Category Archives: Tennis

United States Open

There’s no city on earth like New York. Neon lights blink at noon, yellow cabs zoom past Times Square, skyscrapers touch the clouds, and Broadway shows are $450 real-life movies. The city that never sleeps is forever awake, hungry and restless.

It’s fitting that the United States Tennis Open is not located in sunny Florida or relaxed California but in the Big Apple.

I’ve been blessed to have visited the U.S. Open grounds twice, first as spectator and second as passerby, and it’s humongous. Flushing Meadows in Corona Park, where the 22 courts inside the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center are found, is sprawling wide at 46.5 acres. At the center looms the 23,771-seater Arthur Ashe Stadium, named after the 1968 Open champion who succumbed to AIDS in 1993.

Today, it’s the Women’s Singles final (at 4:30 a.m., Philippine time) and the organizers could not have choreographed a better finale. Two American ladies face each other in the only major fought on North American soil.

“Having four Americans in the semi-finals, I think that says a lot about American tennis and where we are right now,” said Sloane Stephens, who defeated Venus Williams in the semifinals.

Sloane Stephens vs. Madison Keys. Who are they? They’re the finalists. (I wouldn’t be surprised if had not heard of them prior to today.) They’re no Sharapova or Bouchard or Halep or Pliskova or Kerber.

The story of Ms. Stephens is incredible. At the U.S. Open last year, she withdrew because of a foot injury. Last January, she watched the Australian Open on TV while her leg was covered with a large cast. When she was able to move, she swatted tennis balls while seated. After 11 months, she returned to Wimbledon ranked 957th. Since then, she has won 14 of 16 matches and is en route to her first Grand Slam trophy. 

“I have no words to describe my feelings and what it took to get here,” said Stephens. “When something gets taken away from you, you kind of are forced to deal with your situation. Having surgery, being on that peg leg, not being able to live my life the way I wanted to, I don’t know if it was like a humbling experience, but it was more of just like—how do you say that—realization? I just needed to just appreciate all the things I had in my life.”

Madison Keys has an equally powerful story to tell. She started playing tennis at the age of 9 at the Chris Evert Academy in Florida. Now 22, she also got injured early this year, missing the Melbourne major when she had surgery on her left wrist. She’s back and, ranked 16, is slightly favored to beat Stephens.

The all-American final is a first not involving Serena and Venus in 33 years, when Martina Navratilova defeated Chris Evert in 1984. You can say that these two are lucky because Serena Williams just gave birth, carrying her own prize in the form of a baby girl (whose name has yet to be revealed).

For the men, Rafa Nadal’s path to a 16th major was cleared by Roger Federer when the Swiss lost to Juan Martin del Potro. After watching Nadal annihilate the Argentinian in the semis yesterday, it’s hard to see the Spaniard losing to Kevin Anderson. In basketball, yes, the 6-foot-8 South African wins. But this is tennis and Nadal is the old king of New York.

Maria Sharapova

Forbes has named her the “world’s highest paid female athlete” for 11 straight years. Since turning pro in 2001, she has earned nearly $300 million. But as wealthy and famous and beautiful as Maria Sharapova is, has she received the esteem and respect of her colleagues?

No. The reason: Last year, she failed a drug test. She had been taking the drug “meldonium” for many years when it was legal. But when it was banned effective Jan. 2016, she still took it.

Positive! That’s the bombshell that shocked the 6-foot-2 Russian. Maria was banned for two years. While away from tennis, she wrote her autobiography and enrolled in Harvard Business School. She was an intern at an ad agency, spending a week with NBA’s Adam Silver and another at Nike HQ. She promoted her candy business, Sugarpova. “It was just a different way my mind was working for a few months,” Maria said, “and I loved that.”

Her 24-month suspension was reduced to 15. And when she returned last April at the Porsche Grand Prix, her counterparts voiced opposition. Eugenie Bouchard complained: “She’s a cheater and I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play again.. I think from the WTA it sends the wrong message to young kids: cheat and we’ll welcome you back with open arms.”

Ouch. In reply, Sharapova said she didn’t want to listen to the negative talk and called the women’s locker room “my least favourite place in the world.”

At the US Open in New York, controversy has once again followed the 30-year-old five-time Grand Slam champion. She was given a “wild card.” What’s that? It’s a direct entry into the main draw that’s chosen by the tournament organizers. Ranked a lowly No. 146, Sharapova was given a wild card at the US Open. (At the French Open a few months ago, they denied her that privilege.)

This exemption has troubled some critics. Chris Evert, the 18-major winner, said in response: “I don’t necessarily think that in the grand slams, she should be given a wild card, no.”

Serena Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, told CNN, “If someone gets caught for doping, this person shouldn’t be helped to come back faster to the top of the game.”

You can’t blame the US Open organizers. Ms. Sharapova is the biggest draw among the ladies, especially with Serena pregnant. She’s one of the few who can outrival the popularity of a Roger or Rafa. What has angered other players was how they’ve accorded her extra privileges.

In Sharapova’s first three matches, including last night’s win over Sofia Kenin, she played at the Arthur Ashe (main) Stadium. In contrast, Caroline Wozniacki, ranked No. 5, was relegated to an outside court.

“Putting out a schedule where the number five in the world is playing on court five, fifth match on after 11 p.m., I think that is unacceptable,” said Wozniacki. “When you look at center court, and I understand completely the business side of things, but someone who comes back from a drugs sentence, performance-enhancing drugs, and then all of a sudden gets to play every single match on center court I think that’s a questionable thing to do. It doesn’t set a good example.”

I agree. Life is unfair. But Maria is Maria. I’m sure her WTA players would like to sing the Sound of Music song, How do you solve a problem like Maria?

US Open

(Getty Images)

At the 29th SEA Games, our Philippine netters pocketed two silver and two bronze medals. Clarice Patrimonio reached the women’s singles finals but got clobbered, 6-0, 6-1, by Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand. The heartbreaker was the men’s doubles. With Treat Huey unable to join, our top duo was Ruben Gonzales and Niño Alcantara. They played the Ratiwatana twins, Sanchai and Sonchat, in the finals last Friday. The Pinoys lost a thriller to the Thais, 6-4, 2-6, 10-7. That 10-7 is not a third set but a super-tiebreak. We got two more bronze medals: mixed doubles (Denise Dy and Ruben Gonzales) and women’s doubles (Katharina Lehnert and Denise Dy).

US OPEN. In New York, it’s the final Grand Slam tennis event of 2017. The biggest news? The injuries. Among those who are out include Murray, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Raonic and Nishikori. Why these many withdrawals? Tennis is one-on-one. You can’t get substituted like soccer or volleyball. Coaches aren’t even allowed inside. You play on grass this week, on red clay the next, shift to hard courts after; there are indoor and outdoor venues and you sprint back and forth for 3 hours; all these take a physical toll on an athlete’s body.

Rafael Nadal is the world’s No. 1. This is incredible. At 31, he was battered with injuries last year. He withdrew from the 2016 French Open and from Wimbledon. Ranked as low as No. 9 last January, in just several months, he has overtaken everyone.

Roger Federer is even more impressive. He won the Australian Open and Wimbledon and he’s favored to win a sixth US Open crown next Sunday. Aged 36 and 31, Roger and Rafa are defying the conventional wisdom that athletes can’t last long. Bjorn Borg retired at 26. Pete Sampras left at 31. Federer and Nadal are able to extend their careers because of proper scheduling. Injured? They stop and take an extended vacation. Tired? They don’t play the following tournament. They space out their commitments and listen to their bodies. It’s called wisdom from old age.

How does the US Open compare to the other majors? It’s loud. It’s filled with thousands of people crisscrossing the Tennis Center inside Corona Park, a colossal venue of 363 hectares in Queens. The Arthur Ashe Stadium is the largest tennis stadium on this planet, seating nearly 24,000. I remember watching with Fabby Borromeo at the top-most bleacher and Andre Agassi looked like an ant! It’s summer in New York today and the weather can get scorching hot. So the spectators wear sleeveless shirts, baggy shorts and sandals. They drink Heinekin. Because as formal as Wimbledon is, the US Open is the opposite: it’s noisy, high energy, pump-fisting tennis.

Among the men, I’d love to see an Alexander Zverev or Dominic Thiem win the $3.7 million singles champion’s prize money. Among the women, Serena Williams is pregnant. This gives everyone a chance. The first round match to watch? Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova. If my Google research is correct, this match should be shown at 7 a.m. today at Fox Sports.

As for Treat Huey, our best-ever Filipino-American doubles specialist who was ranked as high as 18 in the world (he’s now 62), it’s the same sad news as Djokovic and Murray: Treat Huey has withdrawn due to injury.

 

Maria Sharapova

The girls are unhappy. They’re complaining, criticizing, saying it’s unfair. The controversy surrounds the most popular female athlete on this planet. Standing 6-foot-2 with flowing blonde hair, Maria Sharapova could have been a Vogue or Prada model. But she’s more than a beautiful face with long legs. She’s a 5-time Grand Slam champion who was ranked world No. 1.

Sharapova, who’ll turn 30 this April 19, is in the midst of a 15-month ban after she failed a drug test at the Australian Open last year. Humiliated, Sharapova has been busy off the tennis court: she enrolled in the Harvard Business School and has been attending to her myriad of businesses including the premium line of candies named Sugarpova. For 11 years now, Forbes has named her “the world’s most marketable female athlete” and her estimated on-and-off-court earnings exceeds $285 million.

Back to her WTA suspension, it will officially end this April 26. Now here’s the controversy. There’s a big tournament called the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix that will start on April 24 — two days before her suspension ends.

This means she can’t join, right? Wrong. The Porsche tournament organizers decided to delay her first round match to Wednesday — the day after her suspension ends.

Right? Or wrong? Technically, and the WTA has approved this request, they said it’s okay. But is it the correct thing to do?

“I don’t think it’s right but what can we do about it? She’s still banned but she can come on site on Wednesday, that’s pretty strange,” said world no. 4 Dominika Cibulkova. “For me it’s not OK and I spoke to some other players and nobody is OK with it, but it’s not up to us. All the people who are taking care of these things should know the rule and do the right thing. It’s not about her, but everyone who was doping should start from zero.”

Why was allowed to join midway through a tournament? Simple. The Porsche-sponsored Sharapova will draw the biggest attention. “From the tournament standpoint she will bring in the crowds, make money,” said British No. 2 Heather Watson. “But from a moral standpoint you should have to work your way back up if you’ve been on a ban. It just seems a bit easy.”

Caroline Wozniacki added: “Obviously rules are twisted and turned in favour of who wants to do what.”

For me, this is wrong. After a 15-month-long ban, what’s a wait of a few extra days? She’s now ridiculed by many of her peers. As one of my favorite sayings goes: “The truth is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”

Buddy Andrada: Why, why, why?

I don’t understand this penchant for clinging on to power forever. Take the case of Col. Salvador Andrada. I’ve known him since 1986. That was the year when I started joining tennis tournaments. That was the year Andrada became president of the Philippine Tennis Association (Philta).

For 20 years until 2006, Andrada was Philta chieftain. Was that dynasty too long? Absolutely. It’s not like he produced a Pinoy version of Djokovic or Murray or Kerber. (Come to think of it, those three were not even born when Andrada headed Philta in ’86!)

If you find that two-decade-long overstaying tenure as ludicrous, wait till you hear this: Andrada is back. He reinstated himself last June. Unbelievable. As we say in Bisaya, baga ug nawong.

When Jean Henri Lhuillier (the main backer of the Davis Cup team and the CEO of Cebuana Lhuillier), and Philta VP Randy Villanueva (who helped bring the five Davis Cup sorties here in Plantation Bay Resort and Spa) questioned Andrada’s return, he vowed to step down. But, as the cliche goes, promises are meant to be broken. In a Philta board meeting last Wednesday — just after our Davis Cup team, led by Ruben Gonzales and Treat Huey, defeated Indonesia — the transfer of power was to have been effected.

Lhuillier, 47, would preside as the new Philta head and Andrada would gracefully exit. But like a stinging backhand that stabbed Jean Henri flatfooted, Andrada reversed his decision.

“We walked out of the meeting because we were made to understand during our last board meeting that Col. Andrada had decided to step down for health reasons,” Lhuillier said. “As it turned out, this was not the case.”

I know Jean Henri and you cannot find someone with more enthusiasm and passion for tennis. He is selfless, humble, approachable, has contributed tens of millions to the game, and whose only objective is for the upliftment of Philippine tennis.

I do not understand the Philta board members who voted for Andrada over Lhuillier, namely Romy Magat, Paranaque Mayor Edwin Olivarez, Dr. Pablo Olivarez (attending in behalf of daughter Edna Nguyen), and the father and son Manny and Martin Misa. They have plenty of explaining to do.

“We wanted to participate in this election properly,” said Randy Villanueva, “but they misled us and now we’ll look at our legal options.”

Andrada is a “trapo;” an 82-year-old career politician disguised as a sportsman. Power-hungry. Selfish. Old. Like his buddy Peping Cojuangco.

Australian Open experience

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As we Cebuanos celebrate Sinulog today, fireworks will brighten the Down Under sky tomorrow as the year’s first tennis Grand Slam begins. It’s the Australian Open.

Last June, we had a chance to visit Melbourne  — adjudged by The Economist as “the most liveable city in the world” for six straight years. Is this “world’s best” distinction, based on my trip, valid and true? Absolutely.

My wife, daughter and I cycled along the Yarra River for two glorious hours. We parked our rented bike and smelled the flowers inside the Royal Botanic Gardens. We boarded the tram service and toured  — for free. (Yes, free city-wide transport.) We sojourned to Queen Victoria Market, disembarked at Flinders Street Station and strolled along their beautiful parks. No wonder it’s often called “Australia’s garden city.”

Best of all? If you’re a tennis fanatic… we got to play tennis inside the Australian Open court.

As soon as we landed in Tullamarine Airport from Sydney, our first objective was to hike the sanctum that I’ve long wanted to visit for years. Melbourne Park was nearly empty when we arrived past 5 p.m. The gift shop was still open and we bought a few souvenirs. Then, we made a reservation for our most important activity in the city: to play tennis.

Forty hours later, we entered Show Court No. 3 — their largest stadium after Rod Laver Arena, Hisense Arena and Margaret Court Arena. After renting Head and Wilson rackets (not our preferred Babolat brand) and borrowing six balls, our hearts pounded. We were ready. The stadium lights illuminated the stadium like it were 12 noon. Three thousand empty seats surrounded us with Jasmin as ballgirl and me and my daughter Jana swatting backhands. Our rubber shoes squeaked as we danced on the blue Plexicushion surface. Each smashing topspin reverberated upon impact. In my 30+ years of tennis-playing, that was one father-and-daughter experience that I’ll forever cherish.

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I revisit that memory because starting tomorrow until two Sundays from today, all tennis eyes will be transfixed on Melbourne. It might be Andy or Novak, although I’m praying for Rafa or Roger; it might be Angelique or Serena — regardless of the victor, the sport of tennis will be victorious because of the Oz Open.

An estimated 720,000 spectators will flood Melbourne Park — a venue that’s part of a 40-hectare greenland named Melbourne and Olympic Parks (the city hosted the 1956 Olympics).

With tennis, what makes the Australian Open different? Wimbledon is formal and classy, with the attendees wearing suits and dresses and snacking on strawberries in cream. The U.S. Open in New York is humongous. I recall the 23,771-seater Arthur Ashe Stadium. Fabby Borromeo and I sat at the uppermost seats watching Andre Agassi and it’s like looking down from the 7th floor of a building. Roland Garros in Paris is played on brown red clay.

Melbourne is hot. Literally. The sizzling heat in January — an oddity because the rest of the planet experiences winter — is often unbearable for the players. Imagine playing for five sets with 40C temperature? Spectators arrive wearing shorts and sleeveless tops. Melbourne is laid-back, unhurried and friendly.

Like Duterte and Trump, change in tennis

As shocking as incoming Pres. Donald John Trump’s victory yesterday is this fact in men’s tennis: Roger Federer is out of the Top 10 — the first time it’s happened since 2002.

R. Federer is acknowledged as history’s greatest men’s tennis player. He’s won 17 grand slam singles trophies, ranked world No.1 for a record 302 weeks, has pocketed $100 million in prize money and, on a personal note, is such a sharpshooter that he is the father to two sets of twins with wife Mirka (Myla Rose and Charlene Riva then two boys named Leo and Lennart).

Federer is ranked 16. That’s astonishingly low. Same with Rafael Nadal, the 14-major winner, who’s ranked eighth. For those who follow the sport, the Swiss and the Spaniard ruled tennis for 211 nonstop weeks from July 2005 to August 2009 — the duo taking turns at the No. 1 spot.

Federer is out; so is Nadal. Same with the 29-year-old from Belgrade, Serbia named Novak Djokovic. While we had grown accustomed to one of the Big Three standing at Tennis’ Mt. Everest, now they’ve been supplanted. For the first time since Feb. 1, 2004 — that’s 666 weeks — not Roger nor Rafa nor Novak is No.1.

It’s Andy Murray. Thanks to an incredible run — seven trophies in eight finals out of nine tournaments — Murray has overtaken his childhood friend Djokovic. This is shocking. First, because of Novak’s collapse. After he won the year’s first two majors — the Australian and French Opens — his game collapsed, losing both Wimbledon and the Olympics.

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For Novak, who’s been so consistent the past years, this might be a case of “What more can I achieve?” After the career grand slam (in Paris), he may have lost his invincibility and motivation.

With Murray, the combination of Djokovic’s defeats and his triumphs have elevated the Scot. How elusive is that top spot? Since 1973 when the ATP rankings were developed, the 29-year-old has become only the 26th player to achieve that feat.

“To get to No. 1 isn’t about today, but it’s about 12 months of tournaments to get to this stage,” Murray said last week.

The No. 1 ranking has been Murray’s ultimate goal. He’s been No. 2 and hovered among the top four since August 2009. You can say he’s been the perrenial groomsman, winning only three grand slam titles after being in the finals 11 times. (This, too, is a double family celebration because his brother, Jamie, held the top spot in doubles earlier this year.)

But Murray can’t rest for more long. This Sunday, the year-ending Top 8-only event commences and if Djokovic goes undefeated, he’ll reclaim the top ranking.

“It might only be for one week, so I might as well try and enjoy it,” Murray said, “because I could lose it at the (ATP World) Tour Finals and never be there again.”

KERBER. On the women’s side, there’s a similar transformation. Serena Williams has been dislodged as the top female netter. In Wimbledon last July, Ms. Williams won her 22nd singles major— tying her with Steffi Graf for the most majors in the Open Era.

But like her co-No. 1 Djokovic, after that accomplishment, her game dipped. She lost in the Olympics and the in U.S. Open. Already 35 years of age, Serena has suffered knee and shoulder problems and decided to rest after New York. Two weeks ago at the WTA Championships in Singapore, she skipped the year-ending tourney.

Angelique Kerber is tennis’ new No. 1. And what a 2016. She reached the finals at the Olympics, in Wimbledon, and in Singapore last month and won the three majors of the year: in Melbourne, Paris, and New York. Ms. Kerber, a muscular and ultra-fit left-hander, hails from the same country as the wife of Andre Agassi.

“For sure, when I was growing up, Steffi was my idol,” Kerber said, “and this is also special that she is German.”

Talking about change, like our Pres. Rodrigo Duterte and the newly-crowned Mr. Trump for the nation that Duterte despises, tennis has its own change-has-come version: Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber.

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Peping and Buddy

I agree with Michael Jerome Limpag, our SunStar Cebu sports editor, in his piece last Friday, “It’s time for change, replace Peping in POC.”

Jose “Peping” Cojuangco, Jr. turned 82 years old last Tuesday. It’s time for him to relinquish his throne and turn-over the baton to somebody else.

It’s funny how people want to cling to power forever. Isn’t this being selfish? Instead of thinking of one’s self, isn’t the greater good — Philippine sports — more important than a solitary person’s quest to hang on for life… like Peping’s mission atop the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC)?

Peping hasn’t even accomplished much. It’s not like our 100-million-strong nation has produced gold medalists. If not for the silver medal achieved by Hidilyn Diaz last month, we were zero for zero in Sydney, in Athens, in Beijing and in London.

He has been POC president since 1994. It’s been a dozen years of despondent Olympic success and he wants another term?

The same I-want-to-cling-to-power scenario is happening in tennis.

Salvador “Buddy” Andrada, one of Peping’s closest buddies and who’s nearly the same age, also wants to return to head the Philippine Tennis Association (Philta). Andrada headed Philta from 1986 to 2006. That’s 20 very, very, very, very long years. He eventually stepped down as president of Philta and later because a commissioner at the Philippine Sports Commission.

Now 81, Andrada wants to return as Philta president.

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing but praises and love and respect for those who are older. My Lola Bebe Alcoseba is turning 96 next month and we still text each other and she still sports that infectious smile and laugh. Same with my dad’s mom, my lola Bing Pages, now 93. The grandma of my wife Jasmin (Corazon Gayanilo) is 105 years old! And I love them.

But, like the saying goes, there is a time for everything. And clinging on to power forever is unwise and awful.

With tennis, here’s what happened: It started last July when Edwin Olivarez, busy with his concurrent duties as mayor of Paranaque, asked to step down as Philta top honcho. Now, like in any organization, once a president steps down — and as stipulated in the Philta rules — the Vice-President takes over.

The VP is Randy Villanueva — the most active of tennis practitioners. (Randy heads the Davis Cup team as administrator and brought the Davis Cup sorties to Plantation Bay Resort and Spa in Cebu five times.)

But, no, like Peping, Mr. Andrada wouldn’t allow the 41-year-old Randy Villanueva to head Philta. Andrada supposedly called for a “special board meeting,” unanticipated to several board members, and had himself voted as president. It was a slick, dexterous and ludicrous move.

Here’s a funny but true story. Back in 1986, I was a newbie in tennis and I flew from Cebu to Manila to join my first tournament at the Rizal Memorial Tennis Center. The Philta president then, when I was a 14-year-old? Buddy Andrada. Fast forward to today, I have a beautiful and bright 17-year-old daughter named Jana who joins national tournaments in Manila. The person who still wants to head Philta.. 30 years later? Same guy.

My guess is that Peping must have called his buddy to return to Philta so the latter can vote for him anew in the POC elections this November. (The National Sports Association or NSA heads vote for the POC president.)

Prior to our country’s presidential elections, wasn’t this country’s mantra: “Change is coming?” We have a new president. Manny Pacquiao is now a senator and brilliantly asks simple yet sharp questions. Win Gatchalian is in; so is Risa Hontiveros.

With Philippine tennis, three weeks ago I attended the first-ever Philippine Tennis Summit.

Jean Henri Lhuillier, the largest benefactor for tennis in the country and a Class A netter himself, was in attendance. So was Bobby Castro, the CEO of Palawan Pawnshop, which sponsors dozens of tournaments around the archipelago. Coaches, parents, sponsors (of all the major sporting brands), champions (like Christine Patrimonio) were all in attendance. Randy Villanueva presented a new vision for Philippine tennis that got the hundred or so in attendance very excited.

As for Peping and Buddy? It’s time to rest, go on vacation, spend time with their grandchildren, take hour-long naps and surrender their selfish desires to new sports blood.

Change isn’t coming. Change is here.

Can Novak topple Rafa on clay?

For tennis fans, you can’t be more excited: Novak Djokovic is the undisputed world no. 1 but, when the game shifts to the slow and dusty surface, the greatest slugger in history is Rafael Nadal.

Who will triumph in their tussle this May? Three giant tournaments loom. First, this week, the smashes will boomerang at the Spanish capital and the 29-year-old Spaniard will try to stockpile his fifth Madrid Open trophy while the Serb will attempt to collect his second (after winning in 2011).

After Madrid they hop on a plane for the 2.5-hour ride to Rome for the Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Italian Open). Then, after these twin ATP 1000 events, all netters converge in the only Grand Slam sortie disputed on clay: the French Open.

Madrid. Rome. Paris. Ahhh, three enchanting cities.

Last year, together with Jasmin and Jana, I was fortunate to have visited Rome and Paris. While the schedule did not permit us to watch Italy’s biggest tennis party at the famed Foro Italico, we were blessed to have attended a service at St. Peter’s Square with His Holiness Pope Francis.

All over Europe, you see clay courts. Unlike in America where hard courts are predominant, it’s the dirty, sluggish, slippery and red-colored flooring that’s common in that continent.

At the French Open last year, Jana, Jasmin and I chuckled like small kids entering Disneyland. Stade Roland Garros, built in 1928, is the name of the 8.5-hectare complex that houses 20 courts, including its center stage, Court Philippe Chatrier.

We visited in the early rounds and got to see all the big names. The venue is not as humongous as the U.S. Open site in New York and you can trek from side courts to the bigger stadiums in a minute or two. This year, the French Open begins its two-week-long journey on May 22.

Question: Rafa or Novak? Their rivalry is the most prolific of any two players; they’ve challenged each other 48 times with Novak leading 25-23. In terms of Grand Slam trophies won, the Spaniard beats the Serb, 14 to 11. But when we tally their respective reigns as world no. 1, it’s Novak who leads, 193 weeks (and counting) versus 141 weeks for Rafa.

At Roland Garros, here’s where it gets interesting. Nadal has won this title a preposterous nine times (beginning in 2005 when he first joined it) while Djokovic has zero.

The 28-year-old right-hander from Belgrade who stands 6-foot-2 reached the finals in 2012 and 2014 but lost both times to Nadal. Last year, after he easily dispatched of Nadal in straight sets in the quarters, he was heavily-favored to beat Stanislas Wawrinka but lost to the Swiss in the final. That painful letdown was Djokovic’s only loss in all the Grand Slam tournaments in 2015. Which means he could have won the calendar Grand Slam (all four majors in one year) had he won RG.

That was last year. This 2016, Rafa is off to a terrific start, winning Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Of their expected showdown, Rafa says, “I just follow my path and I think that Djokovic follows his. I do the best to be at my top level, and I think I’m getting closer to it. I’m trying to manage it. For the moment, I’m happy with my level.”

In Madrid this week, the two won’t get to meet until they subdue all tormentors and reach the finals.

“I think Rafa is everybody’s main rival on clay courts because of his history on this surface and the results that he’s had throughout his career,” admits Djokovic. “This year, he’s already showing a much higher quality of tennis… He’s definitely the player to beat.”

Down-playing expectations. That’s a common tactic of players so they don’t add extra pressure.

My prediction? First, I’d want nothing more than multiple Rafa-Novak finals these next few weeks. And as big of a Rafa fan as I am (like Atty. Frank Malilong), I’d have to put my bet on Djokovic. He’s beaten Rafa in their last six matches (and 11 of the last 12) and he’s never won there — which makes him extremely hungry for that first Parisian croissant.

Why, Maria?

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(Photo by John Russo)

Like Manny Pacquiao, Nike ditched her. Porsche, the German sportscar maker who annointed her their first ever female ambassador, sped away and bid her goodbye. But it’s not about the money. Maria Sharapova has plenty. She is the highest-earning female athlete on this planet. On average, she pockets $30 million each year from prize money, endorsements and her myriad of businesses.

This is about humiliation. It’s about one’s name and reputation being painted red and tainted with the ugly taste of drugs. It’s also about wanting to continue playing tennis — kicking those serves, flattening those forehands and pumping those Russian-born fists inside the rectangle.

This is embarrassing. Her fellow players now wonder: In all those 10 years that Maria digested the now-banned drug called Meldonium, was she cheating on us?

Ms. Sharapova said that, in the past decade, her “family doctor” advised her to take the medicine to cure some heart-related problems (like when she broke up with Grigor Dimitrov?). But who will believe her? It now appears that dozens of champions systematically devoured meldonium. The list includes Semion Elistratov, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist in short track speed skating, and Abeba Aregawi, the 2013 world champion in the 1500-meter foot race.

“I’ve read 55 athletes have failed tests for that substance since January 1st,” said Andy Murray. “You just don’t expect high level athletes at the top of many different sports to have heart conditions. If you’re taking a prescription drug and you’re not using it for what that drug is meant for, then you don’t need it. You’re just using it for the performance enhancing benefits that drug is giving you and I don’t think that’s right.”

Andy’s right. “I’ve used protein shakes since I was 18 years old, energy gels on court, obviously sports drinks when I’m playing,” he said. “Earlier in my career I would sometimes takes vitamins. Now I don’t take any supplements. If you’re taking a prescription drug that you don’t actually need, that’s wrong.”

Agree. It’s clear that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) included this drug among those to be banned (effective Jan. 1) because it was being abused. I’m sure they conducted tests that revealed its effectiveness in increasing sports-related performance.

“Meldonium is added to the Class S4 (hormone and metabolic modulators) of the WADA Prohibited List 2016,” read the official letter of RUSADA, the anti-doping agency of Russia.

In fairness to Maria, prior to this year, her taking the substance wasn’t illegal. So why did she continue taking it during the Australian Open?

Negligence. I believe her when she says that she and her team did not properly read the literature. But given that she’s THE Maria Sharapova, the Golden Girl who employs a battalion of coaches and lawyers and PTs and more, syaro sad. What a blunder. Just last May at the French Open and during the 2014 WTA Championships in Singapore, I saw with my own eyes her team of hitting-partners and assistants and coaches. What an oversight and foulup.

Because of this “unforced error,” Maria risks being banned for the maximum four years. Ouch. Imagine, at the peak of your powers at the age of 28, being deprived of playing the sport that you love (where you’ve accummulated five Grand Slam singles titles) — for 48 long months?

Her press conference earlier this week, facing the world head-on, was a good move. Unlike the greatest swindler in the history of sports, Lance Armstrong, who camouflaged his injections and tricked all of us not to LiveStrong but to Cheat Strong, Ms. Sharapova has been fortright. Let’s hope the ban gets reduced to two years.

While waiting a return to Wimbledon in 2018, Maria can do plenty. She’ll recuperate from her nagging shoulder and leg injuries. And to alleviate the drug penalty’s bitter taste, she can savor and taste her sweet candy Sugarpova.

La Salle vs. Ateneo

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(Photo by Sherwin Vardeleon/CNN Phils.)

Like the Crispa Redmanizers and the Toyota Tamaraws of the 1970s, like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics of the ‘80s, like Barcelona and Real Madrid in soccer — there’s no rivalry in Philippine sports that rivals the one between La Salle and Ateneo.

One is green; the other is blue. One holds fort at Taft Ave. in Manila while the other is along Katipunan Ave. in faraway Quezon City. And while La Salle features a Green Archer as its symbol, who better to target the bow and arrow than the Blue Eagle?

Since their first meeting as founding members of the NCAA, the two private Catholic institutions have spiked and dribbled and swam against each other since 1924. Would you believe, that’s a 92-year-long tug-of-war.

I witnessed one such clash the other Saturday. And it featured the most popular women’s sport in the country today; the one featuring lady athletes who are celebrities. Women’s volleyball. And it was the first meeting this UAAP Season 78 between the Ateneo Lady Eagles and the La Salle Lady Spikers.

The Smart Araneta Coliseum was divided into two. In one half of the Big Dome, which seats approximately 20,000, you can see one blue color. In the opposite side are cheerers all wearing green. Drum beaters from both squads exchanged firepower. It can’t get more exciting than this.

With the help of my daughter Jana, who’s a first year ADMU student and who resides in the Loyola Heights campus dormitory named Eliazo, she and her tennis varsity teammate Jana Hernandez were able to secure tickets for their parents: for me and Jasmin and for Danny and Chu Fernandez.

DLSU vs. ADMU: Who was I cheering for? Although La Salle Bacolod was my school in elementary, I have since transformed into a blue-blooded parent, thanks to our only child. And so we were seated in some of the best seats in the Ateneo corner. Before the game started, I greeted Rene Almendras, who watched wearing blue.

Ateneo was expected to win. They won last season. They won the season before. In both of those final encounters, Ateneo defeated La Salle. In all, they carried a 24-match winning streak and La Salle was supposed to be an easy victim as the Lady Eagles closed the UAAP first round.

But, no. Alyssa Valdez was off. On multiple occasions, Ateneo would miss a serve and hand La Salle a free point. While Ateneo expected a quick victory, the result was reversed.

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(Photo by Sherwin Vardeleon/CNN Phils.)

First set went to DLSU, 25-22. In the second set, things got worse. La Salle scored the first eight or so points and steamed through the set, 25-14. Finally, in the third, it was the same, 25-18, in favor of the all-jumping and ecstatic La Salle.

I can’t wait for the playoffs, when these two squads hopefully meet again in the championships.

TENNIS. But this wasn’t our only La Salle-Ateneo experience the other Saturday. Earlier that morning, in the tennis courts of Rizal Memorial when the UAAP tennis season finished with the mighty National University Bulldogs winning both the men’s and women’s titles, another duel occured.

In the fight for 2nd Runner-up in the Women’s Division (NU was champion while UST was first runner-up), the scores were tabulated and you won’t believe what transpired.

Ateneo and La Salle were locked in a bout for the trophy. It was one meeting apiece (ADMU won in their first round while DLSU won in Round 2). It was five sets won per team. When the number of sets were computed, it was 10 sets per team. Finally, down to the last figure (the number of games won per team), it was 79-79. A tie!

During the awarding ceremony at the Rizal Memorial Tennis Center, it was a beautiful sight. The DLSU ladies in green on the right and the ADMU ladies in blue on the left. Archrivals standing side by side as equals. One trophy shared by two teams.

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Down Under, hot is cool

If you follow this sport that entails slicing backhand shots and smashing forehand drives, then you know what’s at stake this weekend: the Australian Open finals.

Played on hard courts in Melbourne, the Oz Open is the year’s first Grand Slam tennis tournament. It’s also, literally, the hottest; on-court temperatures often reach 45 degrees Celcius. But as the event’s saying goes, “Hot is Cool.” Australians are cool people. They’re often relaxed, shorts- and sleeveless-wearing buddies who call themselves “mate.”

The 2016 Australian Open runs two weeks long and the tennis has been blistering and boiling.

First, there was the first round exit of 2009 champion (and 14-slam winner) Rafael Nadal. His five-set loss to Fernando Verdasco — featuring two lefty Spaniards — was shocking not only because Verdasco owned a “lowly” ranking of 45, but also because Nadal has had a resurgence of late. After a career-worst season in 2015, he’s played much better heading to the Australian continent. So that loss was stunning.

Among the other men, almost all the top seeds advanced as expected. The other major surprise was Stan Wawrinka’s loss to Milos Raonic. But, to me, that wasn’t too much of a disturbance. The 6-foot-5 Raonic delivers one of the strongest serves.

How about Novak Djokovic? One word I offer to describe the Serb: unbeatable. In the most-hyped match of the 14-day event — his semifinal encounter against Roger Federer — he toyed with the Swiss in the first two sets, as if the initials RF meant “Recreational First-timer.” As good as Roger and Rafa were during their prime, the 28-year-old appears to elevate his game to even higher levels. He has zero weaknesses. And against Andy Murray in the finals (scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Philippine time tonight), very few give the Under Armour-wearing Scot a chance against the Uniqlo endorser.

TREAT HUEY. One player that we know well who’s played well is Filipino-American Treat (pronouned as “Tret”) Conrad Huey. He’s come to Cebu on numerous occasions when Plantation Bay Resort and Spa hosted the Davis Cup. You’ve seen his 220-kph left-handed service aces.

Treat partnered with Max Mirnyi in the men’s doubles and they reached the quarterfinals. Seeded 14, they upset the fourth-ranked pair of Rohan Bopanna and Florin Mergea in Round 3.

In the mixed doubles, the 30-year-old Treat reached one step further: he and partner Andreja Klepac of Slovakia, unseeded, reached the semifinals — the first time ever in his storied doubles career that Mr. Huey has reached the Final Four of a Grand Slam tournament.

“It was a good run here,” he told CNN Philippines, “getting to the quarterfinals of the men’s doubles and reaching the semifinals with the mixed doubles with Andreja (Klepac).”

Though the mixed doubles result doesn’t count with his ATP world (doubles) ranking, his current spot as world no. 34 will surely improve after this week.

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(Photo by EC Toledo IV/Phil. Star)

Why is Treat’s ranking important? During the Peugeot Open event held at the Cebu Country Club during the Sinulog week, I spoke to Francis Casey (“Niño”) Alcantara and he revealed to me why it’s important that the Fil-Am does well in the coming months.

“If Treat’s world ranking improves to No. 15 or better by June or July,” said Niño, “then he’ll be invited to join the doubles competition of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.”

And if this happens, chances are that Treat’s doubles partner will be Alcantara. (Niño reached the ATP Challenger men’s doubles final in Rizal Memorial in Manila the other week and, back in 2009, he won the Australian Open junior doubles crown.)

This means that the Philippines will have one more pair of athletes who’ll be heading to Brazil — and Treat’s quarterfinal finish a few days ago was a major step towards achieving that target.

What’s wrong with Novak Djokovic?

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(Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number one, Novak wins No. 10

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(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serena Slam but no Grand Slam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viva, Italia.

Can Serena Williams win the Grand Slam?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My wish? That SW aces that W.

The Swiss not named Roger

When you’re asked to name a champion from Switzerland who plays right-handed and swings that backhand with one arm, chances are your answer will be Roger Federer. And why not? With 17 major trophies that adorn his palatial home with wife Mirka and their two sets of twins (two girls and two boys), when you combine the words “Swiss” and “tennis,” it’s almost always two initials: RF.

Well, not last Sunday. Not when the Serbian world number one named Novak Djokovic was ready to be crowned champion but lost. Novak was on a 28-match winning streak. He hadn’t lost the entire clay court season, winning in Monte Carlo and Rome. In the quarterfinals of the French Open, he embarrassed the 9-time champion Rafael Nadal. Two afternoons later, he met Andy Murray and defeated the Scot in five sets. The only piece of shiny hardware missing from his collection was the one they don’t sell in Paris. Because you have to earn a Roland Garros trophy.

Facing Stanislas Wawrinka in the finals two days ago, Djokovic won the first set. He was 90 minutes and just two sets away from completing a career Grand Slam. Until Stan concocted a mix of powerful Federer-like winners that bewildered Novak. At day’s end, it was a lopsided display of power tennis: While Novak connected on 30 winners, Stan smothered 60.

This wasn’t the first time that Wawrinka was seeded 8th and expected to lose in the championship round. In January of last year, he was such a sure-to-be runner-up that Nadal fans already dreamt of their Spanish maestro winning the Australian Open. Stan stunned Rafa in four sets.

Last Sunday was a replica: he was No. 8 facing No. 1 with the top-seed an almost-undefeated player this 2015. The result? The same shocker: Stan stuns Novak in four.

I got to see the Swiss the other week. After his match against Dusan Lajovic, I entered the press room and was seated on the third row, about 15 feet away from the small stage arranged with one seat ready. Stan enters the room with no fuss. He’s no mega-star in Paris like a Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or a Gael Monfils. In fact, en route to winning seven matches to win Roland Garros, he had to endure beating two Frenchmen and was often derided and booed by the partisan Parisians who longed for their own to triumph.

During the press conference, Stan was relaxed. First, he took questions in English. With zero emotion, he spoke. I don’t even remember what he talked about. He next spoke in French. Samot! I couldn’t understand his fluent French as the mediamen peppered him with queries.

Midway through his interview, I pulled out my phone and snapped a shot. I was quickly approached by a coordinator and told that taking photos was disallowed. Ooops. I didn’t know. I was asked to delete the picture.

Moments after the non-dramatic Q & A, he stood up and walked out of the room — which wasn’t filled to capacity.

Then, as Stan exited, a different atmosphere ensued. The mediamen entered quickly and sat on every available chair. There was a high-strung mood. I soon found out why: like a movie star would enter a hushed room, Mr. Federer gallantly strides inside. There are no claps, obviously; this wasn’t a meet-and-greet with the Roger Federer Fans Club. These were unbiased ladies and gentlemen. But you can’t help the added buzz when he sits across you, face to face.

Ever the gentleman, Roger is polite and respectful. He takes much longer because of more questions.

This happened on Day 3 of the two-week long tournament. And, if you had a crystal ball and predicted that a Swiss would win the men’s title, it wouldn’t have been so surprising. Roger is acknowledged as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).

Only this time, the Swiss isn’t Roger. It’s a Swiss who, last year in Paris, lost in the first round and who, entering the finals last Sunday, previously lost 17 of 20 to Novak.

Never mind him wearing the funniest pair of boxer-like shorts, it’s “Stan The Man.”

9 thoughts on the French Open

PARIS — My daily trips riding the Metro and disembarking on Michel-Ange-Molitor to walk 1,100 meters before entering Stade Roland Garros have come to an end. Here are some thoughts on the only Grand Slam event played on clay:

1) If you want a sampling of the same red clay in Paris, there’s one in Cebu. It’s called CitiGreen Tennis Resort and it’s found in Labangon. Operated by Jade Abangan and her team, which includes the Siso siblings (Niño and Em-Em), the two red-clay courts in CitiGreen resemble RG. Both possess the same color. Both are slippery and have sand at the surface. For those who have yet to visit CitiGreen, you must. What’s better in Cebu than in Paris? CitiGreen is indoor.

2) Yesterday, I focused on the power game in men’s tennis. Boom-boom, bang, smash! It’s all about obliterating that ball as hard as one’s muscles could. Well, that’s true. But you know what tactic I’ve also observed here? Finesse. And nobody employs this one-two, power-and-finesse manuever than the world no. 1 Novak Djokovic. It’s called the drop shot. And on clay, it’s essential. Because players stand so far behind the baseline (because of the looping topspin), the occasional drop shot is essential. Djokovic has been using this surprise often. It has worked.

3) How much money does the champion earn? First, you have to win seven times. From the first round until the Finals, you play seven times. The prize: 1.8 million Euro. Multiplied by P50 to a Euro, that’s P90 million. That’s a lot of pesos. (But compared to Pacman’s earnings in Las Vegas, the RG champ, after two weeks of hard-hitting work, his take-home pay is miniscule.) The men and the women receive the same reward — even though the men play 3 out of 5 and the girls play only 2 out of 3. It’s called equal rights. A rightful decision.

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4) Did the French invent the game of tennis? Based on my research, it’s possible that the word “tennis” was derived from “tenez.” That’s a French word for “hold” or “take, receive,” which might mean getting ready before one receives the serve.

5) Roland Garros, now on its 114th edition, is the most difficult tennis tournament to win. All matches are best of five. Many turn into marathons, at times running past four hours. The reason: clay-court tennis is tedious. Unlike Wimbledon’s grass or the US and Australian Opens which have fast hard-court surfaces, clay dampens the ball’s speed. That’s why you’ll see back and forth rallies lasting 24 or more shots. It’s physical. It’s sweat-inducing. It’s the most excruciating tenez event.

6) How expensive are the RG tickets? Surprisingly, they’re not overly pricey. During the first days of the week (the best time to visit a Grand Slam), when all the side courts are filled with top names, an Outside Pass entry costs 30 Euro. That’s about P1,500. Not bad for an 11 a.m.-until-8 p.m. stay. For the Philippe Chatrier (center court) tickets, they go for around 60 Euro in the early days. That’s P3,000. Expensive? Sure. But this is a Grand Slam event. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it’s worth saving-up for. Of course, when you go to the later rounds (semis and finals), they’re exorbitant: as high as 948 Euro.

7)  Tennis is an outdoor sport but RG has followed the route of Wimbledon and the Australian Open by their plan to install a retractable roof on their center court. This is expected to be finished in 2019. The weather here is erratic. One hour it’s sunny; the next it’s cloudy and drops of cold rain sprinkle the 19 degrees air. The French Tennis Federation is also adding another show (covered) court, all targeted for completion in four years.

8) What’s the food like here in Paris? Bread, pan, baguette, croissant, Pain au lait. I miss our garlic rice and sinugbang baboy.

9) To help popularize RG, the organizers did an ingenious act: right in the middle of the Eiffel Tower (the most “selfied” place on earth), they hung an illuminated giant tennis ball with the words “Roland Garros.” Merveilleux!

Nishikori stands tall in the game of giants

2015May24041841_473466122(Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

PARIS — Height is might. That age-old adage holds true for basketball, swimming, badminton, volleyball and a long list of other sports.

With tennis, height is a tall advantage. You serve from a higher trajectory. You sprint left and reach that backhand faster. Your long legs assist you in that dash to flick the drop shot. When you stretch for a volley, those added inches help.

The average height of the top men’s tennis pro: around 6-foot-1. That’s the height of Roger and Rafa and Pete Sampras. Novak is an inch taller. Andy Murray stands 6’3”. Marin Cilic, the reigning US Open champion and whom I watched from a few feet away this week, has two Eiffel Tower-like legs. He stands 6’6”.

The other day, a giant of a server slammed 219-kph aces against his French opponent. (Although the crowd reveled in their local player’s win.) That American is John Isner, looming tall at 6-foot-10.

Tennis today is different from tennis in the ‘70s or ‘80s. Ushered in by Boom-Boom himself — 6-foot-2 Boris Becker, who continues to be an attraction here, sitting on the stands as his student Novak Djokovic plays — the game today is all-power.

Gone were the days of Ken Rosewall’s slice backhands or Rod Laver’s chip and charge. In the countless hours that I’ve sat by the sideline to watch the professionals at Roland Garros, they do mostly one thing: smother, destroy, crush and butcher. Their weapon of choice is a tennis racket and their unfortunate target is a yellow ball.

In one of the first matches we saw here, I joined Jasmin and Jana in watching Treat Huey. You know Treat! He’s our top Filipino player who’s traveled from America to Cebu several times for Davis Cup action.

Treat and his partner Scott Lipsky won the first set in men’s doubles. We were ecstatic and hoped for victory. Sadly, they lost the next two sets and bombed-out in the first round. Their opponents, two unknowns from Europe, employed a simple tactic: they mutilated the ball. They must have stood 6-foot-4 tall and they just ravaged their shots.

Kei Nishikori is the exception. The Japanese hits clean and hard, but he’s no physical giant. Compared to the Sam Querreys and Ivo Karlovics, he’s small at 5’10”. Yet, he’s winning. He won in Barcelona a few weeks ago and, thus far, he’s into the fourth round in Paris.

At Court Philippe Chatrier earlier this week, I watched him play a dangerous opponent in Thomas Bellucci. He clobbered him in straight sets.

The 25-year-old Kei is an exceptional talent. Given his small physique, he has terrific hands and amazing eye-to-hand coordination. He doesn’t stand 15 feet from the baseline like Nadal; he stands inside the baseline to pound on his ground-strokes. He hits on the rise. That’s why he’s world No. 5 — possibly the highest-ever ranking for an Asian.

CORIC. The best match I’ve seen here: Borna Coric defeating Tommy Robredo in five sets. They played in Court 2 last Thursday and I was fortunate to sit on the third row. Behind me sat Goran Ivanisevic (who, like Coric, hails from Croatia) and three seats to my left was Thomas Johansson, the former Australian Open champion who now coaches Coric.

This kid is a future champ. His serve reaches 205-kph and I like his two-fisted backhand. He steps forward and, armed with a compact swing, delivers a deadly crosscourt drive.

Only 18, he also defeated Sam Querrey in the first round and, if he wins his upcoming encounter against Jack Sock, he’ll meet Nadal in the fourth round — a titillating contest given that Coric upset the Spaniard last year. Watch out for Coric.

AJ LIM. There’s one other Filipino who’s joining here: Alberto Lim, Jr., one of our bright prospects in PHI tennis. He joined the qualifying round of the junior category in Roland Garros but lost a French player.

AJ is only 16 but he was world-ranked 45 last month in the juniors (he’s now 74.). We hope someday that he’ll be the Kei Nishikori of the Philippines.