Category Archives: Tennis

Can Serena Williams win the Grand Slam?


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.


(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.


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.

Viva La France! The locals go 5-0

Generated by  IJG JPEG Library
(Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

PARIS — The French are an expressive and artistic people. This was reflected on the tennis courts at the Stade Roland Garros.

In an “Italy vs. France” contest two afternoons ago, the French thumped their feet on the bleachers surrounding Court 7. They stood with arms punching the air. They screamed “Allez!” They clapped to disrupt the Italian and they clapped to uplift their Frenchman. The Italian was Fabio Fognini, world no. 27. Twice this year, he’s beaten Rafael Nadal and was expected to win the slugfest against Benoit Paire. But, no; the locals wanted Paire, who hails from Avignon, to win. Midway through the match, a fight among the spectators ensued. The details were sketchy but it was possibly a local guy throwing a punch to an Italian adversary.

Paire triumphed in Paris. As Fognini exited the stadium in a huff, I stood two meters away. His face looked desolate. His head was pointed down. Inside the court, a different atmosphere reverberated. Paire was signing autographs. The French spectators wouldn’t let him go. Photos and selfies were snapped. It’s as if he won the French Open!

This scene is duplicated each time a Frenchman plays. The day before, my seatmates Jana, Jasmin and I witnessed the same occurrence. An unknown in the tennis world, Maxime Hamou was treated like a rockstar when he played. His famous countryman, Jo Wilfried-Tsonga, sat on the stands to cheer. The crowd jammed the same Court 7, a mid-size arena. Hamou was losing to Jerzy Janowicz (from Poland) but the French wanted him to claw back from the precipice. They did all the cheering that they could — to no avail.

They booed. Yes. Booing here is normal. While, to us, it would seem too harsh or hostile a welcome to a foreign opponent, here it’s okay. They booed Janowicz. When he questioned a line call and approached the umpire, they booed. When he defeated Hamou, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, they booed. When the two players met at the net to shake hands, they didn’t shake hands — they pulled each other’s hands. Janowicz then pointed a finger to Hamou, gesturing for an apology on an earlier incident. They glared at each other. Hamou booed. The crowd booed. It was crazy and unlike anything I’ve seen.

The French are passionate. They were also winners last Wednesday.

Nicholas Mahut played Ernest Gulbis on Court No. 2. I enjoyed watching this match up-close. Gulbis, who comes from Latvia, was ranked as high as 10 in the world. He was expected to romp into victory against the Frenchman. But again, the crowd roused him to snatch the prize. Mahut won in four sets. Same with no. 12 seed Gilles Simon, winning against Martin Klizan.

Over at Court Suzanne Lenglen (named after an 8-time Grand Slam champion who reigned in the early 1900s), it was another Frenchman: Tsonga. Everybody loves Tsonga — including those who watched him play the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) in Manila, where he represented the Philippine Mavericks.

Tsonga is forever smiling. He’s a young-looking version of Muhammad Ali who clasps not boxing gloves but a tennis racket. Wearing all-black and looking like Batman on the red clay, he slammed aces and fired crosscourt winners. He was a winner against Dudi Sela.

But nothing beats Gael Monfils. On Court Philippe Chatrier, the 6-foot-4 Monfils was Goliath. He faced a player nine inches shorter in 5-foot-7 Diego Schwartzman. On paper, this was a no-contest. Monfils is the 13th seed while the Argentine lingers at 57.

But in the David vs. Goliath clash, it was the diminutive Argentine who was winning. He won the first set 6-4. Monfils battled back to win the second. In the third, Schwartzman won 6-4. Holding a two sets to one lead, the crowd grew tense. But, energized by the partisan Parisians, Monfils won the next two sets, 6-2, 6-3, punctuating the win with an ace on match point.

“Today I won because I had the crowd behind me,” Monfils said. “They give me, let’s say, some wings.”

Can Rafael Nadal win No. 10?

rafael-nadal-in-actio-against-quentin-halys-at-roland-garros-2015-1(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe)

PARIS — This is the question that lingers in everyone’s minds here.

On his first visit inside Roland-Garros, the 19-year-old triumphed. Every May and June since 2005, he hasn’t lost. The only aberration was in 2009 when he lost in the fourth round to Robin Soderling, the Swede who has since being plagued by injury. In all, that’s 66 matches won in 67 tries.

Rafa has been victorious 9 times and he’s going for that double-digit here in Paris. Can he make it? From what I saw about four rows up on the stands inside the center court, the answer is Yes.

If Floyd Mayweather, Jr. calls MGM Garden his personal garden and if Michael Jordan soared in his airspace called the United Center in Chicago — then Stade Roland Garros is the home away from the Mallorcan home of Rafa.

Court Philippe Chatrier, their center court here, is not massive. I’ve been inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium and that 22,547-seater complex is humongous. While typing this, I’m looking around the rectangular-shaped arena and it’s magnifique. Green seats abound. Glass-enclosed partitions cover the TV booths. Digital screens sit on corners displaying scores. Down below, where, on a full-capacity house, the 14,840 pairs of eyes will focus, is the centerpiece tennis court.

It’s color brown. Officially, it’s “red clay” but, to my brown eyes, they’re brown. What makes this court different is the back-stop. It’s that open space behind the baseline. It’s a huge area — the ideal canvas where Nadal weaves his magic.

I watched Nadal’s match here on a “Super Tuesday.” Why super? Because you’ve got three salivating matches: Nadal first, Novak Djokovic next, followed by Serena Williams.

Rafa played a Frechman named Quentin Halys. The organizers couldn’t have picked (by the luck of draw) a better first-round opponent for the Spaniard. The French here, obviously the majority who watch, are fiercely patriotic. They clap; no, make that they “chant while clapping.” In unison, they all clap like a symphony orchestra to motivate their local guy. Because while they cheered for their adopted Parisian named Rafa, they cheered even louder for Halys. In the end, while the 18-year-old produced his slew of winners, he was no match to Rafa. The score: 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

Djokovic followed. Wearing an orange shirt by Uniqlo, he looks supremely confident and tall at 6’2”. He should be. He’s been almost undefeated this entire season, including a win at the Australian Open last January. He’s won 8 Grand Slam singles titles but never the French Open. Twice, in 2012 and last year, he reached the final only to be thwarted by Rafa.

Will 2015 be Novak’s year? As much as I’m a confessed Rafa fan — I count Bobby Aboitiz, Frank Malilong, Fabby Borromeo, Ernie Delco, Bobby Lozada, Noy and Amale Jopson, and Fr. Joy Danao in the same camp — I think Rafa will lose next week. He’s ranked a lowly 7 and, by the bad luck of the draw (he himself picked the ball during the Draw Ceremony), he’ll meet Djokovic in the quarterfinals. That will be titanic. It’s sad that the two have to meet so early; but then maybe Rafa will leave in the same stage as he did against Soderling.
I closely watched Novak’s game and while he trailed 2-5 against Jarkko Nieminen, he clawed his way back to win in straight sets. The Serb has no weaknesses. His backhand is better than his forehand. His return of serve is as good as Agassi’s. His mind, that unseen mass that determines a win or loss, is as strong as Lance Armstrong on the bike. Like most here, I’m voting for him to win next Sunday.

Around here, you’ll see tennis greats lingering. Boris Becker occupies his usual spot at the players box. I watched how he took off his red jacket when the weather warmed. Seated four seats away was Novak’s wife, the blonde and beautiful Jelena. She wasn’t interested in her husband. She fiddled away with her phone.

In Rafa’s camp, the Spanish armada was all-present: coach/uncle Toni, Rafa’s parents, and his girlfriend, the beauteous Xisca Perello.

Serena Williams

I consider myself lucky. Three times I watched Serena Williams in person, three times she won gold. I’ll never forget the first time. We visited New York and Serena, then 17, won her first Grand Slam singles title. She triumphed in style, beating former major winners Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and in the final — which I watched with my dad Bunny and the late Kits Borromeo and his son (and one of my best friends) Fabby — we saw Serena beat Martina Hingis to become only the second African-American female netter to win a major since Althea Gibson in 1958.

That US Open was Serena’s first major. She and her older sister Venus would also win the doubles crown in Flushing Meadows. That was 16 years ago.

Today, she has amassed a cabinet-full of hardware. In singles, she owns six Australian Open trophies, two at the French Open, six at the US Open and five Wimbledon crowns. That’s a total of 19. (By comparison, the men’s leader, Roger Federer, has 17.) In doubles, she has 13; in mixed doubles, she owns two. Her total runs to 34 Grand Slam titles. Yet, as plenty as those accolades are, Serena only ranks seventh in the all-time list of major winners. The top spot belongs to Margaret Court who, back in the 1960s, collected 64 major crowns!

Why this talk on Serena? Because, at the age of 33, she is still as fresh as a high school teenager, excited about competing. Last Sunday, she won the Miami Open, clobbering her final opponent Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-2, 6-0.

Compared to the likes of Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic, Serena is not your typical tennis player — physique-wise. Many of the top players are super slim. They possess long legs that are perfect for the sprints needed for tennis.

Serena is huge. Her legs are massive; so is her upper body and, if you look at her “behind,” they, too, are huge. Serena’s vital statistics are 36D-28-40. For me, the most interesting number is the middle: 28. As hulky as she is, her waistline is miniscule. (By comparison, the vital statistics of Maria Sharapova, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 130 lbs., are 34-24-36.)

Nobody is as brawny and heavy-duty as Serena. Does this slow her down? Hardly. Her strengths are two-fold: physical and mental. With those biceps as big as Rafael Nadal’s, she’s able to whip those shots with ferocity. But her strongest weapon is her brain. I saw this at the Beijing Olympics when she and Venus won the doubles gold.

Her mental fortitude was most evident last October during the WTA Championships in Singapore. In one of her round-robin matches, she was humiliated by Simona Halep, losing 6-0, 6-2. I watched that game and it was perplexing. Here was one of tennis’ all-time greats being schooled. That mishap would have devastated others. Minutes after the loss, Serena enters the press conference room. I was seated 15 feet away. Was she crying or in depression? She was disappointed, obviously, but she still retained that smile. I will get better, she told the assembled media. True to her word, in the days that ensued she never lost and soon pocketed her fifth year-ending trophy.

Given how she’s dominated the women, talks have spread of her doing today’s version of “The Battle of the Sexes.” Back in 1973, Billie Jean King battled Bobby Riggs for a $100,000 winner-take-all prize. The loud mouth Riggs, then 55 years old, claimed that he can handily defeat King, 26 years his junior. Billie Jean won, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

Can Serena beat, say, a long-retired Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras? I don’t think so. But it would be fun and would generate tremendous publicity, especially for the women’s game.

Is Serena one of the greatest ever? No doubt. She would rank among the Top 5, alongside Margaret Court, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King.

On prize money, she ranks No.1 as the female player who’s pocketed the most ever: around $66 million. That’s billions of pesos — and about the same amount Pacman will earn in 36 quick minutes.

RJ Abarquez and the Pardo Tennis Club

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 7.01.14 PM

RJ Abarquez (Photo by Iste Leopoldo/SunStar)

I watched tennis last Saturday. Two men wore identical clothing: Nike shorts, Nike shoes, Nike shirts.

RJ Abarquez battled Janji Soquino in Pardo. The only Nike difference between the two was Janji wore a cap with the “RF” sign while RJ wore his “RF” logo on his shirt. (“RF” stands for Roger Federer.)

The championship match of the Cebu City Men’s Open last Saturday started nearly 5 p.m. The straight-8 match was a titanic, seesaw battle that saw plenty of momentum shifts. What a fight! As evidence of the high quality of tennis that the Cebuano community witnessed, the third point of the match proclaimed it all: a 20-shot rally, backhand against forehand, topspin versus slice, side to side, corner to corner, Janji firing his semi-Western shot as RJ counterpunched with his two-fisted backhand, neither giving any ground, both pounding that yellow fluffy ball with ferocity and might. Abarquez won the first game. Soquino, serving next, won the second. Abarquez would win the next two games for a 3-1 lead before Soquino upped his level to level the match at 3-apiece.

Pardo Tennis Club, sitting at the center of town with its one well-maintained clay court, is one of the most iconic of tennis spots in Cebu. Founded in 1930, it is now 85 years old. The Pardo TC used to have two courts before one was cemented and used as parking space for the adjacent four-storey Pardo Barangay Hall and the Public Market. Right across the tennis court is the Pardo Parish Church.

Fritz Tabura, the former Pardo barangay councilor (and my former coach when I played juniors), is to be credited for Pardo’s sustained longevity. He and his Tabura family, together with the tennis club officers, have maintained not only the court but the tennis excitement in Pardo. This venue is memorable to me. It was here, many summers ago, that I won one of my first tournaments: an All-Students Championship that pitted the best college players of the island. I recall playing Adonis Lominoque in the finals and, in a tight three-setter where I serve-and-volleyed to counter the powerful shots of Adonis, I won the championship trophy.

Last Saturday, the scene was replicated. Hundreds of people crowded the tennis arena: people sat on the upper balcony, dozens watched from the side bleachers while plenty stood at the Skywalk for that unobstructed view.  The street sounds, from car horns to roaring motorcycle engine noises, entertained our ears.

Ernie Delco, the very likable MCWD general manager and huge tennis fan, watched from his upper deck seat behind the baseline. I sat in between my daughter Jana and Dr. Rhoel Dejaño. Fronting us were Iste Sesante and Jade Violeta, sportswriter colleagues.

Pustahanay? Betting? Absolutely. No match will be exciting without it being called, in tennis parlance, “commercial.” From what I overheard, the pot money reached P80,000.

Back to the match: It was entertaining and evenly-matched. On the average, I’d guess that eight to 10 shots per point were hit. That’s a very high standard. Few errors emanated from the Babolat racket of Janji; same few mistakes were hit from the Technifibre racket of RJ. Three-all. Four-all. Five-all. Up until the final games, you’d never know who’d triumph. When Janji broke RJ to take a 5-4 lead, RJ won seven straight points to lead 6-5. The score reached 6-6, 30-all. How close and thrilling can this contest be?

Janji Soquino, who spent years as a top coach in Singapore and Malaysia before returning home last year, had his chances in the 13th game. But the 22-year-old RJ Abarquez was tough. He led 7-6. With the late afternoon lights being replaced by darkness and the clock reaching 6:30 p.m, Soquino started to show signs of fatigue. He double-faulted at 15-all and, at 30-all, he had to push against the wall because cramps bothered his calves. With that lone match point, RJ took advantage of the medical problem to win, 8-6.

Game, set, (outstanding!) match.

Tennis-playing priests: ‘It’s good to serve’

2015-02-05 22.35.57

Awards Night at the Padgett Place

Archbishop Jose Serofia Palma, the eloquent and always smiling leader of the Cebu archdiocese, stood before the assembled priests last Thursday night and declared these nuggets of sports wisdom: “Tennis brings us together. It keeps us united. The Pope himself exhorted us to go out of our churches and take a break. Let’s be active.”

Bishop Ricardo Baccay of Tuguegarao echoed those words by adding: “Let us be passionate in our service… both in serving in tennis and in serving our parishes. The more active we are physically, the better we’re able to serve.”

One hundred thirty priests representing 19 provinces and 16 dioceses (including five religious congregations and three bishops: Baccay, Precioso Cantillas of Maasin, Leyte, and Antonio Palang of Mindoro) gathered in Cebu City earlier this week to serve.

By “serve,” I mean the movement where you toss a yellow ball, swing your arm backwards to scratch your back, then you slap forward to pounce a shot.

Fr. Fernando Suarez, who celebrated his birthday yesterday, conceptualized this tournament for priests back in the year 2010. After five years in Manila, he decided to change venues and try our city.

Msgr. Ruben Labajo, himself a tennis player, led the 31-priest Cebu contingent in helping organize the tournament. He was assisted by dozens, including Frederick Yap, Wilson Ong, Michael Sy, Zsazsa Sierra, the Tabura family (Fritz, Jun and Freza) and the Siso siblings, Niño and Em-Em. Lito and Fe Barino of Duros Land sponsored the Awards Night at their beautiful skyscraper, The Padgett Place.

During the awarding, Archbishop Palma was gifted with two Technifibre tennis rackets by Fr. Suarez. A former netter who stopped because of his busy schedule, Archbishop Palma told Msgr. Ruben, “Let’s play tennis again.”

That evening when I had the chance to sit beside him, I said: “Archbishop Palma, I only have one child and she’s become a national junior tennis champion. It was you who baptized her (Jana).”

2015-02-05 22.33.15With Archbishop Palma

The 6th Fr. Suarez Cup, which ran from Feb. 3 to 5, saw the priests wearing shorts and not vestments, lifting rackets instead of holding rosary beads. The priests were engaged in all-out battle. Yes, believe me, having watched several intense matches this week, the priests are competitive. (Consider that the first prize includes both a Norkis motorcycle and a trip to Poland to represent the nation in the all-priests international tournament.)

Fr. Jose Dosado, a good friend from the former Sancase Tennis Club, won the 56-and-above singles category. In doubles, Fr. Arnel Haber teamed up with Fr. Jerry Pascual to win the doubles crown; they come from Tagum.

The indefatigable Fr. Suarez, whose stamina has amazed his tennis friends (once, he played 12 consecutive sets of tennis), won the 46-55 singles category.

Why, I asked Fr. ‘Do Suarez, do you like the game of tennis?

Ever the inspiration (and healer) to so many, he recited the ABCs.

“A” stands for “Ace.” In tennis, like in life, you serve and “don’t expect anything in return.”

“B” stands for “Be Grounded.”

“C” is “Consistency.” I’ve been privileged to recently play four sets of tennis with Fr. Fernando (we partnered in one and played against each other in three — him winning all four doubles sets) and he’s like a wall; returning shot after shot with his two-handed forehands and backhands. Same with life, it’s essential for us to be steady.

“D” is “Do Not Underestimate Your Opponent” (for tennis) and “Do Not Judge Others” (in life).

With “E,” it’s simply to “Enjoy.”

Fr. Suarez imparted one final message to us three nights ago: He once had a problem with his tennis serve and so he asked his good friend Roland So, a former Davis Cup star, for a tip. Roland’s answer was perfect: ‘Bend your knees.’

In tennis, the more we bend our knees, the better our service; in life, we ought to do the same: bend our knees to be humble and bend our knees in prayer to God.

6th Fr. Fernando Suarez Tennis Cup

It’s a first. For the first five years, it was held in Manila. Now, it’s here in Cebu. I’m talking of the national tennis tournament for priests that’s called the Fr. Suarez Cup.

Over 100 priests from all over the nation are here in our shores to swat forehands, to exchange volleys, to serve. Yes, these clergymen not only serve their parishes but also serve the tennis ball.

Fr. Fernando Suarez, known all over the world as a healing priest who has healed hundreds, if not thousands, founded this event in 2010. From an initial 50+ participants, it has grown three-fold.

The three-day tournament started last Tuesday with a mass at 11 a.m. officiated by Bishop Ricardo Baccay of Tuguegarao. In his inspiring homily — the first time I’ve heard mass where majority of the attendees were priests — he exhorted all “to be active.” Bishop Baccay said that for the priests to be energized and ready to serve, they have to be physically active. Tennis, the sport involving service, is an ideal sport for real-life service.

The event is divided into singles and doubles categories. For the singles play, there are three groups: 45 years old and under, 46 to 55, and 56 and older. Doubles is open to all age brackets.

Together with several from Cebu (Mike Sy, Wilson Ong, Fritz Tabura, Nino Siso and more), we’ve helped organize the event. The challenge is how to accommodate over 100 players in all categories in three short days. We had to pick five venues: Alta Vista, Citigreen, Talisay Tennis Club, La Paloma and Pardo Tennis Club.

The Fr. Suarez Cup is exciting not only because the priests are able to enjoy the sport they love; they’re also able to mingle with fellow netters who come from Mindoro, Bicol, Manila, Bacolod, Maasin, Cagayan de Oro and several more cities. Plus, the prizes are good: a trip to Rome and a brand-new motorcycle for the winners. And, the chance to represent the country in the international for-priests-only tournament in Poland later this year.

I got the chance to play with Fr. Suarez himself the past week and he’s a Class A player who’ll be tough to beat, especially in singles. The event finishes today with the final matches in Alta Vista and Citigreen; it culminates with mass and dinner tonight at The
Padgett Place.

Edwin Salazar in the Australian Open


Tennis was introduced to him by his dad Doroteo Salazar and mom Zenaida. “I was 13 then,” recalls Edwin, whose first backhands were hit at the court “in the Reclamation Area near the old White Gold.” But it was at the Casino Español where, almost nightly, he would smother those Rafael Nadal-like topspin forehands.

Edwin Salazar is now Australian. A top engineer whose family owns the Salazar Colleges of Science And Institute of Technology (SCSIT) here in Cebu, Edwin has relocated to Australia since 2007.

He and his family reside in the City of Gold Coast, Queensland. “This is the equivalent of Boracay – a tourist destination,” said Edwin, who works as Senior Drainage Asset Engineer for the city, leading a team of engineers managing the city’s $4 billion flood mitigation and drainage assets. “All flooding concerns from residents, businesses, councilors & even the mayor come to my section,” he said. “When not at my normal job, I assist (wife) Pipin run The Filipino Shop — a specialty shop that does international money remittance, sea and air cargo, beauty products and Filipino groceries.” Edwin says that his three kids (Paolo, Urick & Wren) now call Australia as home while he, a Cebuano by heart, still considers Cebu City as “my home.”

While Edwin has been in and out of Australia since 1991 (he studied his MBA in Bond Univ.), he has never watched the Australian Open, opting for the nearby Brisbane Open the past four years. A tennis fanatic who owns a wicked topspin forehand, Edwin finally made the trip to Melbourne this week.

“I was watching the Brisbane Open the other week so the expectation was building up,” he said. “The things that you see, hear and experience builds up the atmosphere. As I was heading to the hotel from the airport, you see banners about the Aus Open along the streets. As you head to the venue, the City of Melbourne offers free tram, train and bus rides to the venue. You see posters and banners of products/services endorsed by Federer, Novak, Nadal and the fastest server in the world, who is Australian. The atmosphere is like the days leading to a Palarong Pambansa.”

Engr. Salazar watched two days. “I wanted to experience the day the gates are opened. So at 9am on Opening Day, I was there with about 50 people. By 10am, the crowd at the gates swelled to 5 thousand. There was a record attendance of over 71,000 just on the first day. I watched for 14 hours — the longest I did in my life; from 10am to 12am.” The next day, he did another marathon tennis sitting, watching from 12 noon until 10 p.m.



“I got overwhelmed seeing Federer, Nadal, Novak, Serena Williams, Kournikova, Sharapova, Wawrinka and many more,” said Edwin. “In the outside show courts, I was seated beside the coaching team of Richard Gasquet while watching him play.”

Rod Laver Arena is the tournament’s center court. Inside, said Edwin, “the atmosphere is nice to experience especially if an Australian is playing. Lahi gyud ug local boy ang nag duwa. The fanatics, a group of 20-25, have a repertoire of cheers that can pump up the player and the crowd. This group creates the atmosphere. They cheer, dance, wear nationalistic costumes. See my selfie with them. This was experienced during Hewitt vs. Zhang. Also, the human wave. But have you seen the slow motion human wave? I experienced that in the Hewitt game.”

Edwin longed to take an autograph with a top player. “While having my burger for lunch Tuesday noon, Yvonne Golangong, one of Australia’s greats, was having a meeting in the next table. Yvonne was the only legend I could get close to.”


Forever a Bisaya, Edwin talked about food. “There were stalls all over serving pizza, burgers, fish and chips, and ice cream,” he said. “Problem is I have a Filipino tongue. So I did not enjoy the food much. I would rather go for barbeque, tinola or sinugba.”

Next month when his school, SCSIT, celebrates its Founders Day (57th, if I’m not mistaken), Edwin will come home to play tennis and to savor the food that not even Melbourne can offer.



CCM. The slots for the Cebu City Marathon (CCM) are filled-up. A total of 1,300 registered for the 42K and 1,400 for the 21K. With the 10K, good news for those interested to join. While the registration has officially closed, there is still an option to join the 10K. During the Race Expo at the Active Zone of Ayala Center Cebu (from January 7 to 9), a booth will be ready to receive onsite registrants. The only thing is, the usual freebies (singlets and finishers shirts) will no longer be available. The onsite registrants will be given Race Numbers (with timing chips) only but these will be offered at a discounted P400/participant. Maximum of 200 slots.

CCT. A week before the Sinulog grand parade is CCM. That’s Jan. 11. The week after the Sinulog party is CCT. That’s on Jan. 25. Spelled in full, that’s the Cebu City Triathlon. Organized by the Cornerstone Group, the same team led by Steve Maniquis and Quinito Moras that brought us San Rem 8080 (a very well-organized triathlon event that I joined last month), this time, we don’t have to travel far as the three-part race is to be held in Cebu City. The distances: 750-meter swim (at the CSCC pool), 20K bike towards the SRP, and a 5K roundabout to Fuente Osmeña. I registered yesterday. Only 500 slots are available and I suggest you enlist today at

TDC. Last Friday was an ideal day for car racing. Typhoon Ruby had not arrived and the skies the whole day were overcast. By 7 a.m., the Cebu I.T. Park revved with excitement as over two dozen vintage sports cars sat on display. One by one, driver and machine were called onstage as Chris Tio announced, “10, 9, 8…” From Lahug to Ayala Heights to Balamban and down south to Moalboal, these multicolored cars toured the island. They stopped for lunch at McDonald’s. They overtook slow-moving trucks. They braved rain in the mountains and dust in the inner roads to emerge unscathed upon the finish at Chateau de Busay. They traveled over 340 kms. The original plan was to make pit stops in Dumaguete and Bacolod; a Negros/Cebu sojourn in what was labeled as a “historic rally across the Visayas.” But no thanks to the typhoon, the route was shortened but the race continued. Fittingly on this first event, the Tour de Cebu was held within Cebu. I watched video footages from Charlie, my brother, and it was like watching a scintillating videogame car chase. Only, this was real. His orange ’69 BMW was chasing Red Durano’s lime green Porsche 911 SC. Exhilarating. PACE, the organizers, have reason to smile. Their event was an inaugural success and they can’t wait for Dec. 4, 2015 for the 2nd edition. Until then, plenty will have a year to tinker with their vintage toys. To Jay, Kenneth, Yong, Glenn, Harley and the rest of PACE — you’ve started an event that will turn international and become very big for Cebu tourism in the years to come. Congratulations.

IPTL. I missed going to Manila the other weekend to watch the International Premier Tennis League. Organized by Mahesh Bhupathi, the former top-ranked doubles player, this first of its kind team tennis tournament in Asia has gotten good reviews. Andy Murray flew to Manila. So did Gael Monfils and US Open champ Marin Cilic. The star: Maria Sharapova. To the thousands who watched inside the MOA Arena — including plenty from Cebu: Ernie Delco, our Casino Español group, Dr. Ronnie Medalle, Dr. Rhoel Dejaño — it was a rare chance to see these world-caliber netters up close. After Manila, the players flew to Singapore. Now, they’re in New Delhi, India. Next, they’ll move to the UAE. There are plenty of reasons why this format is excellent. It’s non-traditional. There’s shot clock to force the players to speed up. Doubles is highlighted. The veterans (Sampras, Agassi) are mixed with today’s best (Djokovic, Federer).

Love in Singapore

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 12.09.47 PM

SINGAPORE — If you follow tennis, you know that the meaning of “love” is different with this game. While love means everything in life, in tennis, it means nothing. It’s zero. What transpired here the past week was love-filled.

First, the shocker. It happened last Wednesday when Serena Williams lost to Simona Halep. The score: 6-0, 6-2. The first eight games were won by the 23-year-old Romanian. Watching from the bleachers, the sound was deafening inside the Indoor Stadium. All of us were in disbelief. Was this happening?

But, thanks to the round robin format, a loss doesn’t mean an exit. Usually, tournaments employ a knockout system. You lose, you’re out. Not in the BNP Paribas WTA Finals.

At the press conference minutes after that embarrassment, I sat 15 feet away from Serena. She was downtrodden but still managed to smile. (Amazing how champions stay positive despite defeat.)

Serena survived — barely — to make it to the semis. In the last elimination round match of her group, Ana Ivanovic had a chance to gain entry had she won in straight sets over Halep. She won the first set. But then Halep won the second set and vanquished the chance for Ana. Serena, by virtue of a higher quotient, advanced.

FINAL. Last Sunday at 7 p.m. during the Women’s Singles final, the stadium brimmed with a boisterous crowd. Top Philta official Randy Villanueva was here. So was Jean Henri Lhuillier, accompanied by his wife Bea Lucero-Lhuillier. Many top honchos and players from Philippine tennis watched.

Three legends were in attendance. Chris Evert entered the arena and was honored as a WTA Ambassador. Martina Navratilova has the doubles trophy named after her. Also here was the founder of the WTA herself, Billie Jean King. The three Americans sat beside each other at courtside.

The Serena-Simona final was just like their match on Wednesday. Only this time, the roles were reversed. Then, Simona was the aggressor. This time, Serena made sure to be in control.

“I had to play more Serena-style tennis,” she said, “and just do what I do best: enforce myself.”

Serena’s serve, nearing 200-kph on many occasions, was the overpowering shot. On short balls or on floaters, she’d run towards the net and topspin-volley the ball for a winner. In one memorable game while Halep served, she finished the point with a thunderous smash. On her subsequent shot, returning serve, she smothered that ball so hard that it boomeranged harder than Halep’s serve.

Halep was helpless. It was another cold-blooded and unforgiving display of tennis from SW — the same type that won her 18 major singles crowns.

Personally, I’m lucky to have witnessed a few historic Serena moments: when she won her first major in New York at the age of 17; when she won the Olympic doubles gold with Venus in Beijing; and two nights ago.

DOUBLES. Speaking of “love,” another love set occurred in doubles when Sania Mirza and Cara Black blanked the defending champions, Peng Shuai and Hsieh Su-Wei, 6-1, 6-0. Everybody expected a closer bout. The Chinese/Taiwanese pair were the higher seeds (No. 2). But Mirza/Black were inspired. They were down a match point in the quarterfinals and down three match points in the semis but survived. They possessed that nothing-to-lose spirit last Sunday and, after losing the opening game, won 12 straight games.

TV. Too bad for us at home, I don’t think the BNP Paribas WTA Finals was shown on TV. The Singapore tournament should have been broadcasted worldwide — especially to Asia considering that it was the first-ever WTA Finals held in Asia-Pacific.

FUTURE ACES. One program that the organizers included was the Future Aces. They invited the top 14- and 16-and-under female player from each Southeast Asian country to join in a round-robin competition held at the Kallang Tennis Centre. Monica Cruz and Rafa Villanueva represented the Philippines. Not only did they get to join and play, they also got to be up close with the Top 8. During the Draw Ceremony the other Saturday, Rafa stood beside Serena Williams and was gifted with her Wilson racket! Nice!

SEA EVENT. There was also another junior tournament: the South East Asian Championships featuring the top two boys and girls players from the 12-, 14-, and 16-and-under divisions of the various ASEAN countries. Representing the Boys 14 was Cebu’s very own, Arthur Craig “Iggy” Pantino.

BALLKIDS. I’m also here as a tennis parent. My daughter Jana, together with top junior netter Kara Salimbangon, are the two representatives from the Philippines in the ballkids program. Indonesia is also represented by two girls, joining 48 children from Singapore. What a rare chance for Jana and Kara to be on court, just a few feet away, from the world’s Top 8.

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 12.11.17 PM

Beauty and the Best in the Lion City


(Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Here, it’s all about “the girls.” The dominant colors of the tennis court at the Singapore Indoor Stadium and the Gardens By The Bay attraction all emit one lady-like color: Purple.

With tennis, only the girls are invited. The top eight men will have their own season-ending ATP Finals in London; here in Singapore, it’s only the top eight women singles players and the top eight lady doubles pairings that have been welcomed. Even the Future Stars tournament for children 14- and 16-and-below are all-girls.

On Opening Night last Monday, the first match was the highlight: Ana Ivanovic and Serena Williams.

I don’t know if it was a mere coincidence but when Serena Williams stepped into the court and started to warm-up, would you believe the song they blasted on the loud speakers: “I Like Big Butts.” I doubt it if anyone noticed the vulgar song but, wow, what timing.

The WTA Finals couldn’t have asked for a better pairing: Serena is world No. 1 while Ana was formerly at the top. In their Australian Open meeting last January, Ana defeated Serena for the first time after eight meetings.

The American led early, 3-1, before the Serbian fought back and, at 4-all, earned a break point; but she missed an easy volley by inches. Deuce. That was the only chance for Ivanovic to pounce. She lost that game and the game thereafter, losing the first set, 6-4.

In the “point of the match,” Serena was ushered to the net by a short ball by Ana; a lob was thrown to the ceiling as Serena smashed the ball hard; but waiting by the baseline and with a high jump, Ana smashed the ball in reply for a winner. A smash counters a smash!

The contrast between the two was captivating. Ana, soaring tall at 6-foot-1, is slender. She moves like a gazelle. Serena is a few inches shorter but is stocked with might and muscle.

The biggest advantage of Serena? Her serve. It clocked up to 194-kph and would give her one or two free points each time she serves. She can also split! A couple of times when she had to sprint to the side, she’d stretch, extend and split. Outstanding flexibility.

In the 2nd set, Ana gained an early break but it quickly evaporated. When she served to remain in the match at 4-5, she double-faulted. Down match points, she succumbed to the indomitable Ms. Williams. Final score: 6-4, 6-4.

2014-10-20T134811Z_1503752317_GM1EAAK1OGM01_RTRMADP_3_TENNIS-WOMEN-WTA(Edgar Su/Reuters)

In Game 2, it was Eugenie Bouchard vs. Simona Halep. Of the eight ladies competing, these two are the only “rookies” (first-timers) to the WTA Finals.

I was hoping for a Bouchard victory. Instead, she was spraying errors all over Singapore. Only 20, she plays with the reckless abandonment of a youngster. At the other side of the net, Halep was as steady as a wall, hardly making any mistakes. Plus, she had a large contingent who flew all the way from Romania. They were loud and they motivated the diminutive 5-foot-6. In the end, it was an easy romp for Halep, 6-2, 6-3.

Li Na, Martina dazzle in the WTA Finals opening


(AFP photo)

SINGAPORE — Prior to the very first session here at the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Finals — featuring the beauteous Ana Ivanovic versus the best, Serena Williams — there were two important moments last Monday.

The Legends. Yes, four of them played one pro-set (up to 8) of tennis. Martina Navratilova and Marion Bartoli teamed up against Tracy Austin and Iva Majoli.

The Singapore Indoor Stadium, which houses the WTA Finals this October 20 to 26, is not as giant-sized as the MOA Arena or Smart Araneta Coliseum in Manila. Capacity-wise, it only seats 12,000. It’s cozy and comfortable. All the seats are cushioned. The airconditioning is far, far colder than Cebu Coliseum’s. At the center stood one rectangle: the tennis court, colored purple since this is an all-women’s tournament.

As the legends entered, the entire arena turned dark. Then, all lights focused on the court. They installed giant projectors to illuminate the rectangle, showing not just a spectrum of colors but actual images — yes, a mammoth TV screen on the tennis court! Amazing technology.

The legendary star? Who else but Martina Navratilova. Already 58 years old, she can still volley like a teenager and drive that forehand up the middle like a WTA pro. She is the holder of the most extraordinary of statistics in Tennisdom: In Grand Slam events, she owns 18 singles trophies, 31 women’s doubles titles, and 10 mixed doubles crowns. She’s won these year-ending WTA Finals a whopping eight times.

Here in Singapore, like she is received everywhere around the globe, Martina is revered. As evidence of her athleticism despite nearing “senior citizenship (age 60),” in one point she sprinted back from near the net to the backcourt to retrieve a lob then, two shots later, scuttled her feet to smack a forehand down-the-line winner. The crowd roared in applause. Two points later, she calmly ends the game with an ace. Trademark Navratilova.


(Getty Images)

The Legends exhibition was fun because all four of them were having fun. Towards the end of the set, the announcer enters the court and speaks to Iva Majoli, reprimanding her for being coached. Her “coach?” Her little daughter, seated nearby, who gave her mom some words of support. It was all for laughs and entertainment. We were entertained and the score, with Navratilova-Bartoli defeating Majoli-Austin, 8-5, was not as important as the crowd’s delight.

By 7 p.m., it was another showcase. This time, the greatest Asian female player of all time was to be recognized.

Li Na, who rose to become world No. 2 last February but shockingly retired from pro tennis recently due to chronic knee problems, was being honored. Wearing a dazzling long black dress, a tribute was organized for the 32-year-old Chinese star, who won the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open. Had Li Na not retired, she was to have been part of the WTA Finals Singapore and would have stolen the glamour from the likes of Serena and Maria. Sayang. But still, it was terrific to see her.

Laser lights sprinkled as fireworks erupted inside the coliseum. Drum sets thumped. As the boys and girls banged their drums, lights were emitted from their shirts. Smoke machines exhaled fog. Us The Duo, the husband-and-wife band of Michael and Carissa Rae Alvarado, sang a few songs to excite the Singaporean audience.

Then, in an unprecedented moment, after making the ceremonial serve to start the WTA Finals (the first time the Asia-Pacific has hosted these games), guess what: Li Na rallied! Yes, wearing 4-inch high heels, she swung forehands and backhands with the Under-16 winner of the Future Stars program. The thousands gathered inside the Singapore arena exploded in cheers.

WTA Finals: The Top 8 gather in Singapore

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 12.32.15 PM

SINGAPORE–You can’t ask for a better line-up: Serena Williams. Maria Sharapova. Simona Halep. Petra Kvitova. Eugenie Bouchard. Agnieszka Radwanska. Ana Ivanovic. Caroline Wozniacki.

In tennis, next to the four Grand Slam events (Australian, French, Wimbledon and US Open), the grandest stage is this one, happening this week, here in The Lion City.

It’s the BNP Paribas WTA Finals. Only the top eight best female players are invited. The total prize money is hefty: $6 million. Plus, there’s an appetizer waiting to be devoured: the year-end ranking. If Serena wins this Sunday, she keeps that top spot. If Sharapova manages to lift that trophy, she’ll snatch the No.1 ranking.

Exciting? Absolutely. We arrived here last Friday and, by then, all the ladies had descended at Changi Airport. On Saturday, we visited the Singapore Sports Hub — an expanse of multiple complexes, housing an aquatic center, tennis courts, indoor arenas, the Singapore Indoor Stadium and the 55,000-seater National Stadium (same seating as our Phil. Arena!). The entire Sports Hub costs S$1.3 billion.

At the OCBC Indoor Arena, we got to see the “girls.” Yes, this event is purely for girls. The men will have their year-ending finale during the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London from November 9 to 16. So, for now, it’s all about the girls.

This is the beauty of tennis: the beauty of the tennis players. The first player to practice when we entered the arena? She’s 6-foot-1, born in Russia but now a Florida resident, and her boyfriend is Grigor Dimitrov.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 12.31.50 PM

Maria Sharapova practiced from 10 to 11 last Saturday morning in plain Nike attire. She was relaxed. Three bodyguards (okay, they were her coaches and hitting partners) accompanied the world’s most photographed female athlete. She’s super-tall and smothers that yellow ball with the fierceness of a Bengal tiger (like the one we saw yesterday at the Singapore Zoo). She hit cross-courts, topspin volleys, down-the-line backhands. By hour’s end, she stopped by the sidelines to sign autographs before exiting.

Next in line? A player who, to me, looks even prettier, especially in person: Eugenie Bouchard. Only 20, she has that golden face and a tennis game that’s golden. Wearing short shorts and a loose black Nike top that would rise often to reveal her abs, Bouchard smacks that ball with a short backswing. She powers her shots with as much force as Maria.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 12.31.33 PM

My wife Maria (Ma. Jasmin) and I were discussing women’s tennis. This is why the lady-players are so famous, led by Sharapova, who’s been often voted the most recognizable face among the planet’s women athletes.

It’s because of this combination: athleticism and beauty. These are some of the best athletes; they’re also the prettiest. Apart from Sharapova and Bouchard, also here in Singapore, though we have yet to see her, is the lady from Serbia: Ana Ivanovic. A former world No. 1, she had the “misfortune” last night of facing one of the all-time greats: Serena Williams.

Yes, SW is in SG. This is terrific news. Prior to our arrival, I had read articles saying that she might not come to Asia. Nursing an injured knee, she could have rested to recuperate. But no, Serena is here and, as an 18-major (in singles) champion and the winner of her last 15 matches at the WTA Finals (she won in ’09, 2012 and 2013), she’ll be very, very difficult to beat.

Back to the practice courts last Saturday: Of the three indoor courts, the middle one was occupied by Wozniacki and Halep. Wozniacki is famous for being the “ex-girlfriend of Rory McIlroy.” Scheduled for marriage this year-end, they split. While that was painful, their golf and tennis games resurrected; Rory is back to No.1 while Wozniacki is back in the WTA Finals.

Halep is not a famous name. Yet, she’s ranked No. 3. Small at 5’5”, she must be the fittest of them all. Before she hit the court, she stretched and did a myriad of training exercises at the side court for over half an hour.

As the banners here proclaim, it’s… Game. Set. Singapore.

At the wide Open, will Nishikori be O-Kei?

Nishikori of Japan celebrates after defeating Djokovic of Serbia in their semi-final match at the 2014 U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York(Photo: Reuters)

The United States Open Tennis Championships, which started in 1881, is one of the sport’s four Grand Slam events (the other three are the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon).

It’s called “Open” because it is open for the public to join. Months before the August start of the US Open in Flushing Meadows, there is a nationwide contest participated in by thousands. The top winner is awarded a Wild Card to join the qualifying tournament. This means that, if you’re a 45-year-old club player from, say, Los Angeles, you have that minuscule chance of gaining entry to the US Open. Thus, the name “Open.”

Open also means that the event is “open to change.” And, yes, what changes this year. For the first time since the 2005 Australian Open (when Marat Safin defeated Lleyton Hewitt) — that’s 10 years this January — someone not named Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal will contest a grand slam singles final. That’s how dominant these three have been.

This is exciting. It’s new. “For a change,” we call this. Because while all predictions pointed to a Djokovic-Federer final, the opposite happened: it’s Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic in the Men’s Finals today, played at 5 a.m. (Phil. time).

The champion doesn’t only win $3 million but, more importantly, gets to be crowned the title, “Grand Slam winner.”

My pick? Who else… but our fellow Asian. Standing only 5-foot-10, Nishikori will be dwarfed by the 6-foot-6 Cilic when they meet.

It’s the first time in tennis history that an Asian-born man has reached a major final. If he wins, then the accomplishment becomes bigger. The person coaching Kei? He’s also Asian — by blood. Michael Chang, born and raised in the U.S., won the French Open as a 17-year-old. This was in 1989. Imagine if, 25 years later, Chang’s student (Nishikori) wins today?

The all-star coaches line-up isn’t limited to Chang coaching Nishikori. The mentor of Cilic is a former Wimbledon winner, Goran Ivanisevic. The losing semifinalists, even more star-studded: Novak is coached by Boris Becker while Roger has Stefan Edberg. These four coaches own 14 major titles between them.

With the Kei-Marin final today, the head-to-head has the Japanese leading the Croatian, 5-2, and Kei winning their last three meetings (including twice this year). En route to the US Open final, he downed Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka and Djokovic — three of the toughest.

This points to an easy win by the Asian, right? Not so fast. Cilic dismantled Federer last Saturday. While tennis experts predicted an RF victory in NYC (his 18th major, same with Serena Williams) — mainly because he escaped those two match points in the quarterfinals against Gael Monfils — Cilic had other plans. He embarrassed Roger with a clinical 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win in just 105 minutes. He, too, is supremely confident.

The key of the match is Cilic’s serve. Against Roger, he served three straight aces in the final game. He was untouchable while tossing that ball and blasting 132-mph aces. If he serves the way he did against Roger, he’ll win. But if his first serve percentage dips and the points last longer, I tip the favor on Nishikori. Go, Japan!

SERENA. Fifteen years ago, my dad Bunny and I were at the US Open as we watched a 17-year-old win her first major title. Now aged 32, this same girl has won a total of 18 majors. (Her finals opponent then, in 1999, was Martina Hingis — who lost the women’s doubles the other day.) Given her hunger and athleticism, Serena Williams is on her way to breaking the records of Helen Wills Moody (19 majors), Steffi Graf (22) and Margaret Court (24).

IPTL. Tickets to the Nov. 28 to 30 meet featuring Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray plus many other top names are now available. For now, they’re selling “season passes” to all three days. They range from the least-expensive (P2,500) to the highest-priced (P49,000). They’re not cheap. Venue is the SM MOA Arena and tickets are available at

The Jose “Dodong” Rivera Gullas Tennis Cup

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 10.07.28 AM(From Sun.Star Cebu)

The year 1919 was when the University of the Visayas was founded. Same with The Freeman newspaper, it was in 1919 when the first publication was printed. The Gullas Tennis Cup? It’s now on its 19th year.

A bit of history: Jose “Dodong” R. Gullas is a sportsman. With basketball, he was the co-captain of the University of the Visayas (UV) Green Lancers that captured the 1957 national title. They defeated the NCAA champs, Ateneo Blue Eagles, in the country’s first-ever televised game. He was later invited to join the Philippine team that included Carlos “The Big Difference” Loyzaga. Basketball dribbles in tandem with the heartbeat of Dodong Gullas.

But there’s another sport that’s even closer to Sir Dodong’s heart: Tennis. One of the most-recognizable events in the Philippine tennis calendar bears his name: The Jose R. Gullas Tennis Cup. It is the longest-running junior tennis tournament outside of Manila.

This started at the two clay-courts of the Cebu Country Club. A regular tennis player, Dodong Gullas would often play doubles with his brother, Congressman Eddie. One afternoon in early 1995, we talked at the CCC.

“What can we do to help youth tennis?” Mr. Gullas asked. “Let’s organize a tournament for kids,” I replied. We met at his office. We booked a weeklong date during summer. We discussed the categories (there would be nine – from 10 to 18 year olds). The action-man that he is, Dodong Gullas was soon announcing to the Cebuano community the launching of this major sports event.

Today, the Jose R. Gullas Tennis Cup is the most sought-after junior tennis tournament in the Visayas and Mindanao. It was the first event to garner a Group 2 ranking. Through the years, we have cultivated dozens of national champions – all of whom have been winners at the Gullas Cup. The names Jacob Lagman, Fitzgerald Tabura, Sally Mae Siso, Oswaldo Dumoran, and even Francis Casey “Niño” Alcantara – the 2009 Australian Open junior doubles champion – have, in their storied careers, all been called “Gullas Cup champions.”

Tennis is a sport that’s close to Mr. Gullas because, for many years in the 1980s and ‘90s, he personally swung backhands and smashed volleys. His son Johnvic was also a tennis buff – and has been present since the very first serve of the Gullas Cup. In collegiate tennis, the UV squad also boasts of the strongest players in the region. Led by Fritz Tabura, they’ve been multiple
Cesafi champions – and national collegiate winners.

Yesterday afternoon at the Inday Pining Teatro II room inside the UV Main Campus, we officially launched the 2014 edition. Before the start of the Press Conference, as Dodong Gullas and I were chatting, in walks his beloved brother, EddieGul. We talked for a few minutes.

With the Jose R. Gullas Tennis Cup, here are the important details: The event will be next week, from August 21 to 24, and is open to all junior netters aged 18 and younger. There will be nine categories for singles (10, 12, 14, 16 and 18 – Boys and Girls) plus five divisions for doubles (10, 14 and 18).

Venues: the CitiGreen Tennis Resort in Punta Princesa and the Alta Vista Golf & Country Club in Pardo. For the first time, it will be an all-indoor tournament. Good idea considering that August is a rainy month.

Registration fee is only P300 per entry (double entry is allowed). This includes all the court & ballboy fees, tennis balls, the Welcome Dinner on Aug. 21 (a holiday), and a free sports JRG shirt. Winners get trophies and gift certificates.

How to register? Visit the “Gullas Cup” Facebook page and post a message. Or, text/call directly our tournament co-organizers, Em-Em Siso (0923-9609117) or Jun Tabura (09278788686). After you’ve registered, visit the FB page the next day to check if your name is enlisted. The deadline for registration is this Tuesday, August 19. Join the smashes and volleys. Register now!

Wonderful Wimbledon

Day Ten: The Championships - Wimbledon 2014(Al Belo/Getty Images)

My choices lost. I picked Eugenie Bouchard and Roger Federer to each win the final point at Wimbledon. They didn’t. The crowd favorites, Bouchard and Federer, just by listening to the screams of the British, were revered.

Bouchard is stunningly pretty. Blonde, svelte, power-hitting yet not named Maria, she was the darling of The Championships. Sadly, Petra Kvitova annihilated her W dreams. The Czech checkmated her in 55 minutes. Only 20 years young, Bouchard will soon be a multiple Grand Slam lady. She has the mentality. When she reached the finals, she was not contented. That’s the hallmark of a champion — that hunger, thirst, need for more.

Roger vs. Novak Djokovic? Wow. That’s the ideal W for these W Championships. Unlike last year’s boring clay-court-like final, last Sunday was bang-bang-bang. They stood on the baseline. They rifled forehands. They swatted backhands. Serves smothered the T.

The first set was nail-biting. Just when you thought that Novak would snatch the tiebreaker, Roger inhales his 17-slam worth of experience to activate his muscles. He won 7-6. This is it! Roger fans believed. Eight Wimbledon crowns. 18 majors. Rolex watches to gift every family member after the triumph. But, no, Nole never goes away. Though he looks downtrodden, though he appears wilted with his skinny looks and skinny shorts, his heart is as large as Nadal’s. He never, ever, as Churchill would say, quits.


Novak wins the second set. And the third. Oh no, we, Roger fans, watched from our TV sets in anxiety. The 32-year-old looked old. As Novak looked to Boris Becker and pumped his Serbian fists, Roger was, like he always is, silent and cool. He was too cool that he was close to losing the dream.

Fourth set: According to script, Roger fades. He goes down quickly 2-5 as the Philippine clock nears 12 midnight. Time to go to sleep, we say; this will be over in minutes. RF holds. It’s 5-3. Serving for the championship — and the chance to snatch back that No.1 ranking from Nadal — Novak goes down love-30. The crowd erupts in excitement. Two points later, it’s 30-all. The fans turn quiet. Moments after, Roger scores the break — it’s 4-5 and on serve! Yehey.

But Novak, ever the brave, fires back. He reaches Championship Point with Roger serving. Bang! Fault, the linesman calls it. Roger raises his arm. The slow-mo cartoon video is called and it shows that Roger served an ace. Yehey! Minutes later, deflated and in disbelief at letting slip his chances, Novak loses the fourth set, 7-5.
It’s two sets all. By this time, the momentum has shifted to Roger. He has escaped like Houdini. By the 5th set, he’s stepping forward, slamming that backhand inside the rectangle. He has nothing to lose — he should have been in the locker room at this point — and an 8th W to gain. On the other side of the net, Novak wobbles. His leg is injured. Well, not exactly. But he’s limping. Yet, he fires an ace on game point. The trainer is called (delaying tactics maybe?) and he massages the Serbian’s calves.

Roger’s fans, by this time, believe it. They can sense History in the Making. For isn’t that the Rolex ad, “It doesn’t just tell time… it tells history.” Sunday, July the 6th, was Roger’s historic date.

Well, unta. Watching the game until 1 a.m. yesterday, it was painful. It was too bad that Roger lost after that scintillating comeback; although it would have been worse pain for Novak had he lost after that 4th set meltdown.

It was one of the best matches I’ve watched — just like Chris Weidman’s win over Lyoto Machida earlier that day. It was also interesting to see the contest of the two people seated: Becker and Stefan Edberg. The other winners? Uniqlo, with their logo plastered on Novak’s shirt. And tennis… for isn’t this game unique? While all other sports involve a coach, in tennis you’re alone… What made Novak win? His heart, will, mind. Finally, the best sight of all: wearing matching dresses, Myla and Charlene. How we wished their dad climbed the box to hug the twins.


Sporty weekend


What a weekend for international sports! Brazil hosted four sets of World Cup quarterfinal games. Germany and Brazil are through. Early this morning, it’s possible that the Dutch and Argentinians advanced. What a final four. Neymar? That’s sad. I watched the replay of the knee kick to his back by Juan Zuniga and it looked intentional. Who flies on air with a knee bent straight to someone’s back? Neymar’s the best player and he was surely a marked man. Now, he’s out. Same with Thiago Silva. Too bad for the hosts. This might become a Germany-Argentina final next Sunday.

UFC 175: two main fights are scheduled and Chris Weidman and Ronda Rousey, the reigning champs, are expected to be triumphant.

It’s the Wimbledon final! Last night, Eugenie Bouchard battled Petra Kvitova. I’m biased. And so, if you’ve been following the green grass games, are you: I hope the Canadian 20-year-old won the final point. Isn’t she pretty? Very.

Tonight is the gentlemen’s final as two familiar foes meet. Like Chinggay Utzurrum and Michelle So, I hope Roger wins. And doesn’t he always win when Rafael Nadal loses early in the tournament? If you recall the French Open in 2009, Rafa lost early and Roger zoomed to claim the trophy. At Wimbledon, the two were slated to meet in the semis but Rafa was slain by the giant slayer Nick Kyrgios.

Roger will win because Wimbledon is his property. He’s won at the All-England Club seven times. If he wins tonight — the final is at 9 p.m., Phil. time — he will have amassed 18 major titles, tying him with Jack Nicklaus. Speaking of the American golf legend, he sat beside Rod Laver last Friday to watch the tennis festivities.

Federer has been playing superb tennis the past two weeks. And, in the only time the two met on grass, the Swiss beat the Serb — in the semis two years ago on Centre Court.

“Against Federer,” said Novak Djokovic, “the key will be to try not to allow him to dictate too much because he likes to be very aggressive.”

Roger’s reply? The same thing: “It’s really important for me to stay aggressive against him… Novak can hurt you down the line or cross-court on both sides. His forehand, his serve, his movement clearly is what stands out the most at the moment. He’s really been able to improve that and make it rock solid.”

What I like about Roger is that he’s attacking the net more. A gifted volleyer, this had often been the complaint against him in the past. Why doesn’t he move forward to finish the points up close? Thanks to his coach — one of history’s best volleyers, Stefan Edberg — the Swiss Maestro has been attacking. This will be a scintillating finale.

ENGLAND is busy this weekend because apart from tennis, it also hosts cycling and motor-racing. The Tour de France will have its first race not in France but in Yorkshire. The three-week-long Le Tour will include 21 stages and 2,277 miles of pedaling before the July 27 finish in Paris. Among the nearly 200 estimated riders, one man is expected to win. He’s a Brit and he’s the defending champ: Chris Froome.

Tennis and Formula One racing fans might probably be switching channels tonight as Silverstone hosts the Santander British Grand Prix. It’s the Golden Anniversary of Grand Prix racing in Silverstone. Watch for an Englishman with the initials LH to win the 50th edition.