In ‘David vs. Goliath,’ the brave heart prevails

MANILA—I’m in our capital city to do three things. First, to visit our family-owned juice bar outlets. Two, I watched a concert last Thursday night by Duran Duran—with the all-original cast of Simon Le Bon, John and Roger Taylor, and Nick Rhodes. It was the best performance I’ve seen—and will write about it later this week. And the third reason: to watch our RP tennis team exchange smashes with Uzbekistan in the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania Group I.

Led by two Filipino-Americans—Cecil Mamiit and Eric Taino—the RP squad has resurrected from the clay-court ashes and returned to the world stage. At the SEA Games, we claimed gold medals. In Davis Cup—the annual competition that pits country vs. country—we’ve resurfaced. Thus, this RP vs. Uzbekistan tie.

With my wife Jasmin and daughter Jana, we arrived at the Philippine Columbian Association (PCA) at 10 a.m. last Friday. Built in 1907, it is one of the country’s most prestigious tennis facilities. With four indoor and three outdoor courts, each year the club hosts the top event in men’s tennis: the PCA Open.

In this Davis Cup tie, the matches are played on the Center Court—a rectangle of clay-court surrounded by bleachers on two sides. How does the three-letter PCA spell? H-O-T. Yes, stifling hot. Because while the facility is indoor, it’s completely enclosed. It’s oven-like and humid. “This is good for our players,” I explained to Jasmin. “The Uzbeks are not used to this roasting temperature.”

True. With the matches played from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., it’s fiery hot, hot, hot. And in Davis Cup, the host country decides where to play and on what surface. So to counter the cold in Uzbekistan and to blunt the booming serves of the opponent—it’s the PCA’s slow shell courts.

The first match? PJ Tierro, 6-foot-1 and a Subic Bay native, was pitted against their No.1 player, Dennis Istomin. Mismatch. Because while Tierro is RP’s no. 2, he doesn’t have Istomin’s resume: world no. 156 and, just three months ago, pushed Lleyton Hewitt to four sets at the Australian Open. Istomin beat Tierro, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3.

World no. 156 Dennis Istomin

Next, our Fil-Am hero who won for us the SEA Games gold medal: Cecit Mamiit. Standing 5-foot-8, by Filipino standards, Mamiit is not short. But stand him beside his 6-foot-3 opponent, Farruck Dustov, and you’ll notice the seven-inch height difference. Ranking-wise, Mamiit also falls short. While, in 1999, he was ranked as high as world no. 72, today he is 552. Dustov? He’s world no. 259.

The match started at 1 p.m. It was suffocating. Back and forth, their cross-court backhands exchanged. Dustov, with his towering height, hammered aces. He also possessed a mighty forehand. Mamiit? He’s the opposite. A counter-puncher, he’s steady and plays to wear the enemy down. He’s Michael Chang.

In the end, after two hours and 52 minutes, Dustov succumbed to the heat, to the crowd (complete with drums at every Mamiit point), and to cramps and gave up after he won the first set, with the final score, 7-5, 3-6, 5-all. “It’s good to start out here with at least a win,” said Mamiit.

So, after Friday, the score stood 1-all. Yesterday, the doubles was played and today, the final two singles matches.

Jana with ‘Andy Roddick’

What have I learned after watching five hours of Davis Cup? That heat can defeat you. That physical conditioning is a must. That the screaming crowd and the thunderous drum beats help.

I also saw how height is so advantageous. Istomin stood 6-foot-1; Dustov, 6-foot-3. On the ATP Tour, that’s average. But to Filipinos, they’re Goliaths. They served 135 mph bombs. Running from left to right was a mere few steps.

But you know what I saw in Cecil Mamiit and learned the most? That while “the taller, the better” applies to almost every sport except chess and scrabble—what’s even more important than The Height is that pumping machine hidden beneath one’s T-shirt called The Heart.

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