Ruben Gonzales raised his arms to the sky. He looked up, closed his eyes for a moment, smiled and made the sign of the cross. Thank you, Lord!
Last Sunday afternoon was the most important tennis match in the life of the 27-year-old America-based Filipino. Two years ago, when Cecil Mamiit was the star of our Davis Cup team, Ruben was relegated as substitute. He was good but Cecil and Treat Huey were the superstars. Ruben had to muster his patience to sit and watch. Not two days ago.
Danai Udomchoke, his opponent, was highly-ranked. He had reached world 77, was currently ranked 207 (vs. the 784 singles ranking of Ruben), and Danai had won the Asian Games in 2006.
On paper, Ruben was supposed to lose. On paper. Because on court, he was superb. When the score was 5-4 in the first set, Ruben ran around his backhand and smashed a down-the-line winner. On set point, he Xerox-copied the move: a forehand winner to win the first set, 6-4.
Danai “The Thai” was stunned. Am I not the more experienced netter? the 31-year-old Danai thought to himself.
In Set 2, Ruben did not relax. He exchanged one-handed topspin backhands. He hammered 120-mph service aces. He carressed the yellow ball to score drop shots. Ruben won the second set, 6-3.
This was when the capacity-crowd at Plantation Bay Resort and Spa started to scream louder. The two groups of students from Lapu-Lapu City — in full Philippine-color uniforms — danced and sang cheers. Drum beats revererated in the usually-quiet resort.
Tanakorn Srichaphan, the Thai captain, frowned. How can this be? Down 1-2, Danai was expected to level the score, 2-all. No, no, said Ruben. His resolve was as strong as his spinning forehand. Known as a doubles specialist, this was his moment to shout to all Pinoys, “Hey, I’m a star, too!.”
In Set 3, Danai — whose 5-foot-8 height and lean physique was much smaller than Ruben’s 6’1” muscular frame — was out-hit. Like a weakened boxer whose face is swollen and whose ribcage is half-broken, he was the same on-court.
On the opposite side of the net, Ruben’s confidence was sky-rocketing. He was slicing one-inch-above-the-net shots. With Jean Henri Lhuillier, the CEO of Cebuana Lhuillier, seated meters from the sideline, he wanted to prove to the man that he’s The Man.
He did, winning, 6-3. The crowd stood. We clapped a standing salute. Even our Southeast Asian neighbor-opponents applauded. Masterful. Complete. It was a knock-out of a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 win. Game over, Philippines. Thanks to our tennis-Pacman: Ruben Gonzales.
ALCANTARA. Despite a 3-1 win, the fifth match was still played.Francis Casey “Niño” Alcantara was asked to play. Hailing from Cagayan de Oro, I used to watch Niño when he was still 8 years old.
Last Sunday night, the Pepperdine University scholar was too good. Final score: 6-4, 4-6, 6-0.
At game’s end, all four players entered the court. They hurled Cebuana Lhuillier shirts to the crowd. Isn’t victory all-so-satisfying? After losing to Japan and Taiwan in 2011, we defeated Syria and Thailand this 2013. It’s not true, after all, that.. “Dimalas ang Davis Cup sa Cebu.”
Now sporting a 2-2 scorecard, will we see a fifth DC event against New Zealand in Marigondon? Yes! That’s our hope. Our Pinoy netters love Cebu. Days before the weekend, Ruben gorged on lechon! They love the beach setting of one of Asia’s best resorts. They love the Cebuano crowd. Let’s hope for a Cebu return.
PARTY. After the last match (at nearly 9 PM), I joined the two teams and the officials for the post-event party. Instead of pressure-packed tennis, it was the opposite: singing, drinking, eating, talking. Ruben and Treat did a duet song number, “I Want To Be A Billionaire.” Danai sang “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You.”
That’s the beauty of sport. You fight. You pump fists. You stare. You beat. You raise your arms. You make the sign of the cross. Then, after the shaking of hands, you render songs in a duet. That’s doubles!