Category Archives: Rafael Nadal

Sweet 16

I set the alarm at 4:30 a.m. yesterday but only got up an hour later. When I switched on to Fox Sports (channel 758 in SkyCable), Rafael Nadal was leading 6-3, 4-2. An hour later, dressed in black with pink Nike trimmings, the Spaniard had defeated Kevin Anderson.

Prior to the 2017 start, did you ever think that Rafa and Roger Federer would win all four Grand Slam singles titles? Before January, Roger was ranked No. 17 and Rafa was barely inside the Top 10. Both were over 30 years old and had not won a major in years. That was then. Now, they’ve alternated victories: Roger in Melbourne, Rafa in Paris, Roger in London, and Rafa in New York.

R & R own 35 majors. Comparing tennis with the same individual sport that also has four majors per year, golf has Jack Nicklaus with 18 majors and Tiger Woods at 14. That’s 32 for golf vs. 35 for tennis. But the big difference: Nicklaus is 77 years old while Tiger, who sat in Rafa’s box over the weekend to watch his fellow Nike endorser, is no longer going to win the big ones. Roger and Rafa, while aged 36 and 31, are getting better and will add to their harvest.

Speaking of harvest, Rafa pocketed $3.7 million for winning seven matches at the U.S. Open, the largest purse in tennis. Overall, including endorsements from Kia Motors, Richard Mille and Tommy Hilfiger, Rafa is estimated to have earned over $90 million.

(Photo: AP/Julio Cortez)

With his New York victory, you can say that Rafa is also lucky. Juan Martin del Potro dispatched of his biggest threat, Federer, and he never had to face an opponent who was ranked No. 24 or higher. Since the seedings were increased from 16 to 32 in 2002, this is the first time that a major winner did not face a top-20 seeded player. Also the first time for Rafa to win a Grand Slam trophy without facing Roger, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray or Stanislas Wawrinka.

The main cause for this less-difficult-to-win Slam for Rafa? One word: injuries. None of the Big 3 (Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka), winners of the four majors in 2016, joined the U.S. Open. Added to the list of non-participants were Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic.

Nadal took advantage of this lack of competition and, excluding two four-setters in the earlier rounds and his first set loss to Del Potro, he played near-flawless tennis.

Anderson, who himself came back from injury, praised the 16-major champion, saying, “I know we’re the same age but I feel like I’ve been watching you my whole life… You’re one of the toughest competitors in the game and one of the greatest ambassadors of our sport.”

I agree. I’ve been following tennis for over three decades now and there is no one with more fire and competitive spirit than Rafa. In my assessment, his 10 French Open crowns (the Paris major is the calendar’s toughest event) is one of the sporting world’s most incredible achievements.

Rafa and Roger, No. 1 and No. 2, will continue to battle for that year-end top spot until the season ends. As for 2018, how exciting can it get? Novak, Andy and the others are returning, well-rested. Plus, there’s Dominic Thiem and Sascha Zverev. And, having just given birth, Serena Williams will win the Australian Open in January.

  

Rafa

(Photo: Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

Dominance. That’s the one word to best describe the past two weeks of Rafael Nadal. It started at the Australian Open. Leading 3-1 in the fifth set against Roger Federer, he was at the brink of winning his 15th major. But the Swiss reeled off five straight games to steal the match. Still, that impressive showing from Rafa would continue. He won a 10th title at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. And now, this, “La Decima.” He has played 81 times at the French Open and won 79. How amazing is that record? On his first event as a 19-year-old in 2005, he won in Paris. He won four straight before losing to Robin Soderling. After that loss, he won another five straight before a defeat to Novak Djokovic in 2015. Will this be another five year streak? No less than past champion Gustavo Kuerten has declared: “Rafa could potentially win up to 15 times.” I agree. If you saw any of his seven matches the past 14 days, you’d nod your head in agreement.

Rafa lost only 35 games in seven matches. That’s an average of five games surrendered per match — and these are best-of-five setters. He now moves to world No. 2 and, given his tremendous start and because he has few points to defend in the year’s second half, there is a good chance that he’ll end the year at No.1.

Nadal this 2017 has been the best I’ve seen. He steps forward to strike that crosscourt backhand early. He serves wide or down the T with unpredictable variety. His forehand is so dangerous and offensive that even if he’s in a defensive position, he can hit an outright winner. He also has a new coach in the former Roland Garros winner Carlos Moya, who hails from the same island of Majorca. Best of all, Rafa is healthy. Last year, he had to quit in the third round because of a wrist injury. Today, the only injury inflicted is upon his opponents who have to run side to side and suffer in defeat.

My dad Bunny watched the Madrid Open last month and, watching up close, he noted what we know well: Rafa plays a physical game. Famous in Spain, he’s a bull-fighter; always charging, attacking and aggressive. On the tennis court, what differentiates Rafa is his spin: Unlike a Roger or Sampras who play with flatter shots (thus, less margin for error), the groundstrokes of Rafa clear the net high. They land deeper in the court and kick upon landing. The spin rate exceeds 4,000 rpm.

Humility. That’s the another astonishing word to describe Rafa. (Lucky for us tennis followers, it’s also a fitting word to describe Roger.) In a serious of post-match interviews, Rafa was never cocky or boastful; he credits his success to hard work and dedication. He’s the man who once said, “I think the tennis is only a game. You can lose. You can win. After that? In life, there are much more important things than tennis.”

Rafa now has 15 majors. Roger has 18. Come July 3, the winner of the year’s first two majors will meet in Wimbledon. This early on, I’m hoping for another final between the two. Roger is all-confident; so is the winner two days ago.

Rafa’s 10th crown isn’t the only major story in Paris. There’s also a player who turned 20 just a few days ago and had never won a WTA tournament before. Employing a very aggressive game, her average forehand shot is clocked at 76 mph — faster than Andy Murray’s 73 mph. She scores 50 or more winners per match and she’s the Roland Garros champion. Will write a story soon on Jelena Ostapenko.

  

Old is the new New

(Photo source: AP)

Roger Federer is 35. Every day for the past three decades, he’s been swinging at that yellow orb, sprinting for dropshots, smashing a towering lob, punishing his 187-lb. body. How is it possible that the Swiss is able to produce that crosscourt backhand winner or strut and glide like MJ on the hardcourt given his grandfather-like age?

It’s called experience. Age is the price of wisdom. Through the years, Federer has been able to pace himself well. He doesn’t play every Tuesday to Monday. He understands his body; he listens to the only God-given, flesh-and-bones machine that he operates, and he doesn’t overplay. Especially the last few years since he’s breached thirty, he chooses to vie only for the big trophies.

His fluid, relaxed and graceful game is to be credited. He glides like a Michael Martinez. Effortless. Smooth. If you were to train an 11-year-old the ABCs of T, look to nobody else but RF. In a 19-year pro career, he also rarely gets injured. And when he does, we know what happens. Last year, while helping his twin girls in the bathroom, he twisted his knee which resulted in him having to undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus. What did Roger do? He quit tennis for six months. Physically and mentally, he pressed pause. Normally, after such a long layoff, one’s comeback would be rusty. Not RF. At the Australian Open last January, he won Major #18.

That triumph over his tormentor Rafael Nadal, when he was down 1-3 in the fifth set of the final, was the clincher. That win boosted his conviction. Before that victory (when he had not won a Grand Slam title in 4.5 years), his biggest win was being named GQ’s Most Stylish Man for 2016. People said he was decrepit. Some called for his retirement so he could spend more time with this twin set of twins.

Feeling rejuvenated, he was a rabid dog unleashed. The elderly felt young and born again. He has since changed to a larger 97-inch-head Wilson racket. And his backhand! What used to be his only weakness has now transformed into an offensive slingshot. That Rafa-forehand-to-Roger’s-backhand combination used to be painful to watch. Now, it’s become a cannon. He serve-and-volleys, attacks the net, slices; he’s an artist weaving his craft on Nikes. And the Swiss is no longer afraid of the Spaniard. After the Oz Open, RF won Indian Wells, and now, in Miami, lifting a prize he hasn’t carried since 2006 when he defeated — with a sweet twist of irony here — his coach, Ivan Ljubicic. He’s at 19-1 this year and 7-0 against the Top 10.

“I’m moving up in the (rankings) and I just want to stay healthy,” Federer said. “When I’m healthy and feeling good, I can produce tennis like this… It would be great to be No. 1 again, but it’s a long way away.” 

Can RF, who last climbed the summit of Tennisdom in Nov. 2012, ascend to become No.1 again? In military lingo, I say: Roger that.

Roger the Brave

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 2.05.47 PM

(Credit: Rex Features)

Down 3-1 in the fifth after emerging from the dugout for a medical timeout and with Rafael Nadal looping that high-bouncing topspin, who’d have predicted that Roger Federer would break Rafa’s serve twice, slam that backhand crosscourt for winners and win five straight games to hoist No. 18?

“I told myself to play free,” Roger said. “Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded here.”

Roger the Brave. Standing inside the baseline and not waiting for Rafa’s spin-loaded shots to bounce roof high, Roger pounced for half-volley unreturnables, scoring 73 winners to Rafa’s 35 and pounding 20 aces to Nadal’s four.

“He put a lot of balls in, and taking a lot of risks,” Rafa said. “And taking the ball very early, playing very fast.”

The first four sets were unexciting. Like appetizers to the entree or prelimaries to the main bout, they were designed to whet our appetite for what would be one of the most thrilling endings in tennis history.

In the final set of the whole Oz Open, Roger had plenty of chances early but failed. “I could have left disappointed there and accepted that fact,” Roger said. “I kept on fighting. I kept on believing, like I did all match long today, that there was a possibility that I could win this.”

Positive. Hungry. Inspired. At the brink of losing a painful one to his nemesis, Roger found a way. As Rafa emerged from the 4th set all-confident, the Spaniard looked destined for another one of those endings we’ve seen before. “Oh, no, not again!” we all screamed. But Roger, like the Roger of 10 years past, or even better, found a way.

Rafa did not lose. Roger won.

Never mind his high-risk brand of tennis where his flat balls would clear the net by an inch, he went for it. “Bahala na,” if we were to say it. If I lose, I’ll lose dying, bloodied, red like my Swiss flag. But if I win…

And win he did. For RF fans, the script couldn’t have been written any better. Against Nadal. Down in the 5th. Not winning a Grand Slam since 2012. Six months out injured. Aged 35, same as the ladies’ winner. Rod Laver presenting the trophy inside his home. Lights out, spotlights blazing, Mirka smiling. An 18th major, tying him with golf’s Jack Nicklaus.

“I would have said a great event would be quarters,” Roger said. “Fourth round would be nice.”

God is good. God is good to those who are good. Last Sunday night, Roger was too good.

Maestro or Matador? We, the tennis fans, win

Screen Shot 2017-01-29 at 9.37.19 AM

Few rivalries in sport can rival the one of Federer-Nadal. Swiss vs. Spaniard. Single-handed backhand utilizing the right arm against a two-fisted lefty. GQ’s “Most Stylish Man of 2016” vs. the underwear model of Tommy Hilfiger. Wimbledon grass maestro vs. French Open clay-courter.

But as contrasting as their playing styles are, you cannot find two future Hall of Famers (with a combined 31 majors) who are more humble, genuine and courteous — the perfect role models off and on the court in this era of trash-talking Trump and Duterte. (Or Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor.)

Who will win tonight? Ha-ha. It’s like asking me if I prefer biking or running, or tennis over a steak dinner. Crazy comparison, I know, but that’s the offering in tonight’s menu.

Tennis is like boxing. It’s mano-a-mano. But what makes a five-hour marathon played inside that rectangle even more challenging is this: you’re alone. Split in between by a 3-foot-tall net while swatting that bouncing yellow ball, there’s nothing else that will separate Roger and Rafa.

Nobody expected this. Not even these two legends who’ll trade 19-shot blows, slice drop volleys, and pump fists while respectfully staring the other. Tonight, blood in the form of sweat will flood Rod Laver Arena. Passing shots will wow the Aussies as 205-kph aces will fly; Roger fans will paint their faces red while Rafa’s followers will hoist bandera Española.

In this era of boring backhands by Murray and Djokovic, an endless pingpong of counterpunches, who’d have expected the 17th and 9th seeds to meet? Destiny.

For Roger, expect him to cry if he wins No. 18; nobody is more gifted than RF (even his baby-making skills are incomparable: he has two sets of twins, girls then boys, with wife Mirka).

For Rafa, tired after a five-hour slugfest with Dimitrov and unfairly given only 39 hours of rest compared to Fed’s three days, it’s all about his heart. No one gives 1,001 percent, screams louder, punishes his body more than the Mallorcan. Roger fans hate Rafa but they honor his doggedness and grit. But as ferocious and Spanish bullfighter-like as he is, Rafa is polite and gracious.

In defeat or in triumph, he and Roger exhibit this outstanding humility — not just as athletes but as human beings. Consider ourselves blessed. This is it. I’m doubtful if this boxing slugfest — their 35th fight — will ever happen again. Go, Roger! Vamos!

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.

What’s wrong with Rafa?

images

This is the problem when you’re No. 1. When you’ve won 90 percent of your clay-court matches. When you’ve triumphed in every French Open, except one, from 2005 to 2013. This is the problem when you’re Rafael Nadal. His middle initial is P. That stands for Perfect. (It’s actually “Parera.”) You can’t make a mistake. You. Can’t. Lose. A. Single. Match. Because while your socks get brown-colored-dirty, when you’re Rafa you’re supposed to be without blemish. You are Spain’s Superman.

Rafa has been invincible. At the Barcelona Open, he won eight titles. Same in Monte Carlo, eight trophies. In Rome, it’s seven championships. These are records that even Bjorn Borg couldn’t achieve; even Thomas Muster couldn’t muster. I’m unaware of any other athlete who’s been as dominant as Rafa has been on clay.

But remember the cliche, “All good things come to an end?” Is this the End of Rafa? No, he’s not retiring after the French Open ends on June 8. But is he having difficulty dominating like before? Absolutely. This 2014 has been his most challenging year since he burst into the scene as a 19-year-old to win the French Open.

He turns 28 this June 3. “At this age, (Bjorn) Borg was doing other things,” Rafa said last week. “It’s not possible to win for 10 years with easy scores and easy matches.”

Three weeks ago, Rafa lost to Nicholas Almagro. The week before, he succumbed to the topspin of David Ferrer in Monte Carlo. Last January, when he was expected to romp to his 14th Grand Slam title, he melted like Swiss cheese to Stan Wawrinka. Despite an ATP-leading 34 wins on the tour this year, he’s already lost six times. Not bad. But not Rafa-good.

In his titanic rivalry against Novak Djokovic, they seem to have these see-saw moments when one sweeps through several victories before losing a quartet of matches. Thus far, Nadal has lost his last four encounters with Djokovic. In the game of the mind, this is bad for Rafa. And so was this statistic in their final yesterday: Nadal had 15 winners/27 unforced errors while Djokovic had 46 winners/30 unforced errors.

images-1(Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Which brings us to Roland Garros, the official name of the French Open. It starts this Sunday and will run for two weeks. It’s one of tennis’ four majors and it’s the only one played on clay.

What’s clay? It’s like the surface of most of our courts here — Baseline, Alta Vista, Cebu Country Club. Among the various surfaces (hard-courts, grass in Wimbledon, indoor carpet), it’s the slowest. Why? Because when the ball touches the ground, it doesn’t skim on a slippery surface like cement; on clay, the ball settles and plunges, often taking some soil to intertwine with the fluffy yellow ball.

I’ve been inside Roland Garros. This was in 2001. With the family of Jack Mendez, my beloved father-in-law, we opened the gates that September and roamed the site where Rene Lacoste was victorious three times. I touched the clay in Paris. It’s thick and red — slower than our “anapog” courts here. (Next week to commemorate the Paris major, I’d love to play in the CitiGreen indoor courts in Punta Princesa, Cebu — they’re red clay!)

Back to Mr. Nadal, is he most vulnerable this year? Yes. The only clay-court event that he won prior to Paris was in Madrid. And he should have lost that. Trailing Kei Nishikori in the final, it was only after the Japanese got injured that the Spaniard surged.

Also, if you recall their semi-final meeting last year, Djokovic led Nadal, 4-1, in the fifth set before that infamous net-touching incident by Novak. The Serb ended up losing to the Spaniard, 9-7, in the fifth.

Next week? Wow. They can only meet in the final and it will be a colossal finale if the world’s top two face-off.

Still, Rafa is Rafa. He’s won 59 of 60 matches in Roland Garros, translating to a 98.3 winning percentage. He’s the King of France from Spain. The memories, the triumphs, the surroundings, the roaring French cheers, the green backdrop with the “BNP” initials — all these will energize the lefty. Vamos.

The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2014 - Day Six(Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

London calling! It’s Nadal v. Djokovic for No. 1

images

If you follow the ATP Tour of men’s tennis, then you’ll know that this week is important. The venue is England. The players number only eight. It’s the season-ending finale called the ATP World Tour Finals. Many refer to this as the “fifth Grand Slam of tennis” that’s played indoors. It’s being held at the 02 Arena in London — one of the world’s busiest where concerts rock audiences and sporting events thrill spectators.

By-invitation-only, the world’s top eight are joining. Minus hometown boy Andy Murray, who’s recovering from back surgery, the likes of Wawrinka, Gasquet, Ferrer and Berdych join the popular names of Del Potro, Federer, Djokovic and Nadal.

Instead of a knock-out format like in all others (you lose one and you’re out), this week it’s round-robin play. Two groups of four are divided; the top two of each bracket advance to the semifinals.

One million six hundred thousand dollars awaits the undefeated champion. And, for the non-winners, even if you lose every single match, you’re still richer, just by showing up, by $120,000. Not bad.

The sub-plot of this mega-event is the battle for the title, “2013 World Tennis Champion.” Will it be Rafa or Novak? Last night at 10 p.m. (Phil. time), Rafa played Stan Wawrinka. If the Spaniard won, he would have clinched the year-end No. 1 spot. If he lost, Novak still has a chance.

images-1For Roger Federer fans, it’s not game-over yet for the 32-year-old Dubai resident. Though he’s amassed nearly $80 million in prize money and owns most of tennis’ records (17 slams and 302 weeks as No. 1), he’s only been victorious in one tournament this entire 2013 (Halle, on grass, in June). This is embarrassing for The Great One who’s garnered 77 total tournament career wins. Can he win one more Grand Slam title? I’m unsure. His best prospect is Wimbledon, where he’s won seven, but basing on his result this year (he crashed out in the second round), it doesn’t look good for RF.

What’s working for Federer is his good health. Unlike the injury-plagued (and five years younger) Nadal, the Swiss has hardly ever been injured. He stretches. He doesn’t grunt and grind and exert as much physically as Rafa. And as long as the cute twin girls, Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, don’t pester their dad too much, Roger is expected to play for three or more Novembers.

With Nadal, what a comeback year. Out for seven months under rehabilitation, his rejuvenated and second-hand/good-as-new body wins 10 tournaments this 2013, including the French Open (which he forever owns) and the U.S. Open. Can he add the only missing piece in his storied life story, the ATP World Tour Finals, which he’s never won before?

406068Xisca Perello with Rafa

“Last year was a big miss for me,” Nadal said. “Even if I was not able to play my best a lot of times here, I really have great feelings every time I have the chance to play in this stadium.”

Will he emerge as champion this Sunday? We’ll see. But the way Djokovic has been playing of late — winning Beijing, Shanghai and Paris; 18 undefeated matches so far — I’m rooting for (though I’ve never been a huge fan of) the Serb.

On the topic of indoor tennis, I like it. If you watched the Paris Indoors last week, you’ll see the difference. Lights are dimmed. Loud music pumps the hearts of the fans. Smoke machines fumigate harmless excitement. Laser lights dance as the players prance. Unlike the sunny/sweaty drip of the outdoors, indoor tennis is cool, concert-like, captivating.

urlSpeaking of ticket prices, I checked the website and they range from P1,600 to P4,800. In the finals, it shoots up to P7,000 — but they’re sold out. That’s in London.

To us here in Cebu, the best thing is called HD TV. That’s High Definition. If you’re subsribed to it (mine’s on SkyCable; channel 702), then I need not explain further. As the saying goes, “It’s best seen, not explained.” If you love sports and can spend a little bit more on home entertainment, go HD.

Can David beat Goliath in Paris?

It’s David vs. Goliath in today’s Men’s Final of the French Open.

David Ferrer, in his first-ever Grand Slam final, will be facing a fellow Spaniard who’s called the King of Paris. Rafael Nadal, since he started playing in Roland Garros, has amassed a record that screams, “That’s Impossible!”

Nadal has played 59 times on the red clay of the French Open and has a 58-1 record. ‘Unbelievable’ is an understatement. He’s won seven titles there (apart from similar crazy-to-believe records/titles: eight of nine in Barcelona, seven of nine in Rome and eight of 10 in Monte Carlo).

Sorry to all fans of the underdogs: this dogged retriever named David (Ferrer) won’t beat Nadal tonight in the final. (Head to head, Nadal has won 19 and lost only 4 to Ferrer.)

The semi-finals between Nadal and Novak Djokovic? Wow! From 7 P.M. until 12 midnight last Friday (PHL time), I hope you stayed home to watch it. (I’m in Bacolod and, despite the cravings of all the good eateries here, we sprinted back to watch it from our Sugarland Hotel room.)

To those of us who saw the game, it was one of the best ever matches our eyes have witnessed. It had everything. A 7-time champion versus a contender who had never before won the Grand Slam of France. It was Spain vs. Serbia. It was lefty against right-hander. It was between a bandana-wearing Nike endorser versus a white-cap-wearing of Uniqlo.

NadalDjokovic146156426-676x450

(Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

For a set and a half, Nadal was unstoppable. He won the first set, 6-4, and led the second, up a break, 3-2. That’s when Djokovic — one of the most resilient fighters in sports today — would not give Nadal a straight-sets victory. He won the next four games to snatch the second set, 6-3. It was one-set apiece.

The third set was puzzling. After gaining the momentum with his 2nd set win, Novak collapsed. His body did. He was so tired that he committed error after easy error. For the fittest tennis player on earth, I couldn’t understand why he had gotten so tired. He almost lost 6-0 but salvaged a game to lose the third set, 6-1.
In the fourth set, everybody who watched thought the match was over. With Djokovic tired and Nadal still bouncing and sprinting and repeatedly scratching his behind, it would be a straightforward 4-set win for Spain. But, no; ever the combatant, Novak wouldn’t yield the fight. He wanted war.

At 5-all in the fourth set, Nadal broke Djokovic’s serve to lead 6-5. At that point, Balls TV started to show what was coming next: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer. They devoted footages on the two (next to play) semi-finalists. It was only a question of a few minutes left before they would be next.

But, wait. I’m the world No.1, Novak screamed. I won’t yield. Not yet! Despite a 30-15 lead, Nadal was broken. The match was 6-all and a tiebreaker ensued. Nadal lost.

This heightened the drama. Another epic, titanic, here-we-go-to-another-four-hour-long drama was unfolding. To Nadal fans, ouch! What another wasted moment. Was this to be another Australian Open heart-breaker, when Nadal was sure to win — only for Novak to win in five hours, 53 minutes?

And Djokovic — previously looking pale — he was back to life. He had his second, third, fourth wind. He was going for the win.

In the fifth set’s first game, Nadal lost. Djokovic moved ahead to 2-0. Oh no, Nadal fans — like Bobby Lozada and Ernie Delco — would cringe. Novak led, 3-1. Despite trying so hard, Rafa couldn’t break the serve. It moved on to 4-2, Novak leading in the fifth set, with only two more service games to go.

That’s when Rafa leveled the match and it continued on and on.. Serving first, Rafa had an advantage. He led, 5-4. Then, 6-5. Next, 7-6. At 8-7, that’s when Novak’s tired body — and Nadal’s winners — resurfaced.

Finally, after 4 hours and 37 minutes, Rafa won. The funny part is, that wasn’t it. That wasn’t the final yet. But, Rafa fans, don’t worry. The coronation was only delayed by 48 hours. Later tonight, the crowning of the trophy will transpire. A Spaniard from Mallorca will slay David and be crowned the King of France.

photo_1370106593101-1-0

Rafa, injured again? Roger on that!

He is a graceful ice skater wearing tennis shoes and wielding a racket. He glides. He floats. He’s effortless and exquisite — hovering and dancing on court.

Twice, I had the chance to watch Roger Federer play. The first, in Kuala Lumpur, was an exhibition contest against Pete Sampras. That weekend in KL with our Cebu contingent (Chinggay Utzurrum, Michelle So, my brother Charlie and his wife Mitzi, Rene Ven Polinar, Dr. Ronnie Medalle and his wife Steph) was extra memorable because I joined a by-invitation-only gathering with Roger and Pete. (In the quick photo-op, I shook hands and had a photo with Pete — it should have been with the Swiss!)

Then, in Beijing four years ago, Jasmin and I watched several of Roger’s forehands. One was at ringside when he dismissed of Dmitry Tursunov as LeBron James sat in attendance. Another was his Olympic gold medal doubles win.

My observations of the 17-Grand Slam winner? RF makes tennis look so easy. And tennis isn’t child’s play. There’s topspin, underspin, sidespin and the American twist. There’s a delicate drop volley, a flying overhead smash, an inside-out forehand.

Roger is so gifted that, if God were to create just one magical netter, he’d be the 31-year-old Basel-born father of twins who just won Cincinnati trophy No. 5.

Of all the success stories surrounding Roger, you know what I find most phenomenal? That he’s hardly gotten injured.

Tennis is an injury-prone game. It’s not physical like football or basketball and there’s no wrestling like the UFC. But, you’re all alone in tennis. You sprint miles, zigzag, swing, jump, slide. Your wrist can snap, knee can twist, ankle can roll. (Dr. Tony San Juan operated on my shoulder over a year ago.)

Roger, who has amassed 76 career titles and won 862 of his 1055 matches (an 81 % winning clip), has almost never gotten injured. Can you believe that?

In contrast, Rafael Nadal is suffering the opposite. Five years younger, Nadal’s succumbed to multiple injuries.

His current trauma — Hoffa’s Syndrome or the Fat Pad Impingement — is a knee-related injury that can be extremely painful. Because of this, Nadal did not defend his Olympic gold and he’ll skip the US Open, which begins this Monday. Painful? Yes, figuratively and literally.

Why this sad Rafa predicament while Roger doesn’t miss a single day at the office? I also watched Nadal in person twice and, while sitting on my chair, I was exhausted watching his type of physical, brutal and merciless play.

“Rog is uncomplicated and smooth while Raf is laborious and excruciating,” I wrote in an article last Sept. 2009. “The former results to less injuries; the latter, well, eight weeks off the Tour… With Rafa, you can see the muscles flexing; he’d jump, scramble, sprint, flick his wrist like it would snap. He’s too physical—and too likely to get injured. Roger is a ballerina on rubber shoes. He doesn’t run, he skates. Glides. He hovers. Waltzing around the tennis rectangle, he skims. Sails. He tiptoes. The result? His body’s not battered.”

Longevity? We know the winner.

CONGRATS. The past weekend was a triumphant one for us. It was my brother Charlie’s birthday. My mom, Allen, climbed three bridges (or was it four because you traverse up Cansaga Bridge twice?) in the 7th University Run and finished the grueling 25K with her trademark smile.

Plus… the day that I awaited finally arrived: my 13-year-old daughter Jana beat me in tennis. The score? She won the first set, 7-6. In the second, she led 5-1 before I won the next five games to win 7-5. In the third set, she raced to another 5-1 lead before I clawed back to 5-4. Then, with a handful of match points, she served a “down-the-T” ace to beat her dad, 6-4.

Yesterday was the most satisfying loss I’ve ever had.

King of Clay beats the King of Tennis

I’ve never been to Monte Carlo. But my wife Jasmin and her whole Mendez family did, back in 1993. Says Jasmin: “Monaco is one of the most picturesque locations in the world. You’re standing up on a hill, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, gazing at multi-million dollar yachts and Lamborghinis. It’s Europe’s rich-and-famous playground.”

One man who calls Monte Carlo his playground stands 6-foot-1, weighs 188 lbs. and is tennis’ version of The Gladiator: Rafael Nadal.

Isn’t he the world’s happiest person today? He is. After losing to Novak Djokovic the last seven times, all finals, he won last Sunday on the red clay of Monte Carlo, 6-3, 6-1. Vamos, Rafa!

“Nobody beats Rafa eight times in a row!” as if he was to scream to the world. Now, Frank Malilong, the lefty lawyer, can exhale a huge sigh of relief. His idol won. Same with Manny Sainz, Bob Lozada, Noy and Amale Jopson, Fabby Borromeo, Ernie Delco and millions of other Rafa-natics!

“Monte Carlo is the most beautiful Masters 1000 tournament for me,” Nadal said. “To start the clay-court season winning here is an amazing feeling. To beat Novak in a final after losing a few is an important result for me. It was important to break this series and to do it here – it’s perfect.”

Rafa’s eighth victory in one event is not only amazing—it’s outrageous. It’s not fantastic; it’s irrational. Monte Carlo is a Masters 1000 tournament—one of Earth’s biggest in tennis. Starting 2005, he’s won every single match.

“To have eight victories, you must be lucky, you have to have no injuries, perfect conditions for eight years in a row. That’s the first thing,” said Nadal. “And you have to be playing almost perfect to win eight titles in a row, especially in a Masters. The best in the world always play – you have to win against the best.”

In all these eight years—take a deep breath on this ludicrous statistic—Nadal has lost only six sets. He lost zero sets this 2012. And won $603,000 to increase his career total to $48 million. No, our ‘Man… Pac is still richer, but $48M translates to over P2 billion pesos. Wow. And this excludes Nike’s dollar payments.

On the significance of last weekend, Peter Bodo, my favorite tennis scribe, wrote this: “This is also a record 20th Masters title for Nadal, and perhaps most significantly if not most glamorously, his first tournament win of any kind in 10 months—since he won the French Open in early June last year…

“This overwhelming win may has enabled Nadal to hit that reset button for which he’s been groping for so long now, going all the way back nearly a full year to Madrid, where Djokovic pulled a nasty surprise on the then-No. 1. He pummeled him on clay, a feat that by then many had consigned to the realm of the impossible.”

More? Here’s one more: April is Rafa’s lucky month. On this month, he’s won 72 straight matches on clay. King of Clay? Yes. But, also: King of April.

Still, the King of Tennis isn’t him. It’s still the Serbian 6-foot-2 (Novak) who leads the world rankings with 13,270 points. Rafa only has 9,715 while R. Federer trails with 8,880. At No. 4, A. Murray lurks with 7,860.

I’ve had the chance, twice, to watch Mr. Nadal in person. The first was in 2007 when, together with Dr. Ronald Anthony Medalle and his beauteous wife Stephanie, I sat with Jasmin inside the Malawati Stadium in Kualu Lumpur, Malaysia. Rafa played an exhibition match against Richard Gasquet. That was a most memorable trip (two days after, it was Sampras-Federer) that included a bus ride from KL to Singapore.

Jasmin and I again saw Rafa during the Olympics. We witnessed him fall to the Beijing floor after championship point to claim an Olympic gold medal.

Why is this fierce, Gladiator-like warrior so likable? Because he’s both: humble and soft-spoken with the killer instincts of a Navy Seal. As buotan as he is during interviews and off-court, he has the complete opposite, I-will-do-everything-to-beat-you attitude when he’s inside that tennis rectangle. I can’t wait for May 17, the French Open.

7 points on Novak’s 7th straight win over Rafa

(Getty Images)

I hope you watched the ultra-marathon tennis battle last Sunday night. Seven minutes short of six hours, Novak Djokovic won for the seventh consecutive time against Rafael Nadal. “7th time unlucky?” I asked two days ago. What a premonition. What a Gladiator-like battle. Here are seven points….

1) AGGRESSOR WINS. One of my dad Bunny’s favorite lines is this: “Play to win and don’t play not to lose.” True. For most of the match, Rafa was too defensive. He’d stay five meters off the baseline. He counterpunched. His shots landed short, midcourt. Novak would pound on them and run Rafa left to right like his dog from Serbia. To win, Rafa has to stay closer to the baseline and take risks. This is his only option against Novak. In sports—like in business—those who take risks, win. The bigger the risk, the larger the reward. Novak is the master risk-taker.

2) TRIVALRY. I’m talking about Novak-Rafa-Roger. Here are interesting stats: Between Rafa and Roger, it’s the Spaniard who dominates. Their record is 18-9 (8-2 in majors). It’s lopsided. But, between Rafa and Novak, it’s the opposite. Excluding their earlier contests, it’s been 7-0 since last year. So, Roger loses to Rafa who loses to Novak. (We’ll include Murray in the picture once Lendl aids him in winning a GS title.) Why does Rafa dominate Roger while being dominated by Novak? Here’s why: Roger’s single-handed backhand is his weakness. Rafa pounds on that side. But against Novak? His two-fisted backhand is, like Agassi’s, the best. Novak drills it crosscourt; he smothers it down-the-line. Novak’s forehand is even deadlier. Either wing, Rafa suffers.

3) EMOTIONS. This is what makes tennis so enjoyable to watch. It’s one on one. Unlike football or basketball when the focus is on 10 or 22 players, with tennis, it’s just two. And what facial expressions they display. Rafa winces. Rafa pumps his fists seven times after winning Set 4. Novak falls to the ground. Novak’s eyes turn smaller, a sure sign of extreme fatigue. Their personalities and feelings are in full display. No other sport shows mannerisms (“kuot sa lubot”) and expressions (Novak’s sign of the cross) like tennis.

4) MENTAL. Sport is physical yet it’s won by the mind. The toughest of all competitors, Nadal, was en route to winning his 11th Grand Slam title. He led 4-2 in the fifth set and had an easy backhand down-the-line. He missed. He missed the chance the avenge Novak. What guts the Serbian has. He limped. He collapsed. His knees wobbled. A jab by Jun Intor would have KO’ed him. But, no. Djokovic’s mind would not allow his body to collapse. What courage. To defeat Nadal mentally is Novak’s greatest strength.

5) MEN’S RIGHTS. We’ve all heard of Women’s Rights. I’m making up a new term. You see, the prize money of the champions of both sexes are the same. The winner each gets 2.3 million Australian dollars. In pesos, that’s P105,000,000. But here’s the interesting part. While the men’s final took 5 hours and 53 minutes, the women only took 82 minutes. This means that Novak was paid P297,450 per minute while Azarenka was paid a whopping P1.28 million per minute on court!

6) DAVIS CUP. Remember our two Davis Cup hostings last year at Lapu-Lapu City? In the first one last March 2011, it was the Phils. vs. Japan. The head of the ITF delegation who arrived to preside over the ‘Battle of Mactan?’ His name is Wayne McEwen. Well, this guy is Graeme Mackinnon’s country-mate and he was one of the top officials running the Australian Open. It was Councilor Harry Radaza, in a text message last Sunday, who informed me that McEwen was in center-stage. True enough, in the Awarding Ceremony, McEwen stood alongside Nadal/Djokovic. Nice guy, this Wayne, when we spent some time with him here in Cebu.

7) HIGH-DEFINITION. I’m talking about cable TV. I watched from the room of Charlie, my brother, and he subscribed to SkyCable’s HD channels. What a sight! On Channel 136 (ESPN HD), it’s as if you’re right there in the Rod Laver Arena.

Rafa vs. Novak: 7th time unlucky?

The Swiss lost to the Spaniard who’ll face the Serb who defeated the Scot. Confusing? That’s the “4S” (iPhone 4S, if you were to ask my daughter Jana) who comprised the men’s semifinalists of the Australian Open.

The Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, bested his lifelong nemesis, the Swiss maestro, Roger Federer. In tonight’s final, he’ll face the Serb, Novak Djokovic. Those three form a “Trivalry.” The man Novak defeated in the semis? The Scot, Andy Murray, who almost won the nearly-five-hour-long contest last Friday.

What happened to R & R? Rafa mentally beats Roger. The analysis is as simple as that. It’s like a Pacquiao facing a Mexican; an Anderson Silva encounter; a Tiger Woods leading on Sunday. Deep down inside, these guys know they’ll win.

It’s the same with Rafa. When he meets eyeball to eyeball with Roger, his confidence level is immeasurable. I’m reading his autobiography, “Rafa,” and—like the book as on TV—there are few athletes EVER who are as dogged and relentless and tenacious as Rafa. The only chance Roger has? When it’s a best-of-three match. In a prolonged five sets setting, Nadal will break you down.

Murray v. Djokovic? That wasn’t tennis; it was an ultramarathon. Sayang. I had wished for Andy to win his first Grand Slam title this month. Instead, he’s become a perennial groomsman. Always at the altar of victory, only to watch the other claim the trophy/bride.

The world No.1? Steve Tignor, one of my favorite writers, said in the other day’s “Some Pain, Some Gain,” column:

“As for Murray’s opponent, can we start calling Novak Djokovic the Benjamin Button of tennis? He starts matches as if he’s just finished playing five hard sets. He breathes deeply on the first changeover. He shuffles off court in the middle of the second set and sits down in an open-mouthed daze, as if he might not be able to answer the bell. Come the three-hour mark, though, the man suddenly has some spring in his step—he’s rounding into shape. After four hours, he’s sliding and grunting at full stretch, flipping up a perfect defensive lob, and then tearing toward the net to smack a forehand winner to break serve. He might as well be starting the match right then and there.”

He reminds me of Lance Armstrong. While climbing the torturous Pyrenees or Alps during the Tour de France, the American would often look depleted. But, it was just “acting.” When overconfidence would creep in, he’d unleash a pedal of fury that would spray dust on the face of Jan Ullrich.

In describing the Novak-Andy epic, Jon Wertheim of SI.com explains: “This was less a tennis match than an endurance contest on opposite sides of a net, two supremely fit athletes depleting their reserves of energy — and then somehow surging and re-surging. Like Mr. T. in Rocky III, before the match, Murray’s coach, Ivan Lendl, offered a one-word prediction for the evening: pain. He got that right. After so many 40-ball rallies, so much scrambling and bending and locomoting, both players became the embodiments of attrition.”

The question is: Can Novak recover, with one day’s rest compared to 48 hours for Rafa, to be 100 percent ready for today’s grand finale?

“I will try to get as much sleep and recovery program underway and hope for the best,” said Djokovic. “I think that’s going to be crucial for me to recover and to be able to perform my best, because Rafa is fit. He’s been playing well. He had an extra day. He definitely wants to win this title.”

True. Not only does Rafa want his 11th major title—he wants to defeat the man who embarrassed him six times last year. Rafa lost to Novak six times in 2011—all in finals; twice on Rafa’s “I’m-supposed-to-be-unbeatable” surface of clay; once in Wimbledon and another at the US Open.

We know who the crowd will cheer for tonight. RAFA! chants will reverberate around Melbourne. Nothing against the equally-nice-guy Novak, but Rafa’s just a super humble and likeable fellow. Plus, that unyielding and Spanish-bullheaded perseverance.

Watch the Australian Open final this 4:30 P.M. on Star Sports/ESPN.

Fantastic Four clash at the Australian Open

The last time Mr. Federer met Mr. Nadal in Melbourne was in 2009. “God, it’s killing me,” Federer said after losing 9-7 in the fifth set Final, tears of pain rolling down his chiseled cheeks.

Tonight, R & R square off again. Few rivalries, of any game or form of entertainment, have rivaled the one between the Spaniard and the Swiss. Tonight, I think Roger will win. Much as the record speaks otherwise (it’s 17-9, in favor of Nadal), the Federer Express has been in full-throttle, steamrolling past del Potro (4, 3 and 2) and everybody else who faces him across the Australian net.

The Melbourne courts are fast, speedier than the red-clay favored by Nadal. This quick-bounce court will be an ace for Roger’s 133-mph pinpoint serves.

But this is the intriguing part of the R & R combat. Mentally, it seems as if Rafa owns Roger. Rafa’s forehand to Roger’s backhand—that’s one of the worst one-two punches that overwhelms Roger. Also, if Roger loses, that means Rafa has won twice as many matches, head-to-head (18 vs. 9). How can RF lay claim to the “I’m The Greatest” sovereignty title when Rafa clobbers him?

Still, that’s all history. Tonight will be historic. Roger in 4.

But, wait. Lest we think that tonight’s the finale, it’s only half of it. The main Gladiator-like ending is still this Sunday. Looming at the opposite end?

Djokovic or Murray. Among these Fantastic Four characters, Roger has won 16 majors, Rafa owns 10 and Novak has four, including three from 2011. Andy The Scot? He has none. Luoya sad uy. That’s why I’m cheering for him. (He beat Japanese No. 1 Kei Nishikori, who was supposed to come to Cebu in last year’s Davis Cup tie.) And, though a boring and lifeless counterpuncher, I hope by week’s end Murray will dye his hair red and wear a tattoo, “The 2012 Wizard of Oz.”

Among the women, who doesn’t like Maria Sharapova? I know Michael Jerome Limpag LOVES her. Here’s looking ahead to a Kim Clijsters vs. Maria final on Saturday.

No joke, 2011 is the ‘Year of the Djoker’

If you follow men’s tennis, you usually belong to either of two factions: Team Federer or Camp Nadal. Well, not this 2011. This year was solely dominated by Novak Djokovic.

He won 92 percent of all matches played (70 of 76). He earned a record-breaking $12.6 million in prize money. Out of the four Grand Slam trophies, he lifted three: Wimbledon and the Opens in America and Australia. In the first half of 2011, he was unbeaten in 43 consecutive matches.

And, in the best statistic that I researched, against Rafa and Roger, he was 10-1. Against the Spaniard, he won six of six. Of R & R, Djokovic said: “They have been the two most dominant players in the world the last five years. They have won most of the majors we are playing. So sometimes it did feel a little bit frustrating when you kind of get to the latter stages of a Grand Slam. They always come up with their best tennis when it matters the most.”

What change paved the way for the 24-year-old Novak to annihilate his two rivals and emerge as No.1? His mind.

“It’s a process of learning, a process of developing and improving as a tennis player and just finding the way to mentally overcome those pressures you have,” he said. “I always believed that I had the quality to beat those two guys.”

Novak is scary because he has no fear of the top players. In the most memorable shot of the season, he was down two match points to Roger Federer at the U.S. Open and, instead of playing if safe, he drilled one forehand return-of-serve for a smashing winner. He beat the Swiss. He beat the Spaniard. He won New York.

“I had an unbelievable year,” said Novak. “Nothing can really ruin that. I will always remember this year as the best of my life.”

As to the question whether he can repeat one of the greatest years in tennis history, he says: “This year’s success gives me a reason to believe that I can win again. Why not? I think it doesn’t make any sense to be anything other than optimistic. I need to believe in my qualities and my abilities and I need to believe that I can repeat the success.” That’s the mentality of a champ.

The experts, what do they say? Bruce Jenkins of Sports Illustrated: “I can’t see him repeating such a surreal winning percentage, but it’s entirely possible that he could win three majors again.

Jon Wortheim, my favorite tennis writer, comments: “Barring injury, which, granted is no small conditional — there’s little to suggest he can’t sustain this level of excellence. His game translates to all surfaces. If one component of his game fails him, he has plenty of other weapons at his disposal. His fitness, once so shaky, has, with great abruptness, become an asset. He’s younger than the players who pose the biggest threat and, right now anyway, he is swelling with confidence.”

ANDY. Looking ahead to 2012, I’d like to see Andy Murray finally win a major. A Grand Slam runner-up three times, it’s hard to see him not winning that major trophy. The perfect place for him to triumph? Wimbledon. Then, months after, with the Olympics still to be played at Wimbledon, he repeats as the Olympic gold medalist. If his fellow Scot Rory McIlroy can do it for golf, why can’t he follow with tennis?

RAFA? While losing six of six to Novak (all in the finals, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) were painful, the medicine that erased the hurt was winning the Davis Cup for Spain a few weeks back.

ROGER. Already 30 years old, he had the best finish this year, winning three straight indoor events, including a 6-3, 6-0 embarrassment of Rafa in London. Not bad for the daddy of twins Myla Rose and Charlene Riva.

Novak’s ‘Independence Day’ from R + R

(Toby Melville/Reuters)

HONG KONG—The headline news here yesterday, in The Standard’s back sports page, proclaims it clear and loud: “DJOKOVIC REIGNS.” In an all-green Wimbledon backdrop photo, Novak Djokovic thumps his right fist on his left chest, opening his mouth to a scream, clasping his Head racquet with the other hand, as if to shout, “I AM NUMBER ONE!”

Novak “The Djoker,” is, no joke, the world’s best. In a span of 72 hours, he clinched the No. 1 world ranking and, two nights ago in London, his first ever All-England Club trophy.

“It’s the best day of my life,” said Novak. To win undefeated in seven matches spanning two weeks in the oldest and most exalted of all the tennis tournaments, it ought to be the best. Wimbledon is the best. Novak is the best.

Djokovic did it by dismantling and mutilating the usually-unconquerable Rafael Nadal. In the first two sets, which Novak won, 6-4, 6-1, his game was as polished as Jason Terry’s three-pointers. Novak hardly missed. He retrieved unretrievable shots. He drop-volleyed. He was, as sports writers would term it, “in the zone.” His game flowed. He was inspired. And, buoyed by the new No. 1 ranking, mentally, he could not be defeated.

He was not. Except the third set. He had a momentary lapse of focus. And, when the Spaniard won that stretch, 6-1, weren’t the members of the “Rafa We Love You Forever Fans Club” relieved? They must have thought… if Rafa can only get the fourth set… we’ll score a come-from-behind victory.

Novak didn’t allow it. Oddly, except for that third set, it was Rafa, the 10-time Grand Slam champion, who was nervous at critical points of the match. At 4-5 in the first set, anxiety crept into the left-hander’s fingers. Same with the latter stages of the fourth set when he made plenty of un-Rafa-like mistakes.

The happiest bunch today? With Rafa’s loss? Yes, of course, the Djokovic fans—though they still number in the thousands. But, by the tens of millions, the happiest are the Roger Federer devotees, for though their man was halted in the Quarterfinals, at least his arch-rival was terminated, too. (Here in Hong Kong, I watched, while sipping Heinekin beer and munching on pizza, in a bar. In another of those Oh-no-not-again moments, my hotel room didn’t have Star Sports. The lady bartender who watched while I sat on the bar stool? Of course, she’s a Roger fan.)

Who is this new Manny Pacquiao of tennis? “I started in the mountains,” said Novak, 24, of his early days when he first held a tennis racquet at age four. “Started in a very small place, and then I continued in Belgrade, practicing tennis—that wasn’t really popular at the time. We were going through some difficult periods—you know, our country had wars and stuff. So it wasn’t easy to hold that desire and really believe in yourself. But I always did, and the people close to me did.”

(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Belief. Yes. Self-belief. In anything and everything in life, this is what matters the most. To you. To me. To all things that we do. If we possess this six-letter word, “belief,” then we can achieve everything and anything we aspire for. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or believe you can’t, you are right.”

It begins in the mind. Tennis, you think, is physical? Like boxing? True, these sports are brothers—they are a handful of games that are one-on-one, mano-a-mano. And, true, a muscular Nadal flexes his biceps to win points. Tennis, like boxing, is physical.

But it’s more mental. Take Pacquiao. It’s his mind that defeats the Mexicans. The same with Novak. Beginning late last year when he won for Serbia the Davis Cup crown, that win changed his outlook. I AM THE CHAMPION. I CAN BEAT R + R.

And, yes, has he beaten the Roger-Rafa combination, these two who’ve combined to corner that No. 1 ranking since 2004. Yes, in one of those hard-to-believe sports statistics, for the past 7.5 years, only Nadal and Federer have been tennis’ No. 1.

July 4, 2011. Independence Day. A new No. 1. The serving Serb is an ace.

In Wimbledon, it’s Numero Uno vs. Number One

Why is tennis often referred to as “lawn tennis?” That’s because, back in the 19th Century, when the modern game originated, tennis was played on a lawn. Yes, a patch of green field that’s covered with grass.

Tennis started in the United Kingdom. Just like golf. And, just like golf, whose oldest major championship is “The Open,” in tennis, it’s the same: the oldest tournament in the world is found in England. It’s the tennis version of The British Open: Wimbledon.

It began 125 years ago. Imagine that longevity? But the best part about “The Championships” (as organizers want their event called) is not only Wimbledon’s survival and resilience after World Wars I and II—but more so its tradition.

Grass. Unlike all the other tennis contests on Planet Earth, with surfaces that range from hard-court to red clay to indoor carpet, Wimbledon uses the same, old playing field that it’s utilized since 125 years ago.

The surface is alive. Grass grows. They water the court. This happens prior to the two-week-long Wimbledon. And, after Petra Kvitova and Bernard Tomic and Sabine Lisicki trample and pound on the surface, the grass dies.

From green, healthy turf, the grass is massacred and mutates into brown, dead clay. This is Wimbledon. This is what makes the All-England Club exclusive. Its breed. Its antiquity. Its unparalleled class. Its all-white formality.

Two nights ago at Ayala Center, I met two men who’ve been to Wimbledon.

Ramon Saret, my long-time friend from Manila, visited our Queen City for an overnight stop. Mon’s daughter, Jennifer, was ranked among the top two junior tennis players in Asia during the ‘90s. With that lofty ranking, she and her father toured the world—including Wimbledon. In one instance, Mon was dining at the exclusive, for-players-only Dining Hall when two empty seats were soon occupied by familiar names: Boris Becker and Jim Courier. (The two, said Mon, hardly spoke to each other. Puzzled, Mon soon found out why: Boris and Jim were to play each other an hour after that sit-down meal.)

Ernie Delco, a top official of the MCWD, was in London last week. The tennis nut that he is, he queued for two miles before watching Roger Federer in Centre Court.

Both agreed—and had me envious—that Wimbledon stands alone as the most revered of all in tennis.

Which brings me to tonight, 9 P.M., Sunday, July 3. After two weeks of nightly Star Sports shows, starting 8 P.M., we arrive at the conclusion. This is Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It’s the Sunday of the U.S. Open golf in the Congressional Country Club (sadly, a non-Scottish player, unlike Rory McIlroy, will play since Andy Murray lost).

It’s No. 1 versus Numero Uno. Novak Djokovic, beginning tomorrow when the new ATP Rankings are announced, will become the world’s top-ranked player. Rafael Nadal, today’s No. 1, will meet tomorrow’s best in the finals. Isn’t that interesting? A plot and script as good as Steven Spielberg’s?

After six uninterrupted years of all Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, when both won a combined 21 of the last 24 Grand Slam singles titles (an unbelievable statistic!)—we finally have a different finale. I like this ending better. Para lahi na sad.

The Spaniard is targeting his 11th major title. (If he wins, he’ll be just five away from Roger.) He has not lost in Wimbledon since 2007 and, against the Serb (Novak), their record is 16-11 (including 5-0 in Grand Slam events), in favor of Rafa.

The odds favor the lefty versus the right-hander, right? Not exactly. Because the last four times they played, including two on clay, Mr. Djokovic has triumphed. Which thickens the plot tonight. Watch it, starting 9 P.M., over Star Sports. (Good news for non-cable TV subscribers: live telecast over local channel IBC.)

So… Today’s No. 1 or tomorrow’s? Rafa in 5.