Category Archives: Rafael Nadal

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.

10 points on Rafa’s 10th major

Roger Federer should have won that first set. He led 5-2. He owned a set point. But, after missing a drop-shot by millimeters, he lost the next five games. Had Roger won that set, we never know…

But now we know. We know that, after the first 63 minutes were his, Rafael Nadal was invincible. He started jumping, lunging, fist-pumping. Vamos! reverberated throughout Stade Roland Garros.

Head-to-head, Rafa has won 17 of the 25 occasions that he and Roger have played. At the French Open, the record is 5-0 (including four in the Finals). On clay, it’s 11-2; hard-court, 4-all; on grass, Roger leads 2-1. And the most telling of all statistics: in Grand Slam finals, Rafa owns a 6-2 winning edge.

(AP/Lionel Cironneau)

It’s obvious that, between the two, Nadal is better. So why, you ask, is Federer universally proclaimed as The Best Ever? All this chatter, of course, is pointless. RF fans will forever defend their man; so will RN devotees. Rafa himself addressed this issue, saying, “When you talk about these statistics, when you try and make these comparisons, really it’s not very interesting to me. I’m very happy with what I have, with who I am. I’m not the best player in the history of tennis. I think I’m among the best. That’s true. That’s enough for me.” Roger offers his own analysis: “He plays better against the better ones, and that’s what he showed today. He’s a great champion, on clay especially.”

What did we witness last Sunday? I cite 10 thoughts after observing the 10th Slam victory…

One, the Roger v. Rafa Rivalry is one of sport’s most compelling. No other one-two contest (Borg-McEnroe, Ali-Frazier, Palmer-Nicklaus) can compare. The contrast in personalities. The styles and spins of play. The emotions: cool vs. combative. These are incomparable. And a message to all tennis fans that, should one have the resources, they ought to watch them play “live” before they retire.

Two, on court, if it’s Rafa’s forehand against Roger’s backhand, the outcome is as obvious as Pacquiao-Marquez III. The lefty wins. Roger has to find a way to avoid such ping-pong, cross-court exchanges.

Three, the tenacity of the Spaniard is unfathomable. His doggedness, resolve, and fortitude — more than his whipping forehand topspin or 100-meter-dash speed — gifts him victory. Tennis is mental. He who grits his teeth harder and wants it more pockets the $1.7 million prize money.

Four, defense wins the game. Watch the NBA. Listen to Coach Yayoy Alcoseba and to LeBron James & Co. “Defense is the key to success,” they’ll voice out in unison. Same with tennis. Nadal’s retrieval prowess — his ability to return a shot that, to anybody else on the ATP Tour, would have been a point lost — makes him greater than Bjorn Borg on clay.

Five, Roger is only 29. Which means he’s not 30 – a “psychological barrier” age when tennis pros (who’ve played since six years old) are on decline.

Six, the question is: Can Rafa, now with 10 majors, surpass Roger’s 16? At 25 years old, he’s five years younger. That’s about 20 Grand Slam title opportunities. He can if…

Seven… his body doesn’t complain. No body is subjected to more excruciating torture than Rafa’s 188-lb. frame. He slides, stretches, smashes, swings, sprints… suffers. Injury can derail his pursuit more than Federer Express.

Eight, Rafa can win despite “playing ugly.” Rafa almost lost. In the first round against John Isner, he was down two sets to one. Had he been defeated, that would have ranked as the greatest upset of all time. But he kept afloat. He survived. “The real Rafa is both the Rafa who wins and the Rafa who plays well, and the Rafa who suffers and doesn’t play that well,” said Nadal. “You have to face this situation.”

Nine, had Rafa faced Novak in the finals, he’d have lost. I think so. Roger’s backhand is his weakness. Not Novak. His two-handed shot causes grief to Rafa. That’s what caused defeat to the Mallorcan in the last four Final meetings they had.

Ten, I can’t wait for Wimbledon…..

Love Triangle: Roger spurns Novak for Rafa

A funny thing happened in this 2011 French Open. Everybody forgot about Roger Federer. All the focus was on Mr. Djokovic. All the talk was on Rafa’s quest for a sixth trophy. Who’s Roger? Is he still alive? In this planet? Playing tennis? Well, he happens to be the only living (and, yes, non-living) male person to have won 16 Grand Slam singles titles. He won on the Parisian red clay in 2009. He won an Olympic doubles gold medal in 2010. He is, almost unanimously, the best hairy, male player who’s gripped a tennis racket.

And, during the past two weeks in Paris, like a stealth bomber that’s hidden from the radar view, he was silent, unseen, moving, targeting, and now, all of a sudden, he’s out in the open, in the Finals, and within sight of the prize.

Less pressure. Compared to Rafa and Novak, the Swiss had it easier. He’s relegated to a world ranking of # 3. That’s a lowly position that RF had not stooped down to since, when, 2002? Yet, all this is working for the good. For Roger’s good. Because elite, world’s-best athletes need an extra boost of motivation to allow them to climb beyond Mount Everest’s peak – and this is it for Roger.

Neglected, ignored and, yes, disregarded as a 30-year-old (in August 8) has-been former-superstar whose star has faded, this abandonment Roger is using to spark himself.

COME ON!!!!!!! I’ve never, in over eight years of observation, seen him pump his fist and shout “Come On!” as many times as now. He’s feeding off this omission by the media — myself included — and using it to power his smash. You think I’m gone? I’ll prove you people wrong! he’s mentally saying.

Did you see his annihilation of Novak? He served 18 aces. He fired his forehand down-the-line. He snapped his backhand cross-court. He gracefully performed drop shots. He attacked. He was unafraid to exchange shot versus shot against the Serb. “I really wanted to make it as physical as possible,” which I was able to make happen,” said Roger.

Because of RF’s win, the happiest man in Paris today is… Rafa… the arch-rival but best friend of Roger (you should see their YouTube video, giggling and joking for endless minutes while filming an advertisement).

Had Djokovic entered the finals, he’d have been world No.1 when the new ATP rankings are released tomorrow, Monday. Roger prevented that. And he did so during Rafa’s 25th birthday last Friday. Best friends help each other. Roger did his part. Will Rafa return the favor, losing to his similar 6-foot-1, Nike-fully-clothed amigo in tonight’s Grand Finale (at 9 P.M., PHL time)?

Ha-ha. It’s like LeBron James asking Nowitzki, “Hey, Dirk, can you pleeeease give me a chance and give me my first NBA ring?” (Dirk’s reply: ‘Bron, me, too. I’ve never won a title!)

And so we’re back to one of the greatest rivalries in history. “I have another opportunity to beat Rafa here and get the Roland Garros title,” said Roger. “I’ve got to play some extraordinarily special tennis. I’m aware of that. But I obviously took a huge step today, and hope I can get everything together for the final.”

My pick? I’ve always attempted to stand on neutral ground when these two play. Roger is an exquisite, Swiss-cool, one-handed-backhand-hitting, effortless, injury-less gentleman. Rafa is animalistic, bull-like, tenacious-beyond-compare, humble yet ferocious. The two — apart from having collected 21 of the last 24 Grand Slam singles titles since 2005 — also share a loftier accolade: they are two of the most courteous, good-mannered role models in entertainment.

So I pick… “R.” Once, in a Casino Español luncheon with Frank Malilong on one side as Rafa’s Cebu-based attorney and Moya Jackson, Chinggay Utzurrum and Michelle So on the opposite end as I’m-In-Love-With-Roger lifetime members, it was a cross-fire worse than Mayweather, Sr. and Freddie Roach.

Seriously, as inspired as Roger is by his twin daughters, I’d pick RN. A winner in 44 out of 45 matches in Roland Garros, he’ll add a sixth crown past 12 midnight tonight. Vamos.

Roland Garros

The French Open has started. The only Grand Slam event whose surface (clay-court) is similar to most of our tennis rectangles here in Cebu, this two-week-long sports meet in romantic Paris will be a business meeting between Novak and Nadal.

For with Rafa, he doesn’t call Roland Garros “my second home;” it’s his personal house. It’s where he lives. Out of the six years that he’s set foot on the red dirt, he’s won five trophies. That’s 38 of 39 matches won. He is so good, so unbeatable, so assured of victory that I declare… The 2011 winner is…

Djokovic!!! No joke. If the two meet next Sunday, I’d place my bet on the Serb. Why? Because, if he reaches the final, Djokovic will automatically become world No. 1. With that added confidence-booster (plus he’s beaten Nadal in the last four finals), he’ll win his first French crown.

If…. Yes. If… Novak does not succumb to the pressure. He’s 37-0 this 2011. “I’m really not trying to think about the run that I have,” he said. “Or I’m not trying to think about when this run will end, because that will mean that I’m thinking about losing.”

The ‘Triangle Offense’ of Roger-Novak-Rafa

Novak Djokovic is the world’s No.1 player. Unofficially. Because based on the ATP rankings, he is No. 2, having recently supplanted Roger Federer. The numero uno is still Rafael Nadal. But, in my tennis book, given that Novak sports an 18-0 record this 2011 and due to his twin wins over Roger (in the Indian Wells semis) and Rafa (finals), then he, rightfully, deserves to be the Top Gun.

Will he, soon, finally become the true ATP No.1? I have no doubt. His confidence level is at its highest. He won the Australian Open. He won the Davis Cup for Serbia. He’s en route to replacing R & R. Is this good for tennis? Absolutely. Rafa and Roger have exchanged No.1 rankings since February 2004. That’s seven long years ago. Since then, it’s been all R & R. Nobody else has become “The Best.” The Roddicks, the Murrays — they’ve all tried. And faltered. Roger and Rafa are the Qaddafis of tennis; they don’t want to relinquish their thrones (I know.. bad joke). Djokovic’s ascension will inspire others to say, “Hey, finally, someone’s been able to do it! We can, too!”

Rafa? He’s got plenty of points to defend in the upcoming clay-court season. If he loses some matches–and Novak wins a few more–they can exchange positions. Novak will be on top. But the problem (to his opponents) is this: Rafa hardly loses on clay. In the opinion of many, including mine, he is the greatest ever on that slow court. Last year, he was undefeated at 22 matches on clay — including his fifth French Open crown.

For PHL, an “F” in the Asian Games

I love watching concerts. From Don Moen to Duran Duran  to Dionne Warwick (ha-ha, just kidding on the last one; I’m not as old as my mom!), I’ve seen plenty. There’s one concert I strongly endorse you attend. It’s Monday next week (Dec. 6) and it’s called The GIFT OF LIFE Chorale Concert and Benefit Gala. Featuring four university choirs—from USC, UC, SWU and UV—the audience will be serenaded with Christmas carols and Cebuano favorites. Best of all, all proceeds will go to a most-worthy cause: to help “blue babies” (children with congenital heart diseases). Organized by the illustrious Rotary Club of Cebu and headed by President Joe Soberano, the ticket costs only P1,000 per person—with free dinner. Please watch. Listen to beautiful voices. Give the gift of life. That’s Dec. 6 at the Waterfront. See you there!

ASIAN GAMES. Our continent is the world’s biggest and most populated. We are about four billion-strong comprising 60 percent of the earth’s people. For two weeks ending last weekend, our continent staged the once-every-four-years sporting meet called the Asian Games. How did our Philippines do? If you ask our three gold medalists — Dennis Orcollo of billiards, Rey Saludar of boxing, and Biboy Rivera of bowling — the answer is obvious: Gold is the most precious metal… and medal.

But, as a whole, “PHL” failed. Of the 476 events representing 42 sports, we achieved a 3-4-9 score-sheet. That’s three golds, four silvers and nine bronzes for 16 medals. Given that we sent 188 athletes, that’s an impoverished finish. We scored an “F” or failure. This is worse than the Doha, Qatar Games of 2006 when we scored 4-6-9. This pales in comparison to Busan, South Korea in 2002 when we won 3-7-16. We are getting worse.

The reason? As we progress slowly, our Asian neighbors are sprinting rapidly. Take the Chinese. They’re not only dominating the Asian Games (scoring 199 gold medals, the most-ever by a country) but even topping the Olympics, besting the Americans in total medals won. Of course, their population reaches 1.33 billion. Still, they surge while we languish.

What’s most pathetic is this: we never saw TV footages of the Asian Games. The least our local networks could have done was air the Opening and Closing ceremonies—plus games of the Pinoys. There was none. We lost in China. We lost at home.

ROGER BEATS RAFA. This 2010, Mr. Nadal won three of the four Grand Slam titles: the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Mr. Federer did not win any. But, at the finale event of this season, he sought revenge. Roger defeated the world’s No.1 in this year’s last official big-time ATP match: the championship of the ATP World Tour Finals.

What does this mean? Plenty. One, it means Roger—who was trailing 14-7 in their head-to-head prior to last Sunday’s match—will gain confidence. This means RF is not bygone, past-his-prime. It means heading into 2011, he still has the game to win—going undefeated in this round-robin format event. Two, this reaffirms the dominance of both R & R. They have combined to win 21 of the last 23 majors—a fantastic statistic. This rivalry will continue.

The sad part? Like the Games of Asia, there was no Star Sports or Balls Channel TV showing. Not in this event; not the entire year with Masters Series tournaments. This was a missed opportunity for all tennis lovers.

UC VS. ATENEO. Today is an important day for collegiate basketball. It’s Cebu against Manila. It’s Junemar Fajardo, the 6-foot-10 giant from Pinamungajan, who will lead the University of Cebu Webmasters against the Ateneo De Manila University Blue Eagles.

On paper, it’s a mismatch. Ateneo is seasoned and is the three-time defending UAAP champions. They’re playing on home soil, in Manila. Their cheerers and blue pompoms are aplenty. But, as the cliche goes, “the ball is round.” Anything can happen in the semifinal of the Phil. Collegiate Champions League. If UC upsets ADMU, it will be historic; a win for the taga-probinsya.

Can Rafa’s Lucky 9 surpass Roger’s Sweet 16?

The word is Tenacity. It means to be persevering and dogged. The word is Determined. It’s defined as being “forceful, single-minded.” The word is Competitive. It translates to one’s being “merciless.. aggressive.. brutal.” All these words are synonyms to one name: Rafael Nadal.

Has there been an athlete as forceful? And fist-pumping, Vamos-shouting, I’m-willing-to-die-on-court-to-win persistent? Yes, Michael Jordan was intense. So was Mr. Armstrong during his Tour de Lance. KB24 is another. And, we can point to our own: Manny P. They are history’s most strong-willed of sportsmen. Add two more letters to the shortlist: R.N.

You want to know Rafa’s secret? Actually, there is no secret. We’ve seen it on our TV screens ever since he won the 2005 French Open (on his first try) as a 19-year-old. It’s called attitude. Mental strength.

“What’s my best thing?” he asked himself. “I think the mentality, attitude on court I think always was good for me,” he said. “I am positive on court, and I fight all the time. But not the only thing. Positive attitude is not only fight on court. I think I was able to listen all the time to the coach and to have adjustments and to be ready to change things to be better and to improve.”

That’s it. For while nobody in the ATP Tour possesses a more Herculean build, it’s more than biceps and triceps that enable Rafa to win: it’s brain power. Nobody, simply put, wants it more.

The U.S. Open final against Novak Djokovic? Well, the Serbian was handed plenty of favors. After a draining five-set upset of Roger Federer, Novak was scheduled to play Rafa just 20 hours later. It rained. He was given an extra 24 hours. Plus, during the final itself and while showing early signs of fatigue, it rained in the second set. Novak rested. It didn’t matter. Well-rested or not, there was no stopping the 2008 Olympic gold medalist from claiming his first gold in New York.

Now, with Rafa’s ninth major, the question in everybody’s lips is this: Can he overtake Roger’s 16? YES!!!!!! NO!!!!!! No!!!!!! Yes!!!!!! You see, in this debate, there are two opposing “R” camps. And so, the best answer to that query is, “It depends who you ask…”

Take the luncheon I joined two months ago. British Consul Moya Jackson, although nearer in hometown to Andy Murray, adores Roger Federer. Same with Michelle So. And Chinggay Utzurrum. Regardless of whatever Rafa accomplishes—even if he wins Major No. 155—their hearts are forever transfixed on Roger.

Frank Malilong, one of this island’s best debaters and a left-hander with wicked topspin shots, is, on the other camp, a Nadal devotee.

They argued. Teased one another. Everybody left Casino Español with stomach pains—not from sumptuous-food overload—but from laughing. Nobody admitted their R was weaker.

It’s the same elsewhere. Bobby Lozada, Ernie Delco and Fabby Borromeo are for Rafa; so are my Jasmin and Jana. The Polotans—Jourdan and Jingle—are for Roger; so are Emma Siao and “R” doctors Ronnie Medalle and Ronald Eullaran. This debate is two-sided.

My personal analysis? Yes, Rafa will eclipse Roger. Only 24 while Roger is 29, that five-year gap means 20 Grand Slam opportunities. Can RN win at least seven in the next 60 months? (The French Open alone he’ll win 12!)

But, you ask, won’t Roger also win more and add to his 16? Maybe; maybe not. Sure, Roger is still a threat. Had he converted on those match points in the semis, he’d have faced (yet, I believe, still lost to) Nadal. But here’s Roger’s problem: When facing the Spanish matador, his muscles melt like Swiss cheese. Their record is a lopsided 14-7 (in Nadal’s favor) and—here’s the more telling score—RF has lost six of their last seven meetings and has not beaten RN in a major since ‘007.

Still, it’s a long way to go. But with Frank Malilong as his lawyer, I wouldn’t bet against Rafa.

Quick response from Graeme Mackinnon

An hour or so after Roger Federer lost to Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open semifinals, my close buddy Graeme Mackinnon wrote this commentary from Australia:

NY will have to wait another year… but will it happen ever?

It is 9am here and the news is just through that the rivalry of R&R will be on hold for another Grand Slam. So will Rafa open his Open account in New York and claim the biggest apple they have for tennis there. If Rafa will win I suppose the inevitable of will he overtake Roger in the number of Open wins in the future will be ignited again.

Rafa is clearly several rungs above the pretenders. Djokovic and Murray have not rattled the cage consistently enough to believe that Rafa would be troubled in the majority of games he plays against them. Only Roger we believe will give us a classic match. But given Rafa’s record (14-7) against Roger would he be shaking in his nike tennis shoes?

Again the debate of whether there are chinks beginning to appear in the armor of Roger’s invincibility will again be ignited after this weekend. Only time will tell if Roger has won his last Open tournament. Rafa (with age on his side and if he stays fit) will be as relentless as he is in his games in his pursuit of Roger’s record number of Open’s wins. But the indisputable fact will be that for those lucky enough to have witnessed both Roger and Rafa during their careers, there will be debates (another one?) as to who is the GOAT or would there be a consensus to call them co-GOATS. I think if Rafa does eventually equal or gets near either way there would be a compelling case as they are so unique in their techniques and have brought so much theater to tennis.

Interesting times ahead both on and off the court John. Now given my terrible tipping record I have most probably put the hex on Rafa and Djokovic will blow him away, but I wouldn’t bet on that either.


In NYC, wishing for another R & R

Next to Manny Pacquiao, the two athletes I write about most often on these back pages are 6-foot-1, Nike-bandana-wearing twins: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

At the United States Tennis Open, if both were able to dismiss of Mikhail Youzhny and Novak Djokovic in last night’s semifinals, then, once more, we’ll be treated to a drama that’s likened to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s “The Championships of Each Other.”

“The Open is the only Slam where Federer and Nadal have never played,” wrote Steve Tignor in “Is It Sunday Yet?” That’s true. While the pairing have played 21 times, they’ve never faced each other in Flushing Meadows.

“New York wants a piece of this generation’s great rivalry before it’s too late, and we’re never going to have a better shot at it,” added Tignor. “We’ve seen Ali and Frazier. We’ve seen Borg and McEnroe. Even Godzilla took a cruise to Manhattan for a showdown with King Kong. Are we finally going to get Nadal and Federer?”

We hope so. For, these friends have won plenty: Roger has six Wimbledon titles, four Australian Opens, one French and five US Open crowns while Rafa has five in Paris, two Wimbledons, one Aussie Open—but zero in NYC. Talking of major/major, that’s 16 for Roger and 8 for Rafa.

“I won the other three Grand Slams rather quickly, like he did,” said Federer. “The only difference so far is that I lost two (French Open) finals before, plus a semifinal, whereas he’s never been in a final here.

“Clearly, he has a chance because he’s young enough. Having so many French Open titles to his name, let alone at his age, is an amazing accomplishment. Then again, obviously, I guess he would need to win the US Open to put himself there. He’s won the Olympics, done some amazing things. So he’ll have a shot at it, I’m sure.”

Will this shot be this weekend? If Rafa does meet then defeat Roger, the 24-year-old will achieve a feat similar in magnitude to Spain’s World Cup victory: He’d become the youngest player in the Open Era to complete the career Grand Slam.

Yet, while Rafa is hungry for this missing Big Apple bite, on paper, it’s the Swiss who’s favored. The reason: the past seven years, he’s won every match at the Open except one hiccup last year against del Potro. Mr. Federer possesses the most complete arsenal of weapons on a rectangle since tennis was spelled tenez. And this event’s hard court (DecoTurf) surface suits a player who carries more ammunition.

So, here’s the intriguing question: While many don’t argue calling RF as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), if he loses to RN, would that tarnish his golden stature?

Maybe. Yet, whatever the outcome, the winners are us, the fans. Time Magazine’s Eben Harrell, listing “Federer v. Nadal” atop the Top 10 Tennis Rivalries, wrote it best: “Call it the rapier versus the broadsword. The bull fighter versus the bull. For over five years now, Federer and Nadal have stunned the tennis world with their contrasting but compelling claims to be the greatest player on the planet. Federer’s light-footed movement and elegant, attacking style has, in head-to-head encounters, proved largely ineffectual against Nadal’s thumping, muscular defense. Nadal holds the edge 14-7. But Federer has a vastly superior career record — he holds an all-time best 16 grand slam titles. So who holds the edge in the rivalry is up for debate. But there’s no doubt that tennis is blessed to have two of the greatest players in history currently at the top of the world rankings.”

If this final—said Mats Wilander: “I think it’s the biggest match of all time”—does materialize, here are factors to watch for: a) How potent is Rafa’s newfound, 135-mph serve? b) Who will the wind affect more? Thus far, Roger’s been better, c) Can Rafa continue his my-forehand-to-Roger’s-backhand tactic? d) Roger’s drop-shot surprise: will it be effective? e) The mental battle—will Rafa once more have the edge?

These are my questions. Want the answer? Don’t miss the fight (RP time) tomorrow, Monday, starting 4 a.m.

Another Roger vs. Rafa final at the US Open?

Tennis player or not, this week and the next you’ve got to watch. Like boxing, it’s one on one. Like chess, no coaches are permitted. Like badminton, it’s just the net standing between you and your enemy. That’s tennis. And, beginning yesterday until next Sunday, every night on our TV screens (Balls channel for my SkyCable) it will be the 2010 United States Open.

Of the four tennis Grand Slam events, the U.S. Open is the only one I’ve watched. Live. That moment was a long time back—11 Augusts ago—but it’s a memory that will forever be embedded in my brain’s Seagate hard drive.

The U.S. Tennis Open, like many things American, is boisterous, intense, screaming loud and, with 1.7 million dollars to the men’s and women’s singles champions, loaded with $$$. Unlike Paris where the court surface is red or at Wimbledon where it’s green grass or Down Under in Melbourne where the atmosphere is shirt-less-relaxed, at this Open it’s New York City—the most energetic metropolis on Planet Earth.

Why is tennis so attractive a sport? (I know plenty from Cebu, non-tennis-players, who watch all the majors without fail.) The reasons are plenty:

Tennis is easy to understand. Though the scoring, at first, is puzzling, it’s not as complicated as, say, the NFL or cricket.

Tennis celebrates both women and men. Think about this important point: How many sports glorify women and give them equal billing? Basketball? Football? Boxing? Baseball? Nah. In tennis, women are equals—in prize money, in scheduling, in most-everything. At times, as in the case of one Maria Sharapova, she’s more photographed than Ivo Karlovic.

Reason No. 3 why this game is loved: Tennis is individual. Single stars become superstars. Tennis is mano-a-mano; One vs. One. While most of the sports revolve around teams, in tennis (excluding doubles), it’s Serena vs. Venus, R & R, Clijsters against Henin, Borg-McEnroe, The Pete and Andre Show.

Like American Idol, one winner—not one team of 12—emerges as champion. Like the Academy Awards, there’s only one Best Actor—the same with this U.S. Open, only one Best Player will carry that metallic trophy on Sept. 12.

With this 2010 Open, the question is, will the American Idol be from Denmark named Caroline Wozniacki? I know, I know… Caroline who? She’s the top-seed? Yes. An admission: When I saw the seedings report and read her name atop the list, I was astounded. Where’s Serena? And Kim? V-Williams? Well, it turns out either they’re injured or are not as good (Wozniacki won 14 of her last 15 matches.)

Among the men… Will Andy Murray finally win one for Great Britain? Two weeks ago, he beat Roger F. in the event name for the Swiss—Rogers Cup. I won’t be surprised if the 6-foot-3 Scot wins in NYC.

Rafael Nadal? Though he’s performed subpar the past month (losing to Baghdatis), let’s not forget this fact: RN won the last two Grand Slam titles. Plus, he’s hungry for a New York cheeseburger. Already owning eight Majors, the only Big One he hasn’t digested is the Big Apple. But, perplexing to many because he’s won both on the slowest of surfaces (clay) and the fastest (Wimbledon), we ask why he can’t win more at the medium-paced hard-court. To which I reply: because the hard-court, as its first name explains, is hard. By “hard,” meaning the surface is rocklike and stiff—the worst type for Rafa’s 24-year-old knees.

How about the GOAT? Can the man universally-acknowledged as the “Greatest Of All Time” win his sixth Open? Based on statistics, the answer is more than “Yes;” it’s “How-Dare-You-Pick-Anybody-Else-But-Roger.” For, if we study history, not only has this father of twins won five of the last six NYC trophies, but Federer’s triumphed in 41 of his last 42 matches there.

Which brings me to the asterisk attached to Roger’s resume: his record against Rafa. It’s 14-7 in favor of the Spaniard. Nadal has won six of their last seven sword-fights and their past three Grand Slam finals. Which makes their final showdown a perfect “New York, New York” ending, right?

He’s Spanish… and the King of France

If Rafael Nadal were a battery, he’d be The Energizer. He’s a Bulldozer with a Porsche engine. He’d mash through dirt like a tractor—in high speed. If he were another being, he’d be Tiger Woods-mentally-strong—minus the sex. He’s Arnold Schwarzenegger-muscular wearing Usain Bolt’s Puma. He’s an SUV 4-wheel-drive with the adroitness of a Mini Cooper.

Rafael Nadal is not the greatest ever to have gripped a tennis stick. That title rightly belongs to Sir Roger Federer. But, when we speak of mud, sand, le terre battue, soil, the red clay, the rectangle on Stade Roland Garros named Court Philippe Chatrier, nobody, nobody but the right-handed left-hander is better.

Peter Bodo, the famed tennis columnist, calls him “The Specialist.” He’s no General Practitioner Doctor; if Nadal were a physician, he’d be The Specialist, a heart surgeon, possibly, whose expertise and acumen is unmatched from Chong Hua to St. Luke’s to The John’s Hopkins to Cebu Doc.

“Never,” said writer Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated when asked if he has seen a better clay-court player. “Nadal comes off as a laid-back guy. He doesn’t say anything provocative on purpose. But mentally he’s a beast. This was a revenge match for him, whether he wanted to admit it or not. It must be so demoralizing to play against a guy who’s so much better defensively and just chases down everything. You could see it in the match today but you see it every time he plays. He beats you down mentally as much as anything he does physically.”

Take, as an example, one point in last Sunday’s final against Robin Soderling. They name it the Point of the Match. I call it the Moment of the Tournament. Having won the first set, 6-4, Nadal was down a break point trailing 0-1 in the second set. If Soderling wins the point, he leads 2-0 with the pendulum called Momentum having shifted to the Swede. In that point, Soderling hits a bullet crosscourt backhand to win the point! The crowd gasps, applauding. Game, Soderling!!! It’s 2-0. But, wait. Nadal sprints all the way left, his body no longer seen on TV because he’s so far off the court; inexplicably, he retrieves the ball… the point’s still alive!!! Soderling is in disbelief, yet still attacks. Nadal is defensive. Then, a shot here and there after, Nadal is on the offense, attacking the net, capturing the point with a deft drop volley. In one single episode, Nadal transforms a sure break point to A Broken Soderling: From that point on, Rafa wins six of the next seven games to win Set Two, 6-2. Minutes later, dejected and tired, Soderling quits. He loses the third, 6-4.

Do you feel like the best ever on clay now? Nadal was asked in the post-match press conference.

“No. No, I sure that the numbers are unbelievable for me, no?” he answered, making sure to say “No” thrice. “I never thought to have the chance to win this tournament, five titles, five times or Monte Carlo six or Barcelona five, I think, too, or Rome for me five. For me, that’s more than a dream. When I see these titles and these numbers, for me is amazing. I don’t know how I did.”

We can enlist a slew of adjectives about the five-time French Open champ—this King of Clay applauded by the Queen of Spain—adjectives like “relentless,” “sturdy,” “unyielding” and “valiant,” but here’s one more I’d like to stress: “humble.”

Isn’t this delightful? Against the backdrop of an egoistic jerk like Floyd Mayweather, Jr., you’ve got Nadal. And Federer. Two No. 1s, two gentlemen.

“But first of all, you gonna be very arrogant if I say for myself I am the best of the history,” continued Nadal in the press-con. “Second thing, I don’t believe I am the best of the history. I try my best every day, and we will see when I finish my career. I not gonna be who decide if I am the best or not. You maybe, but not me, sure.”

At Roland G., it’s Robin versus Rafa minus Roger

Only four men are left in the men’s draw of the 2010 French Open. Robin Soderling and Thomas Berdych occupy the upper half; if the odds are followed, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who brawled against opposing players last night, will meet in the other semifinals. Looking ahead to this Sunday, it’s expected to be another R & R finale. Only this time, the reigning Roland Garros winner codenamed “FED” will be missing.

(AP Photo/Michel Euler)

What a match the duo played two nights ago. I hope you saw it. In the first set, Federer was impeccable. He won 6-3. In Set 2, he was broken in his first service game, trailed 2-0, then promptly lost 3-6 to Mr. Soderling. In the third set, Roger owned a set point against Robin with the score, 5-4, but—in what turned out to be the point of the match—his opponent saved that game. At 5-all, it rained in Paris. I slept in Cebu. It was nearly midnight. Then, my text-mate that evening, Sun.Star’s Executive Editor Michelle So, sent me a message that my phone captured at 1:48 a.m. Reading it when I awoke at 5:37 yesterday morning, the message was succinct: “RF lost. 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 4-6.” My guess is, Michelle, the leader of the RF Fans Club of Cebu, if ever there was a group, had trouble sleeping after RF’s exit in France.

But what a performance by this Swede nicknamed Soderking. (True: He sawed-off ‘d King.) Robin slammed the ball from his slingshot forehand to Roger’s backhand, drilled a down-the-line backhand, served a 240-kph ace, he played fearless, never, for a moment, intimidated thinking that across the net was The Greatest Of All Time.

Soderling’s offensive gunfire against Federer was the same Robin Hood-like barrage of arrows he unleashed on Nadal last year. Both victories were monumental, said top tennis scribe Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated: “I can’t think of two bigger clay-court upsets in the last, say, 20 years. Those are two just massive wins, but you have to follow it up. We’ll hold off on the Hall of Fame plaques until he wins a major, but those are just two monstrous wins on clay in back-to-back years.”

(AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Peter Bodo, in his blog at Tennis.Com and a story he titled, “K.I.S.S. Revised” (the KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Soderling), added:  “The main difference, in the big picture, was that Soderling reached out aggressively to take the match, and he did that from start to finish. Meanwhile, Federer did a fair impersonation of Hamlet, his game fading in and out like the signal from a distant radio. More and more, it looks as if Federer is not really playing to win, the way a Soderling is in these upward arcing days of his career.

“It seems that Federer is playing not to lose. He’s doing a fair job of that, hanging in, fending off, snarling and snapping like a captive wolf in a cage. But Federer doesn’t seem to seek the freedom represented by victory, or triumph over his captors and adversaries. He doesn’t appear to want to attack, break through, run like the wind and distance himself from his tormentors.

“The question, going into this event, was whether Federer would muster the focus, hunger, and determination that seems to have been in remission since he won the Australian Open. Did he have a stock game for most tournaments and a custom one for majors? Unfortunately for Federer, Soderling was the most dangerous of opponents to entrust with those questions. He asked them all, and we all saw the answers.”

The final question, of course, is this: Who will win on Sunday? If Robin meets Rafa, can last year’s tormentor, who inflicted RN’s first-ever loss at the French Open, win again? Given his thrashing of Roger, will Soderling’s all-power assault once more punish Nadal? Consider that the 6-foot-4 Robin is at his all-time peak in world ranking (No.7) and confidence. Or will Rafa, now fully-healed of injuries and having won three Masters Series clay-court events leading to Paris, avenge his 2009 loss to Robin?

The answer—like the Lakers vs. Celtics dispute—is coming soon.

(AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Before Pistol Pete and Federer Express, there was The Rocket

The year was 1999. That was 11 long years ago. Yet, when I look back at that singular moment–at those few precious seconds–when I got to shake the hand and pose for a photo with an all-time tennis great, the flashback rouses my face to smile.

It was the U.S. Open. Not your ordinary tournament, it was the rowdiest and largest Grand Slam event on this planet. My dad Bunny and I watched the full two weeks, each night and day absorbing an overload of forehands and backhands. On the first evening–on August 23, 1999–we trooped to the Louis Armstrong Stadium for the Opening Ceremony. We were energized. This was New York City. Then, minutes before the start, a small commotion startled the audience.

He entered. “He” happens to be the only player in mankind to have won all four Grand Slam titles (in Australia, France and the U.S., plus Wimbledon) in the same year… twice.

Wearing a green coat-and-tie with a red necklace strap hanging on his neck, his blonde hair was disheveled and his white cheeks glowed pink. Acting quickly, I climbed the steps then waited for that precise opening when I approached from the side, introduced myself as Filipino, then asked for that one-click-I’ll-never-forget-this moment as my dad snapped the photo.

No, he’s not Roger ‘Federer Express’ nor is he ‘Pistol Pete’ Sampras. He’s not Agassi or Becker or Borg or McEnroe. In fact, if you’ve followed tennis as I have–starting the 1980s–his name might not be all-too-famous. But if you know the game’s history, you know him. Even better, if you watch today’s Australian Open, then you’ve seen his name plastered on the TV screen.

Rodney George Laver. Nicknamed “The Rocket” because of his explosive style and named after his hometown of Rockhampton, Queensland, he’s the reason why that August ’99 moment I’ll always cherish. For Rod Laver stood–figuratively–tallest among the giants of the sport when, in fact, he’s only 5-foot-8 1/2 tall. In this era of Juan Martin del Potro (6’6”) and Ivo Karlovic (6’10”), he’s minuscule. Add to the equation his weight (145 lbs.) then you have a “pocket-sized” player. Yet, he’s a rocket. For, in his prime, he possessed a game as complete as Federer’s today.

“Few champions have been as devastating and dominant as Laver was as amateur and pro during the 1960s,” wrote Bud Collins. “An incessant attacker, he was nevertheless a complete player who glowed in backcourt ad at the net. Laver’s 5-foot-8 1/2, 145 pound body seemed to dangle from a massive left arm that belonged to a gorilla, an arm with which he bludgeoned the ball and was able to impart ferocious topspin. Although others had used topspin, Laver may have inspired a wave of heavy-hitting topspin practitioners of the 1970s such as Bjorn Bord and Guillermo Villas. The stroke became basic after Laver.”

Why this R. Laver piece today? Because when you click on Star Sports today, his name is forever etched in Melbourne. The reason? While Wimbledon, for example, has their famous “Centre Court,” the Oz Open’s main stadium is named after it’s greatest… the “Rod Laver Arena.”

For “Rod Laver” is the synonym of “Grand Slam,” which means winning the four majors in the same year. Take Federer: though he’s won all four majors, he did not achieve this feat in the same calendar year. Only four others have accomplished the real Grand Slam, and each achieved it only once: Don Budge (1938), Maureen Connolly Brinker (1953), Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988). The Rocket did this twice, in 1962 and 1969.

As the BBC commentator Dan Maskell put it, he was “technically faultless, from his richly varied serve to his feather-light touch on drop volleys plus a backhand drive carrying destructive topspin when needed or controlling slice when the situation demanded it.”

Sounds like Federer, right? Yes. But with a difference: Laver is left-handed. Which means he has the all-around, no-weaknesses armada of Roger plus the lefty serves and lefty topspin style of Rafael Nadal. Imagine morphing these two to form one? That’s Rod Laver.

An Aussie speaks about the Australian Open

Graeme (center, seated) during his visit to Cebu last October with (from left) Noel Villaflor, Caecent and Mark Magsumbol; (standing) John P, Manny Villaruel, Calvin Cordova, Nimrod Quiñones, Mike Limpag and Raffy Osumo

Graeme Mackinnon lived in Cebu for 13 years. He was conferred the Cebu Hall of Fame award for bolstering the sport of football. But the Australian’s “first love?” The game he first played when he was only six years old? Tennis. And so I asked Graeme, now relaxing at home in Bateau Bay, a 100-km. drive from Sydney, to comment on the year’s first Grand Slam tennis event…

Who is your favorite Aussie player of all time? “There have been so many great Aussie players through the years although that list is definitely diminishing for whatever reason. My favorite would have to be “Rocket” Rod Laver. His four Grand Slams in the same year 1962 and 1969 set him apart from so many great players. He had finesse and guile and his touch was exquisite.”

How do you find Nadal’s pink/orange attire? “The fashion police should be out in force and just give Rafa a mirror. It is a shocker.”

Who do you find the prettiest? “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My favorite for the beauty stakes is Elena Dementieva. There are many lovely Russian players but Elena always looks feminine. The outfits she wears always look so good on her. But my favorite female player is Justine Henin.”

On the noise: “The grunt and shriek debate continues although with Mike Limpag’s “flame” (Sharapova) extinguished, it will be markedly decibels quieter. When I watched Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin play in the Queensland several weeks ago, I thought then that there was something wrong with the audio. Both of these girls played at the highest quality without grunting and shrieking. What a pleasure it was to watch and hear the noise of the racquet actually hitting the ball.”

What’s the favorite Australian chant? “Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi”

What are the ticket prices? “Depending on the day a day or night session a ticket will cost between $60 (P2,500) for the first few days before it starts to spiral upwards (some may say out of control) before peaking at $290 (P12,200) for the men’s or women’s final.”

A Roger-Rafa finale? “We can expect another Roger-Rafa final because they are the two most consistent players and their meetings are legendary. But will they play in the final? There are probably four who could make the final and it would not be a surprise. Roger, Rafa, Andy Murray (away from the expectation of Wimbledon), Juan Martin Del Potro. Del Potro’s my choice against either Roger or Rafa.”

Why is Australia a tennis-loving country? Did this start during the era of Laver and Rosewall? “No it happened well before them. In fact the Australasian Lawn Tennis Association was formed in 1904. We won the first of our 27 Davis Cup crowns in 1907. It also marked the year that Norman Brookes became the first of 12 Australians to win Wimbledon. Tennis has been around in Australia for a long time. Laver and Rosewall are just part of the legacy of those humble beginnings.”

Notice the drums beating in between points? “Because of our cosmopolitan heritage there is always strong nationalistic support for many of the overseas players. These players in many cases come from countries with a strong football culture and the supporters bring that football support to the tennis.”

Have you watched the games live? “No. And I most probably won’t in the future. With the unbelievable TV coverage that we get LIVE and the line-up of commentators who give such an insight into the players psyche I’m happy to be a couch potato for two weeks. We have around 12 hours of live coverage daily.”

Is tennis your country’s most popular sport? “In national participation, tennis ranks low. The Australian Football League and rugby league are No.1 in winter depending on what state you live. Soccer is No. 2 in all states. In summer, cricket, especially when the national team is playing, is No. 1. Girls netball is getting stronger. Tennis becomes No. 1 for couch potatoes in January when there are so many tournaments played around the country prior to the Open.”

Why is Lleyton Hewitt considered by many as arrogant? “He became famous at a very young age by beating Andre Agassi in 1998 in consecutive lead-up tournaments before the Aussie Open when he was 17 years old. He was the third youngest ever to claim an ATP title. He was the first teenager in ATP history to ever qualify for the year-end Tennis Masters Cup (ATP World Tour Finals). And his record of achievements goes on. Maybe it was a case of too much too soon.”

Federer vs. Laver, both at their peak, who’d win? “I think it is difficult to compare different eras. It most certainly would have been a great game but for no other reason than I am unashamedly biased, I would say Rod Laver.”

If Wimbledon has strawberries-and-cream and the US Open has hotdogs…. what does the Oz Open have? “We have a great tournament unfortunately now attracting publicity for all the wrong reasons. A small ethnic group of troublemakers are trying their hardest to disrupt the passion of the record crowds who are flocking to the tennis every day. Today for instance there were 45 Turkish troublemakers (I wont call them supporters) ejected from the Open because of the trouble they were making with flares and abusive language etc. On Monday it was a group of Croatians.”

How hot is it in Australia now? “We are in the middle of summer and it will get hot. Definitely weather-wise and court-wise the temperature will get hotter as the Open progresses. It will vary from a maximum 23 degrees to a maximum of 32 in the next seven days. On the court it will be much hotter though.”

Many years back, the Australian Open was not at par (in terms of prestige, etc) with the three other Slams. But now, it surely is. What did Tennis Australia do? “Moving the Open to its current location in Melbourne has meant a lot of money was able to be spent on upgrading the facility to its state of the art facility it is today. Previously the hosting of the Open alternated in the different states.”

Is Melbourne like the Cebu of Australia (and Sydney is Manila)? “It depends on where you live. Sydney (my hometown) is Manila and Melbourne Cebu. But I know many from Melbourne and there is definitely that same rivalry as Manila, Cebu so they would tell you Melbourne is Manila.”

This 2009, Rafa Nadal smashes and drops shots

What a rollercoaster season for the Spanish superstar. First, he began in perfect form: At the Australian Open, the year’s first Grand Slam event, Rafael Nadal reached the semifinals not having lost a set. Meeting his fellow Spaniard/lefty Fernando Verdasco, they engaged not in a tennis game but in a bloody slugfest of boxing: a five-setter that concluded as the longest match in Oz Open history at 5 hours, 14 minutes. Nadal won. In the finals against—nobody, nobody but…—Roger Federer, it was another classic battle. Rafa prevailed in five sets and was crowned the Australian Open victor. He was superb, impeccable, splendid.

Then………… Bang! The collapse started. At the tournament where he has never lost, on the red clay of the French Open, Rafa was the four-time defending champion. Until he met Robin Soderling in the fourth round—and was beaten. On that May 31 afternoon, Nadal did not only lose the match, he lost much more: his confidence. His topspin. His knees. Suffering from tendinitis, he later withdrew from the most prestigious tennis party on earth, Wimbledon.

Nadal rested for two months. But the damage was done. He was vulnerable. He was no longer Rafa The Invincible. When he returned in August, he promptly lost to Juan Martin Del Potro. Worse, he surrendered the No. 2 ranking (a spot he had held since July 2005) to Andy Murray. Next, at the US Open, once more RN was obliterated by the 6-foot-6 Argentine named Del Potro, 2-6, 2-6, 2-6.

Bad. But here’s worse: At the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals, Nadal played three round-robin matches. His score: 0-3. Not a single match did he win. In fact, RN did not win a single set! Even worst than worse—if there’s ever such a term—Nadal lost his last four matches and lost his last eight sets of tennis.

Here in this former Spanish land called Cebu, plenty of Nadal fans were, I’m sure, perplexed and troubled. The likes of Bobby Aboitiz, Ernie Delco, Manny Sainz, Bobby Lozada, Frank Malilong, Fr. Joy Danao and Fabby Borromeo—to name seven of Rafa’s supporters in our city—were worried and asking, “Will Nadal ever rise again?”

For didn’t Rafa win the 2008 Olympic gold medal? Wimbledon last year? And the world No.1 ranking? And now, he’s wobbled, stumbled, and faltered? Can he recover? Or has the all-too-physical game of Spain’s muscleman finally damaged his body? Can he retain the No.1 crown and ward off not only Federer but the likes of Murray, Djokovic, Del Potro, Tsonga?

Relax, relax. Nadal, lest we forget, is so much younger than me and, mostly likely, you. He’s only 23. So he’ll recuperate. He’ll reconfigure his game for his body to take less beating. He’ll win the US Open. He won’t disappear.

Proof of his resurgence happened over the weekend. At the Davis Cup, Nadal won the crucial first game against the Czech Republic player, Tomas Berdych, 7-5, 6-0, 6-2. And, in the finale match, he won again. With those wins, it brought his DC record to an extraordinary 14-1. (No thanks to lousy cable TV coverage, we didn’t see those matches.) By week’s end, Nadal and Team España captured the Davis Cup.

Was that significant? To Rafa? Absolutely. Because looking back at his story, in 2004, RN’s tennis career was launched when, as an 18-year-old, he beat Andy Roddick in the Davis Cup final against USA. Since then, he has zoomed to the top. The following year, Rafa won the French Open and jumped from a ranking of 51 to world No. 2 by the end of 2005.

Davis Cup recharges Nadal. And, my guess is, never mind his painful defeats in Roland Garros and the US Open and his exit from Wimbledon—plus the shocking divorce of his parents, Sebastian and Ana Maria, in the middle of the year—all these painful memories have been erased after he raised the Davis Cup trophy.

Because with Nadal, it’s mental. It’s hard to find a tougher, more tenacious and first-class and paramount athlete than Rafa. Except one….

Tiger Woods? Ha-ha. That’s before last week.

Roger vs. Rafa: Who will win the US Open?

It’s the US Open! What’s my biggest tennis wish? That two 6-foot-1 Nike endorsers will meet in the finals. You see, every time Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal meet, it’s like a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight. It’s like the Lakers vs. Celtics, the Yankees vs. Red Sox, La Salle against Ateneo. It’s a blockbuster movie. Only this time, it’s not reel but for real.

My opinion? It won’t happen. Rafa was injured and out of the ATP Tour for two months. That’s like asking Charice Pempengco to tape her mouth for 12 months. She’ll rust. And, yes, Rafa is rusty. Mr. Federer? Ah, he’s far from dusty. Like a gleaming Rolex watch that he wears on his left wrist, the Swiss is glossy and sparkling. Continue reading Roger vs. Rafa: Who will win the US Open?