran requested was a trek to Oracle Arena. The date was Nov. 9. The Eullarans arrived at the venue so early that Yani was interviewed by the local TV station. He spoke about flying to America and making sure he watches his favorite, Steph Curry.

Of the 27-year-old, 6-foot-3 MVP, whose nicknames include “Baby-Faced Assasin” and “Golden Boy,” Panerio writes: “Sports writers, talking heads and analysts are quickly running out of adjectives to describe the daily devastation that the golden one is wreaking upon the league. With a Player of the Month award already tucked in his belt after averaging 31.6 points, six assists and five rebounds, Curry is quickly rewriting common basketball convention with a framework he calls his own. I mean really, what can be done with a guy who strikes while you’re still setting the defense up, often from ranges you don’t even cover?”

SB Nation’s Seth Rosenthal adds: “Stephen Curry doesn’t just excel at basketball. He affronts our customs for presenting and enjoying basketball. If Steph wrote a movie, the good guy would kill the bad guy in the opening credits. Steph dismantles the structure on which an entire production is built. He breaks every rule the rest of us are trained to follow and flourishes just the same. It’s not fair.”

NBA 2015-2016: Here’s what to expect

This Wednesday morning (Tuesday 8 p.m. in Chicago), the 70th season of the NBA unfolds. What a first game awaits us, basketball fanatics: it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers dribbling against the Bulls at the United Center — a stadium immortalized by the high-flying acrobatics of MJ.

The NBA regular season begins on Oct. 27 and ends on April 13. That’s 169 days. Within these five and a half months, 30 teams will compete for 16 slots to qualify for the Playoffs.

We all remember the NBA Finals last June 5 to 17. The Cavs — limping without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love but subsisting on the broad shoulders of LeBron James — led the series 2-1 before disintegrating in the next three games to hand the trophy to the Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry, who visited Manila last Sept. 5, was the league’s MVP.

That’s the past. What are the predictions for this season? One of the most awaited of surveys is the one that the league itself conducts prior to the start. It’s called the NBA.com GM Survey.

GM, obviously, stands for General Manager — and each of the 30 GMs is asked by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann a list of 49 assorted questions ranging from “Which team will win the 2016 NBA Finals?” to “Which active player will make the best head coach someday?” (answer: Chris Paul) to as tough a query as “Who is the toughest player in the NBA?”

Golden State will not repeat as champs! That’s the overiding message of the respondents. Cleveland ranked first, garnering 53.6% of the votes, followed by San Antonio (25%), with the Warriors a distant third with 17.9%. (For comparison, last year’s pick was San Antonio at 46.2% — and we know that they lost Game 7 in the first round to the Clippers after that last-second layup by Chris Paul.)

The Top Four teams, according to the GM survey, are: in the East, it’s Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami and, in the West, the four include Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and the LA Clippers.

MVP? Same as last year, the GMs picked the 31-year-old Akron, Ohio-native who stands 6-foot-8 and weighs 250 lbs. Mr. James got a 39.3% rating followed by Anthony Davis (25%) with Kevin Durant and James Harden tied in third at 10.7%. Surprisingly, the reigning MVP (codenamed “The Baby-Faced Assasin”), got only 7.1%, tied with Russell Westbrook.

I rattle off a few more significant results:

Best center: Marc Gasol, 65.5%. The Spaniard is also the top pick in the “NBA’s best international player” query, defeating his older brother Pau.

Best power forward: Anthony Davis, scoring 82.1%.

Rookie of the Year? The 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor, who’ll play center for the Philadelphia Sixers. He out-pointed 7-footer Karl-Anthony Towns, 44% vs. 34%.

Top coach? Garnering an almost-perfect 93.1% score and who was recently named Team USA’s coach: Gregg Popovich.

Most fun team to watch? Warriors, getting the nod of 28 out of the 30 (there’s no “perfect” score because a team can’t vote for itself).

Most athletic player? 1) Westbrook; 2) LeBron; 3) Zach Lavine, who won the slam dunk contest last year; 4) A. Davis.   

Best pure shooter: Curry (who else?) at 79.3%, followed by Kyle Korver (10.3%), Klay Thompson (6.9%) and Anthony Morrow (3.4%).

Best passer: Chris Paul. (CP3 also won “the best basketball IQ” contest, besting LeBron and Steph.)

A few more compelling finds: Dwight Howard is nowhere in the list. While he was named in last year’s survey as “the best center,” this time, he didn’t extract a single vote. Andre Iguodala of the Warriors was picked “the bench player who makes the biggest impact when he enters the game” and Tony Allen of Memphis gets the nod for the “Toughest player in the NBA” plum.

Finally, the GMs pick for that Mythical Five: Curry, Harden, M. Gasol, Davis and James. They’d be the starting five to represent Planet Earth if we got involved in an intergalactic Star Wars.

Lamar Odom’s sad but unsurprising fall

The 6-foot-10 former LA Lakers forward was close to dying. Found unconscious and vomitting blood and “white stuff” from his mouth and nose last Wednesday, he appears to have awoken from coma and is responding. This is terrific news. It would have been tragic had the former NBA Sixth Man of the Year (in 2011) died at the young age of 35. Odom, if you remember, helped the Lakers win in 2009 and 2010. His NBA career spanned 14 years.

This recent nosedive by Odom is sad. It appears that he overdosed on cocaine and other pills. This type of story among top-caliber athletes, though, is not uncommon. After experiencing the highs of stardom and money, when such athletes (or movie actors and entertainers) retire and are no longer in the limelight, they fall. They escape. All their lives, they’ve played the game so well — and now they don’t know what to do. With their money. With their not being the star.

That’s why we often see these aged, long-retired superstars make a comeback. They miss the applause and camera clicks. They’re no longer mentioned in Twitter. Video clips of their acrobatics no longer proliferate in YouTube. Some come back. Some do drugs and destroy their lives, like Lamar.

But Lamar’s not the only one to squander wealth and success. The list is long: Michael Vick (NFL), Marion Jones, Vin Baker (to alcoholism), Tiger Woods, and the worst example of all, Mike Tyson, who transformed his $300 million income to $30 million in debt (plus a battery of charges that include domestic violence and sexual assault).

This is sad and bad. But plenty have also done good. Others, after retirement, have turned to mentoring the youth. They coach. Some build their own academies and training camps.

I’m reminded of Andre Agassi. The winner of eight Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, when Andre retired from tennis because of severe back pain, he turned productive.

He became a businessman. While still world’s No.1, he capitalized on his good name, forming “Official All Star Cafe” with fellow stars Wayne Gretzky, Ken Griffey, Jr., Monica Seles, Joe Montana and Shaq. He invested in several more business ventures. (Another excellent move by Andre: he married Steffi Graf!)

But ask Agassi what he’s proudest about and he’d probably answer this: the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. Investing $35 million of his personal funds, he built a school in his hometown of Las Vegas for at-risk children. Starting with only three levels, the school is now a full K-12 institution. Said Andre: “Early on, we concluded that the best way to change a child’s life was through education.”

As heartbreaking as Odom’s latest episode unfolds, people like Andre inspire. They give back. One example is his group “Athletes For Hope,” a philantrophic and charitable organization represented by top athletes. Among Agassi’s companions include Muhammad Ali, Alounzo Mourning and Mia Hamm.

One unfortunate co-member? Like Lamar, a member of the “Fall from Grace” athletes club? Lance Armstrong.

What’s wrong with Novak Djokovic?

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 7.50.15 AM

(Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. If you examine his game, there are zero weaknesses. Traditionally, the backhand is the weaker side. Take a look at Nadal or Sampras or Federer or McEnroe. The one area of vulnerability in their arsenal is the backhand. Not Djokovic. His two-handed strike is one of the all-time best. He can smother it on-the-rise crosscourt or he can lambaste a down-the-line stunner. He serves 125-mph aces. His forehand topspin is offensive and offers a wallop. He has a deft dropshot touch and his defensive skills, turning a losing point into a winning shot, is peerless.

Few players in history have had a better season than Novak’s 2015. He triumphed in Melbourne during the Australian Open. He outsthone the competition on grass at Wimbledon. He conquered Federer’s SABR (long-named Sudden Attack By Roger) to prevail in New York’s U.S. Open. And, at the French Open — where my own bare eyes got to see his magic at Stade Roland Garros — he won his first six matches and was nearing his first clay-court Grand Slam title when he was disquieted by Stan Wawrinka.

Still, when you win 27 of the year’s 28 Grand Slam singles matches in a 64-win, 5-loss season — that’s outstanding.

Why, then, the title (above)? Because as fascinating as Novak Djokovic’s record shows, he’s not as celebrated and loved as his two main tormentors named Roger and Rafa.

Ask any tennis fan who among the Big Three they idolize and chances are the reply will either be R or R. Why not ND?

Firstly, the Serb still trails the Swiss and the Spaniard. When we talk of major titles, Roger Federer leads the pack with 17 .That’s followed by the 14 of Rafael Nadal. Plus, through the years, Roger and Rafa have developed a special and emotional bond with their fans. Both their games, to start with, are different. One is right-handed; the other, a lefty. One attacks with flat, offensive strikes; the other, with a looping uncontainable spin. And so for so many years, Novak has been the Supporting Actor in a tennis movie that starred two Leading Actors.

Not anymore. Two nights ago, when I arrived home past 9 p.m., I turned-on the TV set and pressed “701.” It was the championship game of the China Open in Beijing. This site brings back memories because it was in 2008 when they unveiled the tennis center during the Beijing Olympics. Eight Augusts ago, Jasmin and I watched Nadal win the Olympic gold.

Last Sunday, he looked like tarnsihed gold. Against Djokovic, he was getting clobbered. When I watched, the score read “6-2, 4-1.” Nadal, who did not win a single major title this year (the first time it’s happened since 2004), has been playing dull and subpar tennis this season. Having won 9 of the previous 10 French Opens, he lost in the quarters in Paris (to, who else, but Novak).

Rafa whipped his forehand, sliced that backhand, spun and swerved his serve — all to no avail. Two games later, it was over, 6-2, 6-2.

It’s not like Nadal, who, at 29 is a year older, played badly. It’s just that Djokovic is the Ronda Rousey of tennis. He’s unbeatable. Looking at the statistics of the Novak-Rafa match, it offered extraordinary numbers: Novak scored 7 aces to zero for Rafa. His first serve percentage stood at 82 percent. He amassed 16 winners to only 7 from Rafa and won 62 vs. 43 points.

“I know today Novak is not in my league,” admitted Rafa. “He has been on a different level to me this year.”

In the whole China Open, just examine the scores accumulated by Djokovic (6-1, 6-1, 6-2, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2) en route to winning his sixth China Open title in as many tries.

But going back to the “Roger and Rafa are more loved than Novak” line, the Serb is just as nice and is trying hardest to be loved by fans. Moments after his win last Sunday, he scribbled a Chinese character on the TV screen. Then, in the post-match interview, he spoke a few words in Chinese — to add to the five languages that he speaks (Serbian, English, French, German and Italian). What a world No. 1.

Suggestion for Senator Manny Pacquiao

Congress

There is little doubt that, come May 9, 2016, when the elections unfold, the planet’s most famous Filipino will be admitted entry into the Senate. It’s not a question of “if” Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao will be victorious but by what ranking among the Top 12.

In the 2013 elections, Manny wanted to run as senator but he was then ineligible. He’s now 36 years of age — leapfrogging the barrier that states that one has to be 35-and-older.

Having fought a total of 65 fights in his professional career, sporting a 57-win, 6-loss and 2-draw record, Manny is nearing the end of his boxing career. You and I know this. He’s lost three of his last six and has not knocked-out an opponent since Miguel Cotto in 2009. At 36, one’s physical state is in decline. Manny knows this and he knows that he has, at best, one career-ending skirmish left in his career.

My suggestion for Pacman? Stage that finale in Manila! Do it for your Pinoy fans. Manny doesn’t need the money. He grossed $150 million when he faced Floyd Mayweather, Jr. last May in what was billed as the highest grossing fight of all time. In his career spanning two decades, he’s amassed billions of pesos.

Do it for us, Manny. You know when the last time was when Manny fought on Philippine soil? I saw that contest inside the Araneta Coliseum against Oscar Larios in July 2006. It will be 10 years next year since he’s last fought before his fellow Filipinos. The ideal time for Manny to don those gloves and fight once more is before the May elections. When he becomes senator, he said that he wants to treat it seriously and not be absent, like he’s often been as congressman. Would you believe that, as Sarangani representative, Pacquiao was present in Congress only four times in 2014?

“I will have to give up the other things that require my attention. If you are a senator, your focus should only be your job and your family,” Pacquiao said in an interview.

This admission offers an insight into Manny’s plans: Once a senator, he’ll give up boxing. “I think I’m ready (to retire). I’ve been in boxing for more than 20 years,” he said on ABS-CBN. Now that Manny’s rotator cuff tear injury appears to be healed, the target date for his next fight is February or March. It can’t be later than that because Manny still has to campaign for at least a month before we go to the polls.

Bob Arum confirmed his ward’s plans in an interview last month with Dan Rafael of ESPN: “He’s not going to run for re-election to congress. Instead, he’s running for senate, and in the Philippines, the senate is a national election. So he wants to fight and then concentrate on the campaign. It’s very important to him. I’ve spoken to Manny a couple of times (recently), and he is more interested in talking politics than boxing.”

Against who? ESPN’s Dan Rafael, one of the most respected boxing writers, said Arum revealed five possible opponents. Wrote Mr. Rafael: “The list includes leading candidate Amir Khan, a former unified junior welterweight titlist and top welterweight contender, welterweight titleholder Kell Brook, junior welterweight titlist Terence Crawford, junior welterweight contender Lucas Matthysse and Juan Manuel Marquez, the Mexican great Pacquiao has waged four outstanding fights against, going 2-1-1 but finishing the fourth fight on his face as the result of a gargantuan sixth-round knockout in December 2012… England’s Khan (31-3, 19 KOs), passed over multiple times by Mayweather, who continually mentioned him as a leading candidate only to fight somebody else, knows Pacquiao well. They sparred together when Khan was trained by Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s longtime cornerman.”

To me, the most riveting is “Pacquiao vs. Amir Khan.” The only problem? Arum wants it in Las Vegas. Not again, Bob!

Instead, come March 2016, Manny’s last boxing fight should be inside the Philippine Arena. What a farewell — and a perfect campaign rally consisting of 55,000 screaming fans all cheering for the future senator.

A tall order, Gilas falls short

Gilas-vs-Japan-October-2-2015-2

(Fiba.com)

To win gold, we knew what we had to do: Play near-perfect basketball. And for the first four minutes last Saturday night, we performed like we did against Iran.

Jayson Castro scored two in the 50th second. Dondon Hontiveros unleashed an intercontinental ballistic missile against Beijing that detonated in Changsa. We were up 5-0 after 90 seconds. Then, after an avengeful three from Y. Ding, our Gabe Norwood uncorked a jumper to move us forward, 7-3. Back to back threes from both squads advanced the score. We led 10-6. Then, 12-10. And after Norwood converted on a surprising three-pointer, our beloved Pilipinas, after 3:58 elapsed in the game, commanded a 15-10 lead!

Was it going to be this easy? Were we flying to Rio de Janeiro, our first Olympic trek since the 1972 days of Bogs Adornado and Manny Paner? As “prize,” were we going to claim the Spratly Islands?

Too bad, our luck evaporated. The Chinese accelerated on 12 unanswered points. Within minutes, our advantage disappeared and, by the end of the first quarter, we trailed 23-19. We would never draw closer — trailing by as much as 16 before the final score, 78-67.

What happened? Simple. Had we played like we played in those first 3:58 minutes, we’d have claimed victory. That was the only path. Our 31st-ranked Philippines battling the world’s 14th-ranked nation, our average old age (31) versus China’s youthful average of 24, our height disadvantage, with the Chinese averaging 6-foot-8 — the only way to beat the world’s most populous nation (our 100 million-strong population versus their 1.3 billion) was to play like we did in those first 238 seconds.

We did not. We couldn’t sustain it. Here’s the most telling statistic: Castro scored five quick points after the game’s first two and a half minutes. You know how many more he scored in the rest of the game? Three. In all, Castro attempted 14 times and converted only thrice for a lowly 21.4% clip. There’s no way we’re going to win if Asia’s best point guard scores a measly eight points.

And we blame poor officiating for the loss? Come on, guys. We lost because we played perfectly for four minutes and subpar and unsatisfactorily for the next 36.

Here’s another disappointing statistic: our free throw percentage. In one stretch, Calvin Abueva missed four in a row and five out of six. In those moments when no seven-footer is fronting us, we miss. In all, we missed nine free throws while making 15. (Reminds me of the three straight free throw misses of Kiefer Ravena in last Sunday’s Ateneo loss to La Salle.)

Overall, our field goal percentages were lowly: We shot 6-of-24 from three point range (25 percent) and 23-of-65 total for a 35.4% field goal percentage.

Why such a terrible outing — possibly our worst showing apart from that loss to Palestine — on the tournament’s most important game?

I’ll answer this query based on my experience as a tennis player. There are moments when, faced with a weak opponent, I’m scoring winners and playing like Roger Federer. But when up against, for example, a Johnny Arcilla, I may look like a beginner, losing 6-0.

My point? It depends on the opponent. And the Chinese were unstoppable. First, their height. They possessed double twin towers: two 7-footers in Yi and Wang while Zhou stood at 7’1” and Li at 7’2”. When those long legs jump and those long arms outstretch, to a 6-footer like Terrence Romeo, they look like a forest packed with giant Sequoia trees.

Andray Blatche, standing 6’11”, soared tall against the likes of Japan and Lebanon. He received the ball at the top of the key; he’d back up, cross-dribble, turn and sprint towards the goal for an uncontested two. In previous games, he dominated with his height. Not against China, where he was intimidated to penetrate, getting blocked by gangly Chinese arms.

Our one-two punch consisting of Castro and Blatche inflicted only jabs instead of uppercuts. They scored a combined 25 points (compared to 44 against Iran). Not good enough. Good enough for silver — but not gold.

For Gilas, a clear path to the finals

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. I like that quote. Here are two more: “If you run after luck, you will spoil many pairs of shoes” and “Success is simply a matter of luck; just ask any failure.”

Are we lucky? Gi-swerte ta that, from the quarterfinals all the way to the championship, we are able to avoid the likes of Korea, Iran and China?

No and Yes. If we didn’t beat the giants of FIBA Asian basketball last Saturday, clobbering the seemingly-unbeateable Iranians by 14 points, we wouldn’t have reached the No. 1 spot.

That’s not luck. That’s Jason scoring 26, Andray blocking four shots, Terrence zigzagging his way past a maze of defenders. It turns out, that win was more than a W: It didn’t just qualify us to enter the knockout playoff stage, it allowed us to stay clear of hazards. It cleared the treacherous path for us to reach the finals.

We battle Lebanon tonight at 9:30. Everybody will watch! While we finished a high 4-1 in the preliminary round, Lebanon’s grade stood at 2-3.  And while we’re 31st-ranked in the world, the Lebanese linger just three ranks below at 34. Last week, they lost to two notable countries: against Korea, by 14 (85-71) and got schooled in Chinese dribbling by the hosts, 90-72.

On paper, this isn’t only a must-win for Gilas but a ballgame that we ought to win. We’re favored. At game’s end, we’re expected to high-five and beam toothful smiles.

Tomorrow, it’s either Qatar or Japan. Qatar is a small nation of only 2.2 million. In the preliminary round, they performed well to subdue Lebanon (105-100) and Korea, 69-63. Facing China, though, they got humiliated, 89-65. Since this is a crossover stage, it will be their first tournament meeting against Japan, an exciting game whose victor we will face in tomorrow’s semifinals.

The next three days will be one of Philippine basketball’s most important. It’s a new month; a new path to the Olympics.

Gilas defeats Iran’s ‘Great Wall in China’

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(Photos from Rappler.com)

It wasn’t The Finals. It wasn’t a win in China that will transport us to Brazil. It wasn’t even the quarterfinals. It wasn’t an Olympic berth to propel Dondon to face LeBron.

It was historic. It was a game that was unexpected and shocking; a 14-point rout that should have favored the Middle Eastern squad.

Prior to yesterday, Iran had annihilated its enemies. In its first game against Japan, they embarrassed our neighbors up north, 86-48. That’s a 28 point spread. In Game 2, they decimated India by 22 points. In their third outing, they slaughtered the Malaysians by 80 points: 122-42. And last Sunday, the Iranians obliterated Hong Kong, 111-56.

In all, Iran defeated their opponents by an average of 46 points. Can you believe that disparity and dominance?

Gilas Pilipinas? We wobbled. The other afternoon, I watched the game when Gilas played Japan. We nearly faltered. The game was a seesaw. Andray Blatche limped. We escaped with a seven point victory.

Scary. Sloppy. Shaky. And, of course, who could forget our first game against Palestine? Fully charged with the Cebu training camp, we trembled, losing a shocker, 73-75.

This was the premise: Iran was undefeated in four games, averaging a 46-point margin per jaunt, while we, Pilipinas, though sporting a 3-1 count, quivered and appeared wobbly.

Take Mr. Blatche, the former Brooklyn Nets center. Against Japan, we saw how his right ankle twisted. He hopped on one leg, grimaced, and asked to be excused. Minutes later, he returned with the same result: he stumbled and carried all of his 260 lbs. weight on one leg.

Eighteen hours later, forgetting the injury that caused him to appear debilitated, he faced the Iranians, his 6-foot-11 frame shoving and elbowing the 7-foot-2 giant named Hamed Haddadi. Blatched scored 18, pulled down seven rebounds, blocked two shots and stole the ball four times! It was a clash between goliaths and the Am-Fil quashed the bearded Iranian.

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Speaking of Haddadi (or, as his official name says, Ehadadi), I call him Iran’s “Great Wall in China.” He’s an inch taller than Shaq, weighs 265 lbs. and was formerly with the Phoenix Suns.

Three Augusts ago inside the MOA Arena during the 2013 FIBA Championships, I saw him play. He’s not only tall and imposing, he’s herculean. His mere presence underneath the goal sends tremors to the invaders.

Yesterday after lunch, I caught the Gilas-Iran game at its best moment. There were five minutes left in the 3rd quarter and we trailed by two. Wow, I told myself, this is close. We have a chance.

Next thing I realized, we squared the game at 52-all. Cebu’s hotshot, Mr. “Cebu Gems” Hontiveros, buries a long-distance trey to move us ahead. Terrence Romeo, whom I call a spitfire, was too quick a Pinoy cat to be caught. In about a minute’s time, he scored two three pionters and a two-pointer. Dumbfounded and alarmed, the Iranians panicked. They attempted to retaliate with their own three-pointers. They missed. They turned the ball over multiple times. By the end of the third, the improbable was turning possible: we led, 65-60.

Good thing we did not experience a collapse like we did against Palestine, when we squandered a 12 point lead to lose by two.

Not this time. Not when history was dribbling inside the excitable heartbeats of Jason Castro, who topscored with 26. Not when Raniel de Ocampo pulled down 10 rebounds; when Romeo shot 3 out of 5 from three-point range.

Our lead extended in the fourth. The whisper “Hopefully, we can” transcended into “Maybe we can do it” before being trumpted as “Yes, we’ll definitely beat Iran.”

It was a definitive win. Fourteen points against the defending champs is large. If this were a punctuation mark, it was an exclamation point, as if to say… Take that, Iran!!!

But, wait, we may have won the battle but the war’s not over yet. Today, we’ll beat India but what beckons are the three most important games, in the quarters, semis and finals, possibly against Korea, China and, again, Iran.

Go, Gilas!

Kennan Radaza Rooney talks about his son Maxime

Last Thursday, I wrote about how Maxime Rooney, three years ago, wanted to represent the Philippines in future swim meets. Led by his dad Kennan, they sought — and got — permission from the US national swimming association for Maxime to swim for Team PHL.

Unfortunately, they were informed by Mark Joseph, who heads the Phil. swimming association, that Maxime needed 12 months of residency in the Philippines — an impossibility given his studies in California. In the end, Maxime Rooney was told no.

Sorry, Philippines. The happy beneficiary? USA.

I ask these questions: Could other ways have been exhausted? I mean, the US officials already said yes to the Rooney family’s request. Maybe the Phil. swimming association did not realize fully the potential of Maxime — that he will turn out to be a junior world record holder and, very, very possibly, be a future Olympian? And, who knows, maybe even a gold medalist — what could have been our nation’s first Olympic gold?

The fact is, complained Kennan, months would often pass before a simple reply (from Mark Joseph) would reach his email inbox.

Now, it’s too late; Maxime competes for Team USA. And just the other week, he was sent an email by the national team with the words that are the most coveted of any American athlete: “Welcome! You’re a U.S. National Team member!” Among his teammates are two guys you might have heard of: Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps.

Maxime Rooney is excited about the Olympics. Like any world-class athlete, the ultimate goal is to compete in this once-every-four-years event. For Maxime, the main target is 2020. That’s five years from now during the Tokyo Olympics and Maxime will be a ripe 22 years of age.

But, wait, next year, there’s Rio de Janeiro. And while he’s much younger than the other big boys, Maxime is ready.

“Maxime plans to join the US Olympic qualifying in July next year,” said his father Kennan, whom I met two weeks ago in Mactan together with his first cousin, Lapu Lapu City Councilor Harry Radaza.

During my hour-long chat with Kennan, I got to hold with my fingers, for the first time, a gold medal and a silver medal. I’ve held dozens of similarly-colored medals before (courtesy of my daughter Jana), but these were Milo or Palaro or Batang Pinoy medals. Local hardware. What Harry and I held were FINA Junior World Championships medals — which Maxime won in Singapore. (Maxime not only won a pair of gold medals and a silver but he was also voted by the U.S. squad as “Team Captain.”)

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Kennan (center) with JP and Harry

After the possible stint in the 2016 Olympics, Maxime’s goal is to join the University of Florida team. Not only does the squad possess some of the nation’s best collegiate swimmers, but the coach (Gregg Troy) was the head coach of the US team during the London Olympics. Plus, one of the assistant coaches competed in the Barcelona Games. This means that, in the next several years as Maxime’s body develops and he churns out faster times — all focused on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, when he’s peaking — he’ll be coached by some of the world’s best mentors.

Physically, the 17-year-old Maxime, who devotes 22 hours each week in the pool, will still grow stronger. He hasn’t engaged in weight training yet, instead focusing on building his lung capacity. 

Standing 6-foot-4, I asked his dad (who’s about my height, 5’8”), where Maxime got his tall build. “My wife Charlotte, who’s Belgian, is tall,” he said. (Speaking of Belgium, here’s an interesting side note: When the Belgian swimming officials heard of Maxime, they, too, wanted him to swim for them. In a two-way skirmish between the Phils. and Belgium, it’s the U.S. who’s emerged victorious.)

How big a celebrity is Maxime at home? Only recently, said his dad. Prior to the junior world record of Maxime, the school principal (in their town of 80,000) knew that their star athlete was superb — but the principal didn’t know he was that outstanding.

Maxime’s maxims? I asked his dad.

“It’s not that I love to win… I hate to lose!”

“Love God. Love people.”

Maxime Rooney: the future Olympian we ‘almost’ had

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(Photo by Donna Nelson)

Senator (and VP hopeful?) Francis Escudero appeared in the newspaper back pages last week. No, the story did not revolve around him and Heart; it was about sports. Surprising. We know Sen. Pia Cayetano to be a triathlete, but Chiz? Well, when the elections are just eight months away, politicians will do all they can for self-promotion.

But Chiz made sense. He spoke about Brazil next year, lamenting how our 100-million-strong sports-loving nation has never won an Olympic gold medal. Worse, we might only have a handlful who’ll qualify for the Aug. 5 to 21, 2016 Olympics.

“So far, we only have one athlete qualified to play in Rio de Janeiro in 2016,” said Escudero, citing the trackster Eric Cray.

Since we competed in our first Games in 1924 in Paris, we’ve won a total of nine Olympic medals (seven bronze and the two silver medals in boxing by Anthony Villanueva in 1964 and Onyok Velasco in 1992).

Will we ever win gold? There is one athlete that I wrote about who “may have” delivered for us that elusive gold medal.

I’m referring to the swimming sensation in America who could have represented the Philippines. His name is Maxime Rooney and, just last month, he broke a junior world record in the 200-meter freestyle. His time of 1:47.10 last Aug. 7 is not only the fastest ever swum by a below-18-year-old but, had that time been recorded by Maxime in the SEA Games last June, he would have won gold and snapped the fastest ever SEAG time.

Maxime is only 17. I met his father Kennan the other week. After watching his son compete (and win two gold medals and a silver) during the 5th FINA World Junior Championships in Singapore, Kennan flew to Cebu to visit his relatives for a few days.

Kennan Rooney is a Radaza. He looks like one. Spending an hour with him and his first cousin (Lapu-Lapu City Councilor) Harry Don Radaza at Kennan’s mom’s (Amy Radaza Jessup’s) 18th floor condo unit at the Movenpick Hotel was memorable. It’s not often that you’re seated beside the dad of a future Olympian.

Maxime’s story began at the age of three when the family moved to a new home in California that had a small swimming pool. Maxime dipped in the water. No, it wasn’t formal and he wasn’t swimming laps. He simply loved the water. This was his first taste of being surrounded by this clear fluid that covers 71 percent of our planet’s surface.

When Maxime turned six, that’s when he started to join swim meets. Towering tall for his age, he quickly swam like a fish and won by several lengths over his stunned classmates. Coaches took notice. This kid is special, they thought.

Since then, Maxime hasn’t stopped and has clocked thousands of hours by his lone self, covering his eyes with Speedo goggles, knifing the water with his fingertips, breathing out and exhaling underwater.

Today, Maxime’s training schedule is not for you and me. He arises before 4 a.m. and swims from 4:30 to 6 from Mondays to Fridays. Then he goes to school. After, he’s back at the rectangular-shaped pit, strengthening his muscles in the pool from 3:45 to 6:30 p.m.

And you’d think, given his all-swimming schedule, that Maxime would do badly in school? This kid is Superman in trunks and in school uniform. He has a 4.3 grade point average.

The word is “sayang.” Lost opportunity. Three years ago, Kennan approached the Phil. swimming association, headed by Mark Joseph, and informed them that Maxime wanted to compete under the Phil. flag. Kennan exhausted all means for Maxime to represent us. He’d send Mark Joseph an email but would get a reply weeks or months after. In the end, Mark Joseph rendered this conclusion: Maxime was ineligible.

“Although Maxime, at an international meet in Dubai, competed under Team USA,” said Kennan, “I communited with the American swim officials our intention for Maxime to shift and swim for the Philippines. Our request was approved, first by the coach and next, by the US swim organization. The path was clear. Maxime was excited to swim for the Phils…” (to be continued on Sunday)

Number one, Novak wins No. 10

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(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

After Serena Williams’s heartbreaking loss last Friday, the American fans wanted redemption. They wanted their “very own” to win. Not that Roger Federer is American; he’s as Swiss as Lindt, Rolex, UBS and Nestle. Yet, because he’s old at 34 and he’s won in New York from 2004 to 2008, they’ve grown to call the older statesman as their own.

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic thwarted those cheers for Roger. He did it in Wimbledon two months ago when they met in the final and he did it again yesterday in the same fashion: The Serb winning the first set, the Swiss scoring the second, only for the man from Belgrade to win the final two.

Game, set, goodbye, Roger. The most painful part was how Roger squandered his chances. He had 23 break point chances and converted only four times for a depressing 17 percent clip.

“Maybe I haven’t played this offensive for a very long time,” Federer said, “And that’s maybe the reason maybe I was slightly shaky when it comes to the crunch on break points. Who knows?”

This we know: Djokovic is invincible. He’s even “better” than Serena this 2015, winning three majors and reaching the finals at the French Open. (Serena won three but lost in the NYC semis.) This means that Novak was just one win shy of a Grand Slam — an astonishing statistic.

Federer Express? As well as Roger’s been playing this hard court season, this loss was huge. This opportunity was similar to Pete Sampras’ in 2002 when, after not winning a major for a couple of years, he wins the U.S. Open against Andre Agassi.

Roger had not won a major since Wimbledon 2012. That’s more than three years ago. His Grand Slam record of late has been miserable, going 5-8 since 2008 after winning 12 of his first 14 major finals.

Now, Djokovic has 10 majors — just one shy of Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver; Nadal has 14 and Federer owns 17. Given that the Serb is only 28, can he catch the Spaniard and possibly reach the Swiss? I think Rafa’s record is within reach. Novak has no weaknesses. His backhand, especially that down-the-line, may be the all-time best. His defensive skills, sliding all the way left to retrieve a shot, then sprinting right to power a forehand winner — that’s peerless. So is his mind. He thrives on the grand Arthur Ashe stage and, never mind the crowd being against him, he’s able to block all of that and emerge triumphant.

“It’s been an incredible season, next to 2011 the best of my life,” Djokovic said, who also won three majors four years ago. “I’m enjoying this year more than I did any previous one because I’m a husband and a father, and that makes it sweeter.”

Back to Roger: He tried, he really did. He had not lost a set in his first six matches at the Open. Last Sunday, he lost three. At 34, he was attempting to become the oldest champion in 45 years. He retooled his game, taking the ball on the rise on second serves and being very aggressive. “You have to find the right dose of risk,” Federer said. “Sometimes I did it well and other times not as well.”

Roger had to try harder, often eliciting more mistakes. His total unforced errors: 50. This number accounted for more than one-third the total points that Novak won (147). And, speaking of his strongest weapon (forehand), it was from that wing where he elicited the most mistakes (29 errors).

“I knew why I lost the match very clearly the moment I sat down, 5-2, in the fourth or after the match was over,” Federer said.“It was because of the mistakes I made. I have to get better at that. It’s just pretty simple.”

Obviously, it’s not that simple. Djokovic is one of the best defensive players of all time. He’s the Dennis Rodman of lawn tennis, able to rebound from a sure-winner to counterpunch and snatch the point.

The Roger-Novak rivalry is the sport’s most compelling. They’ve met 42 times and the score is tied, 21-all. In major finals, it’s 8-6, in favor of Novak. This RF-ND duel beats the Federer-Nadal rivalry (23-10, in favor of the Spaniard), Sampras-Agassi (they’ve met 34 times) or Borg-McEnroe (22 meetings).

Serena Slam but no Grand Slam

Ms. Williams has won the last four Grand Slam singles titles. Dating back to the 2014 U.S. Open 12 months ago, then to the Australian Open last January, then to Paris when she won the French Open in June, and to the greenest and grandest stage in tennis, Wimbledon, she won that, too, completing an unbeaten run of 33 matches won in Grand Slam play.

That’s called a “Serena Slam.” The only problem is, it’s not in the same calendar year. That one’s called “The Grand Slam.” And, after losing yesterday to a netter whose ranking is 42 spots lower than hers, Serena lost that bid to become only the seventh person ever to with The Slam.

Serena was poised to win. Her record against Roberta Vinci was spotless. The Italian had never won a set, not even reached a tiebreaker, against the American. And after Serena routinely won the first set in their semifinal yesterday, 6-2, you’d think it was another one of those walk-in-the-Flushing-Meadows-park type of days for the younger sister of Venus.

But Vinci won the second set. No problem for SW. In two of her previous three matches at the U.S. Open, Serena had lost a set; but she’d always win the third. And, against Vinci, she led the third set 2-0 and was up 40-30 to take a commanding 3-0 lead. But Vinci, who stands only 5-foot-4 and was the world No.1 ranked doubles player early this season, wasn’t about to book a Sunday flight to her hometown of Palermo, Italy. Instead, she booked a trip to the finals.

And so, on an unforgettable “9/11” in New York, sadness once again fell on the Americans at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Serena is 33 years old. She won’t get this chance again. Very, very, very few individuals get to be so close — winning the first three majors and the first five matches only to lose in the second-to-the-very-last match.

What happened? I did not get to watch the game. It was dawn, Philippine time, and, based on my readings, it was all about one word: pressure. Surprisingly, the 21-time major champion denies it. “No, I told you guys I don’t feel pressure,” said Williams. “I never felt pressure. I don’t know. I never felt that pressure to win here. I said that from the beginning.”

Not true. Chris Evert, a six-time U.S. Open champ, said, “I saw a frozen Serena Williams. I saw a paralysed Serena Williams. She succumbed to the nerves. She is human.” On ESPN, Evert added: “It was apparent to all of us who have watched her for 20 years that she was nervous today.”

This moment was such a disappointment for Serena because the draw aligned for her expected victory. Against Vinci, she sported a 4-0 record; against the finalist at the opposite end, Flavia Pennetta, seeded a lowly 26, Serena has faced her seven times and won all seven.

“This is monumental. It’s a shocker,” Tracy Austin said. “This is one of the biggest upsets in the history of tennis, because of what was on the line.”

I agree. We’ve witnessed Rafa lose before or Roger get beaten by a 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky in Wimbledon. But nothing like this. Serena had won 26 straight GS matches this year and was two supposedly-easy wins away from the record — only to get upset.

And it’s not like Serena played too badly. Based on numbers, she recorded a high 50 winners (versus only 19 from Vinci). This, however, was negated by her mistakes: 40 unforced errors. Serena also recorded 16 aces, against only one from Vinci. And, in total points won, she scored 93 — higher than the 85 of her opponent.

But, in tennis, it’s not “total points won” that matters most, unlike basketball or football. It’s a game that says, whoever-wins-the-very-last-point-wins.

“The toll of this journey she was on was too much for her today,” said Sky Sports TV host Leif Shiras. “She was trying to dig deep and the way to generate energy for her is to get that passion out. But I think that can tire her; there is an element of fatigue that plays into this story. She was at a breaking point; she was boiling. And Vinci was drawing that out of her. It was amazing drama.”

Viva, Italia.

Can Serena Williams win the Grand Slam?

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Tennis, like golf, has four major tournaments. When we talk of “major,” these are the biggest of the biggest. Of the ATP and WTA calendar’s hundreds of tournaments that litter the globe, these four stand tallest. Like the Oscars. Or the World Cup. They’re also often referred to as “Grand Slam events.”

But when we speak of THE Grand Slam, we mean only one thing: winning all four majors in the same year.

Impossible? Well, close to. Among the men, only two have achieved such a feat in singles: Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969). The likes of Sampras and Borg or even Federer and Nadal (who painfully exited yesterday) have not won all four majors in the same year. Among the girls, only three have achieved the same: Maureen Connolly in 1953, Margaret Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988.

This means that, of the hundreds of millions of netters that have swung forehands since Wimbledon (the first major) started in 1877, only five individuals have won the singles Grand Slam.

A sixth one is about to be enshrined: Serena Jameka Williams.

So far in the United States Open, the fourth major this 2015 (the first three were the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon), she is midway through the quest. Serena has won three matches (beating Diatchenko, Bertens and Mattek-Sands) and needs four more. Can she do it? I hope so.

I first got to see Serena 16 years ago. She was 17 then and was popularly known as “the younger sister of Venus.” She was not tipped to win the 1999 US Open. Yet, Serena triumphed. My dad Bunny and I were inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the world’s largest tennis arena, to witness her victory.

That was in New York. This week, they’re in the same venue and, bombarded with the most extreme of pressures as she targets The Slam, all Babolat rackets and Nikon camera clicks are targeted on Serena.

Between that ’99 first major trophy and today, Ms. Williams has amassed over $73 million in prize money (and much more in endorsements from Nike, Gatorade and Audemars Piguet). She owns 21 major titltes and, if she wins next Saturday, she’ll equal Steffi Graf’s 22 — and will just be two shy of the all-time record (Margaret Court) of 24.

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(Serena, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf-Agassi/Reuters photo)

Reading through her list of accomplishments is like enumerating the record credentials of a Michael Jordan or Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. Yes, she is in that league of sports greats.

Through the years, I’ve had the good fortune of having seen her play. At the Olympics in Beijing, my wife Jasmin and I watched her win the doubles gold with Venus. Last October during the WTA Championships, though she got clobbered 6-0, 6-2 in the preliminary round by Simona Halep, Serena bounced back and won in Singapore. And at the French Open last June, I saw her steely resolve (and muscles that are steel-like) as she overpowered all opposition to win in Paris.

(My encounters with Serena, though, pale in comparison to Stephanie Medalle, who, while watching the IPTL Tennis last Dec. in Manila, happened to be in a parlor one relaxing morning when in comes Serena. They chatted and took a photo. Nice one, Steph!)

What makes Serena great? Her mind. She walks confidently on court, willing her brain as she closes her eyes to envision winning the next point. She pumps her fist to boost her backbone. She screams to unleash that champion’s spirit.

Her offensive mindset. Serena steps close to the baseline and hits the ball early. She doesn’t stay back like a Wozniacki to run tennis marathons. With her muscular biceps and even more muscular legs, she overpowers the girls. (Plenty have proposed a “Battle of the Sexes” between her and a Top 100 male player.)

Her focus. While she goes on beach outings with Wozniacki (her best friend), once she steps inside that rectangle, nothing else matters.

Her athleticism. Her competitiveness. Finally, the single greatest shot in tennis: Her serve.

My wish? That SW aces that W.

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!