Category Archives: Tennis

Pete, Ana, Novak, Serena, Andre, Rafa…

Can you believe this? The news that has gotten tennis fans excited? Yes, they’re coming. The date: Nov. 28 to 30. The venue: MOA Arena or the Araneta Coliseum.

It’s called the International Premier Tennis League. It’s not the usual ATP or WTA tournament. There are no ranking points offered. Cash? Oh yeah. For these celebrity athletes to come, surely there are plenty of Euros. How much? I don’t know; but players of this caliber are given “appearance money.” Which means that, win or lose, they bring home $$$$$$.

This is team tennis. It’s not a common setting. Usually, players play for themselves. Or, if it’s a team format, they play for their country (Davis Cup or Fed Cup).

The brainchild of former world doubles No. 1 Mahesh Bhupathi, this is the inaugural season. There are four teams/cities: Dubai, Singapore, Mumbai and Bangkok. But, wait. What’s unfortunate for Thailand has turned fortunate for our country. Because of the political instability in Bangkok, the venue has been transferred to our capital.

Mahesh Bhupathi_Wimbledon_0_0_0_0_0_0_0_0_0_0_0_0_0Mahesh Bhupathi

Yehey! This is fabulous for tennis. Because while the NBA’s Rockets-Pacers dribbled inside MOA last Oct. and David Beckham kicked the ball here with the LA Galaxy and, well, we have Manny Pacquiao, we’ve never had a Top 10 version of tennis.

Well, we did, but it was over two decades ago. Inside the Araneta Coliseum, I was there when Ivan Lendl played Stefan Edberg. A baseliner, Lendl rushed the net to practice his volleys. There were plenty of laughs as the exhibition setting was relaxed. That was called “Fire and Ice 2.” The first one was a classic: Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe. But since those legends landed in Luzon, we haven’t had a Sampras or Becker or Agassi visit us.

Until six months from now. Ours will be the first leg. After our Nov. 28 to 30 date, the venue moves to Singapore (Dec. 2-4), Mumbai (Dec. 7-9) and Dubai (Dec. 11-14). We’re lucky because all the attention is focused on the first stop.

The format is innovative. Reads the website: “Each match comprises five sets, with no-advantage scoring. There will be one set of men’s singles, one of women’s singles, one men’s doubles, one mixed doubles and one men’s legends singles. Every game counts because the winning team is the one that wins the most games in total. In the event of a tie, the match will be decided on a tie-break.”

TEAM MANILA is bannered by Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Carlos Moya, Daniel Nestor, Victoria Azarenka, Kirsten Flipkens and our own Treat Huey. TEAM DUBAI (called the U.A.E. Falcons) is led by Novak Djokovic, Nenad Zimonjic, Janko Tipsarevic, Goran Ivanisevic, Malek Jaziri, Caroline Wozniacki and the Swiss Miss, Martina Hingis. TEAM MUMBAI (Indian Aces) has Rafael Nadal, Gael Monfils, Pete Sampras, Rohan Bopanna, Fabrice Santoro, Sania Mirza and the beauty, Ana Ivanovic. TEAM SINGAPORE (Lions) has Andre Agassi, Llyeton Hewitt, Nick Kyrgious, Pat Rafter, Tomas Berdych, Bruno Soares, Daniela Hantuchova and the indefatigable Serena Williams.

fe38f36472b64ddc579ea4b718a7463fSerena and Andre (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Amazing list of names, right? But the question is: Will all of them come to Manila? The answer is No. It’s a team event. It’s possible that Murray will be here but only Monfils, Berdych, Ivanisevic, Rafter and several others will land in Manila. Our hope is that the big names — Rafa, Serena, Andre, Novak, Pete — will come. But there’s no guarantee. They might; they might not. And we’ll probably never know until the actual start. What’s guaranteed are a few things: This is world-class tennis, whoever comes. These aren’t your usual exhibition matches where they giggle all-day and still receive that $1 million fee.

“The games will be relaxed and fun but very competitive,” said Randy Villanueva, a good friend of Bhupathi (they played each other in the juniors).

So, dear fellow tennis addicts, start saving up. You don’t have to travel to Paris or Melbourne to watch these stars. Let’s go. Sadly, to all R. Federer fans, he can’t make it. He’ll be busy with a couple of sets… of twins.

Learn tennis with Coach Tommy Frederiksen

I’m often asked, “Who’s a really good tennis coach for my child?”

My answer: Tommy Frederiksen.

For the past 15 months, he’s been the coach of my daughter Jana. He, too, coaches Anday Alferez and Shyne Villareal. Between the three of them (all Bright Academy varsity scholars), they’ve won the Milo National Little Olympics, Batang Pinoy and more than 15 singles and 10 doubles titles.

He’s good. He’s in Cebu. And, best of all, he’s available to teach your child tennis.

Tommy hails from Sweden. On Bjorn Borg, the greatest ever Swedish athlete, Tommy says, “We were born the same year, even in the same hospital, Sodersjukhuset, in 1956 and we lived in Stocholm, the capital city of Sweden.”

Bjorn Borg and Tommy Frederiksen, as 10 year olds, even tried out in the same Stockholm tennis school. And while Borg went on to win five Wimbledon and six French Open crowns, Tommy pursued other sports such as ice hockey and soccer and went on to work in the corporate field (Human Resources).

Now, he’s full time into tennis. He’s the head coach at Bright Academy and he teaches tennis P.E. to those from Grades 2 to 6.

This summer, Coach Tommy will be conducting a few tennis clinics. The first, at Casino Español de Cebu, will run from April 7 to May 5. This program is open to the public with a very reasonable fee of P2,000.

The next Summer Clinic of Coach Tommy is at the indoor tennis court of Bright Academy. This will be for the month of May.

WHY TENNIS? I asked Coach Tommy what makes his sport different. “You can play tennis in any part of the world,” he said. “Singles or doubles. For fun and also for competing and playing tournaments. All ages, from 5 to 75, actually there is ITF world championship tournaments for age groups up to 80 +.

“Tennis is an ‘open sport’… not like running or swimming where it is you and the competitors against the clock or by the measurement tape. Tennis, apart from technique and movement, is about anticipation, reading the play, decision-making, understanding tactics and strategy, concentration, mental skills… and it is also a sport that has style and sportsmanship as part of its history and culture. It is the most demanding sport, and the most beautiful sport. And it’s a kind of art also. Andre Agassi said ‘Hit the ball dead perfect – the only peace.’”

SWEDEN. His country has produced the likes of Borg, Stefan Edberg (who now coaches Roger Federer), Mats Wilander and Robin Soderling. Why are the Swedes so good at tennis? Sweden’s population of 9.5 million is just 10 percent of the Philippines. Why are you guys so good in tennis? I asked.

“One reason for the Swedes total domination during the 80s and 90s, including seven consecutive Davis Cup finals, was their physical strength and fitness built from early junior period,” Tommy said. “Most of the Swedish players as young cross-trained in other sports, such as football (soccer) or ice-hockey; they were conditioning is a natural part in every practice. But today tennis players from all over the world are doing physical training all the time so that is not a competitive advantage anymore.

“Another reason was the big number of Swedish players at that time, our Grand slam champions were just the tip of the iceberg. We had so many good players as we had so many kids playing the sport and guided by well educated and engaged tennis coaches.

“So abundance of tennis courts, many kids playing and having world class idols as role models, and good training by good coaches, and well organised tennis tournaments, especially the Nationals for 12U and 14U.

“One more thing: parental support is a huge factor in sport, especially tennis, and all our top players can attest to that.”

Coach Tommy Frederiksen will hold a summer tennis program at Casino Espanol from April 7 to May 5, Mon-Wed-Fri 8-9:30. For more info, contact Casino Espanol at 254-2648 or Coach Tommy Frederiksen, 0917-3010338.

Batang Pinoy in the City of Smiles

Batang-Pinoy-2014-National-Championships

BACOLOD CITY—Since Tuesday, I’ve been here with hundreds of other athletes, coaches and parents for the national finals of Batang Pinoy, a priority event of the Phil. Sports Commission for the nation’s best athletes aged 15 years old and younger.

Bacolod was not the original choice of venue. Zamboanga City was awarded that distinction but, due to the bombings that rocked the Mindanao city last year, PSC moved the venue to the City of Smiles.

Yes, the Bacolodnons are known for their smiles. Just listen to the Ilonggo’s sweet dialect and you’ll know that people here are friendly.

Bacolod is a city I called home for the first 14 years of my life. I played varsity basketball in La Salle. Bob’s, Chicken House and Pendy’s were – and still are – my favorite restaurants.

While here, we got to tour several of the sporting venues. The Batang Pinoy headquarters is located in a giant piece of land called the Panaad Stadium. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because this is the preferred venue of the Azkals, especially given it’s 35,000 seating capacity. Numerous games by our Philippine football team have been played in Panaad.

It’s located a bit far from the city proper but it’s expansive and huge and littered with tall Gemilina trees that make it look like a forest. Swimming pools. Tennis courts. An international-standard track oval. These and many more venues are housed in Panaad.

Our only complaint is not the distance but the lack of signages. We hardly found a single large sign with the word PANAAD. Or, at least, given that this is a large event, signs of BATANG PINOY to lead the visitors. Still, this venue is essential.

Compared to our city, we admit that the Cebu City Sports Complex is conveniently-located but it’s too small – especially for a metropolis as large as Cebu.

Cebu needs a Panaad. We also got to visit other venues. Badminton was held at the Pohang Badminton Center, right behind the Riverside Hospital. There, we got to see dozens of youngsters playing in the four indoor courts.

We visited La Salle. At the covered court, volleyball spikers slammed the ball while hundreds of La Sallians watched.

With tennis, the results are in and it was a near-sweep for Team Cebu City: we won three out of the four gold medals at stake.

BP

Zethley Mae “Anday” Alferez was the event’s star when she won the singles and doubles events at the Montevista Tennis Court. My daughter Jana lost to a Laguna-based player in the semifinals and settled for bronze in singles but partnered with Alferez to win the doubles gold.

Among the boys, Noynoy Seno of USC captured the boys title via a clinical 6-2, 6-2 win in the finals. Shyne Villareal, Jermaine Laurel and Norman Enriquez also won bronze medals.

While staying at a hotel here, I woke up early last Thursday to do a morning run at the back of the City Hall. While descending the stairs at 6 a.m., guess who I saw? Maxi Maximo. They also stayed in East View Hotel and arose early (with wife Sheila) for breakfast because their daughter Ica was joining the cycling contest. The day after, I read that Ica won gold. She added a silver in the MTB race.

We also met CCSC Chairman Edward Hayco at the boxing event. Of our three Cebu City boxers who vied for gold, we witnessed one who won the top prize.

One non-sports event that we enjoyed here was the Bacolaodiat. It’s an annual Chinese New Year celebration, running for four days, where the main Bacolod thoroughfare called Lacson Street is closed. Walking along Bacolod’s version of our Osmeña Boulevard, you’re treated to a joyous party and celebration. Chicken inasal is grilled at every corner. Loud music booms. Red lanterns hang at the center. Though not as large as the Masskara Festival, it’s gotten bigger each year.

Cebu ought to emulate Bacolod in this street party concept. It’s excellent for tourism. The Bacolaodiat and Bacolod’s chicken inasal: the perfect doubles tandem to accompany the Batang Pinoy.

Stunned! Stan wins… Fi-Na Li!

images-6

The odds of Stanislas Wawrinka upsetting Rafael Nadal were so slim that Jourdan Polotan, my wife Jasmin and I bet a Tonkatsu dinner not on whether the Swiss would beat the Spaniard but on what set he’d lose: straight sets (my pick), 4th set (Jasmin’s) or an unlikely 5th set (Jourdan).

It was unlikely that Stan would be The Man. In their 12 previous matches, the score was 12-0. Every previous set they played was won by Rafa. Plus, if we factor in the semifinals demolition job over Roger Federer, then we had a sure RN-engraved trophy in the making.

But this is sport: There are no guarantees. A “lucky” punch by Marquez can put to sleep a sure-win by Pacquiao; a Chelsea football team can shock Bayern Munich in Germany (2012); a 42-1 underdog named Buster Douglas can KO an overconfident Mike Tyson.

images-8(Getty Images/Scott Barbour)

Prior to us discovering the back injury that Nadal was sustaining, Wawrinka was Swiss perfect. In the first set and a half, he walloped the ball via his beautiful one-handed backhand. He served 217-kph aces. He putaway volleys. If he had continued that level of play, even if Nadal was not injured, he’d still have won. It was a pity we didn’t see that happen.

Nadal’s back problems, him wincing in agony, was a painful sight. This was the finals. On the cusp of his 14th major — with the 14-major winner Pete Sampras ready to gift him with the Oz Open crown — he tumbled. It was one of those mega moments that turned sour. At the end of that 2nd set, I thought Nadal would quit. Barely able to serve, what’s the point in continuning? But he continued. The pain killers must have worked. The vigorous back massages must have taken effect. Because Rafa came to life. From a low of 114-kph serves, they strengthened. He won the third set. Imagine if, by some miracle, he escaped with that 4th set win to bring the finale to a 5th set ending? And he won it? For him, it would have tasted sweeter than any Swiss chocolate.

But Stan wouldn’t be denied. He mentally refocused, ran his ailing opponent corner to corner, and secured that break of serve to finally — pardon the pun — break Nadal’s back.

The tattoed letters inscribed in his left arm — “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” — have come true. Always the best man at these Grand Slam weddings, he’s now the groom — with the Norman Brookes trophy as his prize.

FINALLY. It’s Li Na! I can imagine the hysteria in China today. A nation of 1.35 billion people, just a three percent increase in youth tennis players — buoyed by the victory of their own heroine — translates to 45 million new tennis players.

images-7

This happened to Sweden. After Bjorn Borg became the most famous Swede with this tennis performances, there began a boom in Swedish tennis. The likes of Edberg and Wilander were born from the popularity of the game sparked by Borg.

Can Li Na inspire the hundreds of millions of Chinese girls to learn forehands and backhands? I think so. She may not have won Wimbledon, the grandest of them all, but she won the only major that’s labeled the “Grand Slam of Asia and the Pacific.”

While still at her prime, I hope she extensively tours her native land to inspire the children. Maybe develop “Li Na Tennis Academy” schools from Shanghai to Guangzhou to Xiamen — today, while she’s at the summit.

What stands out about Li Na is her personality. You should listen to her awarding speech last Saturday. She’s funny. Always has been. She’s the favorite of the media during the press conferences with her witty responses. Of her real life partner of eight years, she told the crowd, “Now, of course, my husband, you’re famous in China. Thanks (to) him with everything, travelling with me as my hitting partner. (He) fixes my drink, fixes my raquet… So thanks a lot, you’re a nice guy … Also, you’re so lucky, you found me.”

In the Nadal-Federer contest, it’s no contest

Roger F. has achieved records in tennis that may never be broken. 17 majors. The world number ranking for 302 weeks. Twenty three consecutive trips to the semis or better in Slams. But the one record that will forever haunt the Swiss maestro is the one he has against Rafael N.

Match after championship match, Federer has this mental collapse against Nadal. You notice it in his body language. The confident head of Roger — held up-high against all the other earthlings — is absent when he faces Rafa. It was the same last Friday. After playing some of his best in years, Roger was tipped to beat Rafa, especially given the Spaniard’s awful left-hand blister.

But, sadly to the millions of RF fans, the answer is “No es posible.” That one-handed backhand can’t beat the lefty topspin. Those rush-to-the-net exploits resulted to passing shot winners for RN. He attacked. He ran around his backhand. He listened to Stefan Edberg’s advise to take risks, sprint to the net and smother those volleys.

Against anybody else, Roger would have won. But against one — the No. 1 — he’s beaten. Again. And again. And once more.

The Australian Open semis was billed as a heavyweight fight. With 30 Grand Slam singles titles between the two, it was — only, it wasn’t. Because it was lopsided. Nadal dictated play. He chased down shots that would have been unreachable for you and me. He’s Usain Bolt wearing Nike, not Puma. He’s Lance Armstrong-mentally-tough minus the drugs.

What does Roger have to do to defeat his close buddy? He has to play perfect and Rafa has to be subpar. But this combination doesn’t happen. What happens is this combo: Rafa’s forehand versus Roger’s backhand. That’s a painful exchange to witness. And time’s running out for the 32-year-old. This would have been his best chance. Imagine an all-Swiss final. And Roger’s record against Stanislas Wawrinka is 13-1.

But it’s Rafa vs. Stan in today’s 4:30 p.m. (Phil. time) men’s final. I just hope there’s no RF-like psychological collapse. I hope the Swiss doesn’t say… Wawrinka: Wow-Rafa.

Their record is 12-0, all in favor of Rafa. Every single set that they’ve played (26 sets), Rafa has won. Will it be 13 straight matches for Spain? I know Spanish Consul Anton Perdices wishes so. Or will “Stan the Man,” by evening later, be proclaiming to the world, “Nobody beats me 13 in a row!”

It’s hard to bet against Spain in his encounter versus Switzerland in Australia.

The past two weeks have shown us terrific excitement in Melbourne. Upsets. Breakthrough stars in the beautiful blonde not named Maria but Eugenie. And I hope, as do her 1.3 billion fellow Chinese, that Li Na won the Ladies Final last night. For an Asian to win the only “Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific” will deliver a strong boost for tennis in the Far East.

Li Na’s finals opponent last night, Dominika Cibulkova? It shows us that a 5-foot-3 player can reach the finals. I recall her standing beside Sharapova when they met — a 6’1” giant in a “David vs. Goliath” moment — and Cibulkova didn’t stand a chance, height-wise. But she won. This tells us Filipinos that we have a chance.

The big missed moment was Treat Huey. He and partner Dominic Inglot reached the quarterfinals (and had a relatively easy draw onwards) but lost.

The Australian Open, decades back, was considered a “non-major” by many. The top netters didn’t bother flying nearly 24 hours from American or Europe to Melbourne. But today, it has become one of the favorites.

Ken Salimbangon, Fabby Borromeo and I met early this week and vowed to make that Melbourne trek in 2015. Before R & R retire! (Fabby and I were together with our dads 15 years ago at the U.S. Open.)

Maybe then, when it wasn’t possible last Friday, Roger will find a eureka moment to beat Rafa. But for now, it’s Rafa who, in all likelihood, will tie Pete Sampras for his 14th Grand Slam singles trophy (14 this 2014). Add a 15th in Paris this May and he’s halfway through a calender Grand Slam and just two wins away from tying his beaten foe, Federer. Vamos, Rafa.

Can Huey treat us to an Aussie win?

Treat Huey is Pinoy. His mother, a consultant of the United Nations, is Manina San Pedro-Huey. If you’re a tennis fan and watched one of the five Davis Cup ties held at the Plantation Bay Resort and Spa (thrice in 2013 and twice in 2011), then you must have seen Mr. Huey.

Here’s some good news: Treat (pronounced “Tret”) is in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. With partner Dominic Inglot, they defeated the seventh seeds (Bopanna/Qureshi) in the Men’s Doubles 4th round. Even better good news? Their next opponents are not the Bryan twins, Bob and Mike.

Huey and Inglot were en route to face the Bryans but, just yesterday, the American twins lost. It was their earliest exit in 11 years. Hurray! While I’m a fan of the Bryans, I’m a bigger fan of Treat. Here’s hoping that they broadcast their next match(es) on TV and that the Pinoy-British duo win three more matches to hoist that Aus-Open trophy.

On the Singles category, the twin shockers were Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova both losing. She had been dubbed Serena The Unbeatable. But against Ana Ivanovic, she became Serena The Beaten. It was refreshing to see the former world No. 1 from Serbia (Ivanovic) win a major fight. Since she won the French Open in 2008, Ana had been absent. She’s been on a decline. But after beating the local favorite Sam Stosur and Serena, she hopes to go all the way to the final this Sunday. Standing in her way in the Quarters today, the new favorite of my daughter Jana: Eugenie Bouchard, only 19 but with the looks and backhand to match Ivanovic.

Among the men, I wouldn’t bet against another Rafa Nadal and Nole Djokovic ending.

CEBU SPORTS AWARDS. Very soon, our group — the Sportswriters Association of Cebu (SAC) — will release the names of the awardees of the SAC-SMB Cebu Sports Awards. Led by our SAC president Rico Navarro, we had a meeting last week at the NL Cafe near SM City to deliberate on the nominees. The list includes world boxing champs, triathletes, ballplayers, martial artists, runners and more. Thanks to San Miguel Brewery, Inc. (led by Girlie Garces), we’ve jointly hosted this honoring of superstars every year. This March 2014 will be the 32nd edition.

AMERICAN FOOTBALL. If there’s one sport I’d love to watch live, it’s the NFL. Last Sunday in the U.S., they had the “semifinals.” The winners: the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. They’ll meet in the biggest sports night in America: the 48th edition of the Super Bowl. In the American Conference final, Denver defeated the New England Patriots. It was a contest between the two most popular quarterbacks: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. In this rivalry, Manning led the Broncos with the winning score, 26-16. In the National Conference final, Seattle defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 23-17.

The Super Bowl is set on Feb. 2 in New York. Apart from an exciting game, the world can expect the most expensive TV advertisements to be aired and the best halftime show. The performers? Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

FLOYD. For now, Manny Pacquiao should just forget about Mayweather. He should just concentrate on his April 12 rematch bout against Timothy Bradley. Beat the undefeated (31-0) American convincingly, preferably before the 12th round, then see what happens next. The Manny-Money mega-fight will come at the right time. Now is not that moment.

Speaking of Pacman, I read Atty. Frank Malilong’s column last week about the Marco Polo Hotel dinner for a cause on Thursday night. The Sarangani congressman will share his life story. Tickets are reportedly selling for P1,800 to P2,200 with all the proceeds going to the Typhoon Yolanda rehabilitation efforts. The following day, according to Atty. Frank, the life sharing of Pacquiao will move to the Hoops Dome in Lapu-Lapu City.

From a wild and reckless previous life, Manny is now a changed man devoted to his constituents, boxing, family and God.

While Cebu rains, it’s scorching hot in Oz

Australian_Open_Html_Main

If there’s one country I’d love to visit, it’s Down Under. Located down under our Philippines, Australia is famous for kangaroos, the Great Barrier Reef and open-sea swimming (plus the occasional shark attack), the Sydney Opera House, and this favorite pastime of Australians: sports.

Cricket. Rugby. Ian Thorpe. Soccer. The 2000 Sydney Olympics. Triathlon. Cycling. Name the sport and, chances are, some Aussie excels in that game.

Tennis? Absolutely. Let’s take Rod Laver. He’s considered the greatest tennis player of all time. (The photo I had with him many years back is one I’ll forever treasure.) He’s won the Grand Slam — all four majors — twice, in 1962 and 1969. Roger Federer’s never achieved a Slam. Same with Nadal. That’s why the center court of Melbourne Park is named after their best-ever. It’s called Rod Laver Arena.

It’s the 2014 Australian Open. It started last Monday and will shower all of us tennis aficionados with smashes and volleys for two weeks ending next Sunday.

It’s the first Slam of the season. It’s broiling. I checked the temperature reading and it exceeds 42 degrees. That’s sweltering hot; more roasting than our summer. Victoria Azarenka termed it “like you’re dancing in a frying pan.” The Canadian Frank Dancevic, who fainted midway through his match, warned: “It’s hazardous to be out there. It’s dangerous … Until somebody dies, they’re just going to keep playing matches in this heat.”

No wonder Rafael Nadal was sweating as if he emerged from the pool two nights ago. And that was a night match. If you saw that encounter against Bernard Tomic, you’d pity the young Aussie. It was billed as The First Round Match To Watch. It ended up being an easy walk in the Melbourne Park for Nadal. Tomic, the former world No. 1 junior, got injured. He lost the first set 6-4 and promptly shook Nadal’s hand while he limped.

I’ve had a few friends — Atan Guardo, Ernie Delco, Bacolod Mayor Monico Puentevella, Oscar Hilado of Phinma — who’ve watched the Oz Open and they swear it’s one of the best events to visit.

The fans are relaxed. Many are shirtless. Melbourne is relatively near Cebu. Ticket prices, compared to Wimbledon, are cheaper. And the people are friendly, smiling and sports-crazy. (Graeme Mackinnon will give a thumbs-up on this.)

Novak Djokovic is still the man to beat. He’s the three-time defending champion. Plus, in his arsenal this week, he’s included a familiar blonde: Boris Becker. It was a wonderful sight to see the German Boom-Boom sit in Novak’s coaching corner. As to how this partnership will transpire, we’ll see. But no doubt it’s a high-powered combination.

Andy Murray’s got Ivan Lendl. Federer’s entourage includes Stefan Edberg, his idol. This simultaneous entry of former No.1s is a first. It increases the public’s appetite for tennis. Imagine if, in the NBA, Michael Jordan coaches the Bobcats, Magic Johnson replaces Mike D’Antoni for the Lakers, and Larry Bird returns to coach Indiana.

More than adding star power to one’s team, the mentor’s entry helps the student’s mind: “If Lendl believes in me, then I CAN DO IT!” That’s what I imagine Andy Murray saying to himself. That’s why Murray won Wimbledon. And the Olympic gold. And the US Open. Belief. That’s what Lendl imparted in him. And no ordinary coach can provide this mental boost than one who’s been-there, won-that.

Among the ladies, Serena Williams is unbeatable. Unlike her sister Venus. Serena has now amassed 17 major singles titles and this stockpile will continue to increase. She feels young at 32. Her mind is as robust as her biceps. And she’s drawing closer to the all-time record (22 slams) of Steffi Graf.

As to doubles, we’re hoping that one player will go far in the draw: Treat Huey. We’ve watched the left-hander play in Plantation Bay Resort and Spa several times in the past. Last year, he came here three times during our Davis Cup ties. With partner Dominic Inglot, the No. 12 seeds just won their first round match. We’re hoping they reach the later rounds.

images-1

Back home here in Cebu, what’s best is the TV coverage. We get complete and live tennis action. If you’ve subscribed to High Definition — as Ronnie Pacio, SkyCable’s Visayas chief, reminded me last Monday — it’s even better. In channel 761, the clarity is amazing.

From windy Cebu, let’s enjoy the sizzling tennis in Melbourne.

Smashing 2013 for Rafa

nadal photo

On tennis, when we reflect back on 11+ months of slice forehands and topspin backhands, two words enter my mind: “Rafa’s comeback.”

I’ll make a confession: Whenever I’m asked which player I cheer for more — Nadal or Roger Federer — I don’t provide an answer. I’m noncomittal. That’s because both are the most smiling, respectable and sportsmanlike of athletes on this planet. But, deep inside (Jasmin and Jana know this), the answer tips in the Spaniard’s favor. Maybe it’s Rafa’s tenacity. Maybe it’s his less-talent-than-Roger-but-bigger-heart that draws us cheering. Maybe it’s his humility. I think it’s all of the above.

This 2013, Nadal has amassed a record that is one of history’s best seasons ever. He won 75 and lost seven. That’s a 91.4 percent winning clip. He won the French Open for an eighth time (he’s lost only once ever in Roland Garros). He defeated Novak Djokovic at the US Open to collect his 13th Grand Slam singles trophy. This “13th in 2013” feat is significant because it puts him in the No. 3 spot among the all-time greats. Pete Sampras has 14 majors and Federer has 17.

Only four Grand Slam titles separate Roger and Rafa. These are interesting questions: Can Roger increase his 17 majors? If he doesn’t, Rafa can easily overtake the Swiss, right? (Their age gap is five years). What if Rafa’s injuries resurface? How long can he last this grinding-type game? Given his dominance on clay, how many more French Open titles will he collect?

We don’t know the answers. That’s the thrill of sports. There are no guarantees. (Look at the America’s Cup last Sept: New Zealand needed just one win but lost eight straight to the Americans.)

We don’t know what 2014 will hold. But this we know this December: Nadal is Numero Uno. Wasn’t this a farflung possibility 12 months ago? Looking back at 2012, right after Wimbledon, he skipped the Olympics (where he was the defending champion), he skipped the US Open, and, when we all thought he was ready, he skipped the 2013 Australian Open.

Nadal, who? Now, it’s whew, Nadal!

Apart from the two Grand Slam trophies that he pocketed, the 27-year-old, 6-foot-1 native of Manacor, Spain, won five Masters 1000 titles. These are, next to the majors, tennis’ biggest tournaments. But all these pale in contrast to Nadal’s mightiest accomplishment: He’s healthy. He no longer wears that knee brace. He’s not limping. It’s like an ill man on bed for months who finally walks. Just the mere walking is a blessing. It’s the same for Rafa: just being able to compete on that rectangle court is, for him, a mighty blessing.

Fab Four

Next year will be a guaranteed smash for men’s tennis. Djokovic just hired Boris Becker. We know, of course, that Andy Murray has Ivan Lendl as his coach. I also just learned from our Cebu-based Swedish coach, Tommy Frederiksen, that his fellow Swede, Stefan Edberg, spent time with Federer. Will Edberg be Federer’s coach? If yes, this is remarkable: Becker, Edberg and Lendl — the Big Three of the ‘80s — are all coaches. (Maybe, as teaser during tournaments, they can play exhibition matches?)

The Australian Open is starting this Jan. 13. The winner of the last three in Melbourne, Djokovic will be a shoo-in to triumph again. Remember that, in the last few months this season, he was unbeatable. (Too bad he missed on that Davis Cup win.) I’m sure “Djoker” or “Nole,” as he’s called, will be difficult to beat.

Murray? He, too, will scramble for that top ranking. Now that he’s unloaded that “monkey off his back” (Wimbledon — winning it last July), he’s raring to not only be one of the Fab Four but to stand at the summit of this Rafa-Nole-Andy-Roger rivalry.

My picks in 2014? I’ll play Santa and gift each of the Fab Four one apiece: The Serb will win in Australia; the Spaniard in France; the Swiss in the U.K. and the Scot in the U.S.

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

images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

406068Xisca Perello with Rafa

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

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

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

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

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

Andy, not Anderson, is the Champ

Andy-Murray-2036711

Randy del Valle, a friend from Cebu who’s resided in London, England since 2009, was at the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Final together with his son Luigi two days ago.

“We arrived at Centre Court of Wimbledon around 12:30 noon,” he said. “We passed through Gateway 518 and sat on seats 354 and 353 on Row ZE.”

Ticket prices? I asked.

“£130 each,” Randy said.

In pesos, that’s a high P8,500 per ticket. Not your usual Cebu Coliseum prices, for sure; but this is the most prestigious tennis spectacle in the universe with the world’s top two ranked players.

“What a day!” Randy e-mailed me, just hours after witnessing the historic victory of Andy Murray over Novak Djokovic. “This is my best Wimbledon experience after being here for the fifth time.”

With coach Tommy Frederiksen, friends Jourdan and Jingle Polotan, and my two girls, Jasmin and Jana, in our home theater room, we watched at 9 P.M. the other evening. And while the 32-stroke rallies were intense and exciting, nothing compares to watching it in person.

Randy continues his personal observations: “The last game at the 3rd set – what a thriller! The centre court was about to explode. When Murray broke 4-5, the crowd went wild and you can see a good mix of tension and excitement. With 3 championship points at 40-0,  we were on our feet until the deuce and 2 break points. The see-saw truly was a thriller and I actually expected Djokovic to break and that we’ll go to 4th set — but finally after the 4th championship point, Murray did it and became the first British man to win the gentlemen’s bracket since 1936 (77 years ago).”

On a hot London day that Randy describes as “scorching but nice” (he and son Luigi happened to be seated in the shaded area), he saw plenty of celebrities: Prime Minister David Cameron, Victoria Beckham, Sir Chris Hoy (the cycling champ) and some Hollywood celebrities. He added: “The crowd was great – can’t imagine another tennis spectacle with this type of atmosphere – a lot of firsts… It is definitely called the Murray Mount (farewell Henman Hill) – went there to see the crowd and wow, it’s huge… After a lot of upsets in the 1st week, this truly is the best ending of a great Wimbledon 2013!”

NOTES. What a tournament! After all the upsets, injuries and unpredictabilities, it ended with the two world’s best players on center stage. A few points…

Sabine Lisicki: that was painful. Usually, after a few games into the match, the nervousness subsides. Not Lisicki. Not until the score was 6-1, 5-1 and she was two match points down did she resurrect. But it was too late. We all felt sad for her. With her normal game on grass, she’d have won. Her 125-mph serve is as fast as Serena’s. The entire Wimbledon finale overwhelmed her. Sayang…

Andy-Nole: I actually found the final not as exciting as one where Roger or Rafa is involved. As our group (who watched) analyzed why, we realized the reason: these are two overly-steady, we’ll-never-miss players. Unlike Roger’s forehand or Nadal’s topspin or Del Potro’s running crosscourt angle, Andy and Nole are content to jab-jab-jab until one commits a mistake. They rarely go for the big, knockout shots. This was a game of fitness and mental fortitude. The man with the steelier nerves, wins.

Best quote from Andy: “I think I persevered. That’s really been it, the story of my career, I had a lot of tough losses, but the one thing I would say is I think every year I always improved a little bit. They weren’t major improvements, massive changes, but every year my ranking was going in the right direction.. I kept learning and I just kept working as hard as I could.”

Anderson Silva: ha-ha; I know, he’s no tennis player. But, like millions of you worldwide, I watched the fight last Sunday noon. Hambog! Can you believe how much he was taunting Chris Weidman? He was too cocky. And that’s what happens to people who believe they’re too good and invincible. Can you imagine if the same thing happens to one who’s just as boastful, Floyd Mayweather, Jr.?

Wimbledon and Randy’s personal Grand Slam

Randy del Valle has been residing in England since the late 2009. Since his transfer from Cebu to London, he’s been watching sports nonstop. His current craze? Of course, the world’s most prestigious tennis spectacle…

“We went to Wimbledon last Thursday (2nd round),” said Randy, a top executive of the oil giant Shell. “This was the day after the big storm where a lot of players retired and got eliminated — King Roger, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka (injury), Ana Ivanovic, John Isner (injury), to name a few, and two days after Rafael Nadal’s big upset.”

Together with his wife Christine and son Luigi, he watched plenty of grass-court tennis. “We did not have tickets to the big courts but were able to see some good games in Courts 3-18 (Jeremy Chardy, Bernard Tomic and Sam Stosur plus doubles match of Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek). It was a good afternoon until the rain came at 5:30 which eventually postponed the games to the day after.”

Apart from Wimbledon, Randy has watched plenty of sporting events in London. The Olympics of 2012. Formula One in Silverstone. And, for soccer followers, he’s a Chelsea fan. “My sister sometimes gives us tickets as she’s with Samsung – I was also able to watch a Barcelona game at the Camp Nou in Barcelona this year.”

But his favorite sport is tennis. This year will be the fourth time that Randy has entered the hallowed gates of the All-England Club (Wimbledon).

His passion for tennis started when his late father, Ruel Sr., got him and his siblings to play and follow the game. “I remember my dad to be an Ivan Lendl fan,” Randy said. “I got interested during the Sampras-Agassi days and cheered for Andre, even practicing his double-handed backhand in college.”

GRAND SLAM. To all tennis fans, if you think the story thus far of Randy’s Wimbledon visits are enticing, listen to this: Randy has watched — in person — all four Grand Slam events. Yes, no error in typing there; all four: in Melbourne, Paris, New York and London.

“I’ve always wanted to experience and watch the four Grand Slam events,” Randy narrated. “Last year, I realized that our planned holiday in New York coincided with the U.S. Open and took the opportunity to look for tickets on the first week and got lucky to get one.

“Early this year, I happened to be in Melbourne for work and took the opportunity to watch it over the weekend with my friend Joey Baring who lives in Melbourne. My friend Joey, who is also a tennis fan, watched the tournament everyday (Australian Open has this 2-week daily ticket available)!

“And having watched the three consecutive grand slams, I asked myself why not make it a ‘personal’ slam. I asked my family for to us to drive to Paris to watch the French Open in May and at the same time have a holiday in France since Luigi is also on a school break. This time my sister Ruby’s family joined us.”

How does Randy describe each of tennis’ four majors? The Australian Open, he says, is very sunny, relaxed and free (people wearing shorts and drinking a lot of beer while watching). The French Open is “very strict as they monitor tickets thoroughly.”

“Fun and free and the venue is huge—I find the night matches better than day matches as it is cooler and yes, the crowds yell a lot!” he described the US Open in New York. Wimbledon follows strict tradition, says Randy. That — plus the grass courts — make the London grand slam event extra special.

How he’d score the four? “If I were to rank them, I would say: 1. Wimbledon, 2. US Open, 3. Australian Open, and 4. French Open.”

With his favorite Grand Slam event that’s currently played in London, here’s one final word to keep all of us envious. Randy has tickets to watch the Wimbledon men’s final this Sunday. “We were fortunate to get a couple of tickets from Luigi’s allocation at the British Tennis-Lawn Tennis Association (LTA),” Randy said. “Hope it will be a Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray finals – and Andy finally winning his first Wimbledon.”

Can David beat Goliath in Paris?

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

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

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

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

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

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

NadalDjokovic146156426-676x450

(Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo_1370106593101-1-0

Red Clay Meets Red Clay in Paris

Published in June of 2007, here’s a flashback of our unforgettable experience….

GOLFERS dream of smelling the grass and catching a Tiger lurking behind the woods at Augusta National, home of The Masters. Hoop fans envy fellow columnist Homer Sayson, who owns NBA Finals reserved seats in San Antonio and Cleveland. The feet of soccer fans get ticklish with the words “Germany World Cup.” We all have dreams. I own one. No, four. To watch all the tennis grand slams: Wimbledon, the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and the US Open. The US Open? That dream became reality eight years ago when I spent four straight weeks with my dad Bunny in New York. Seeing Andre Agassi and Serena Williams hold aloft those trophies sent shivers up my spine. I had to pinch myself and slap my face left and right to ensure I was awake.

Wimbledon? The Australian Open? Dreams, yes. Roland Garros?

Six years ago, my father-in-law Jack Mendez gathered the family and announced: “We’re going to Europe!” Three months later, we’re aboard Galaxy, the Princess Cruises ship that’s seven stories tall complete with theaters, a casino, restaurants, and Broadway musicals. By boat, we hopped from city to city. The place I loved the most? Paris.

Imagine the Eiffel Tower, Nortre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre Museum, Versailles Palace. Touring those sites, it felt like watching a movie. Only this time, the screen was “live,” right before your eyes. The place I loved the most? Roland Garros.

We arrived late in the afternoon. As our van stopped at the entrance, I gripped my fingers, smiled and screamed, “This is it!” To our surprise, no guards manned the gate. We entered. Our first stop was to the right as we walked inside a side court. There it was, before our bare eyes, the red clay, or le terre battue, as the French call it. I stepped on it, bent down and felt the dirt rub against my fingers. Almost like our courts here in Cebu, only thicker and red.

We moved to the open air pavilion. This is the area, I imagined, where spectators relaxed, dined and chatted between matches. We mimicked the statues of the Four Musketeers, some of the best French netters in history: Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet, and the clothing wear founder, René Lacoste.

Finally, we entered the main stadium, Court Philippe Chatrier (named after the former head of the French Tennis Federation). We absorbed every detail and gazed around. Compared to the US Open’s Arthur Ashe Center Court, this is intimate, I told my wife Jasmin. With us were my daughter Jana, Jasmin’s sisters Michelle and Monette, and brother Jake. It was just us inside, the court laid bare all to ourselves.

We snapped photos, took videos, and lingered wondering how it must feel when the court is jam-packed and inhabited by warriors with rackets. All of a sudden, as we marveled around and chatted, my daughter blurted out, “I want to make poo-poo!” Poo-poo? My two-year-old Jana? At the center court? Was this possible? Will we be caught? Jailed?

As parents all know: When a child has to go, she has to go. And so Jana, with her diapers on and standing on Court Philippe Chatrier, dropped a bombshell that rocked Paris. POOOOT! POOOOT! POOOOT!

We shook our heads. Laughed. Who would have believed such a sight. That was our family’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not episode. On center court, dozens have been crowned champions, knelt down and wiped tears after victory—the Bjorn Borgs, the Michael Changs, and, this Sunday, Rafael Nadal will win his third straight—but how many can claim they dropped red clay on the red clay of the French Open?

Five tips while watching the French Open

I’ve been playing tennis since our family moved from Bacolod to Cebu when Marcos was toppled and Cory moved into power in the summer of 1986.

Since then, I’ve posed for a photo beside Federer and Sampras in Kuala Lumpur, smacked 27,856 forehands, and been operated on a shoulder injury by Dr. Tony San Juan. I’ve watched Agassi and Serena win the US Open, helped organize the four Davis Cup events in Plantation Bay Resort and Spa (a 5th one is coming this September versus New Zealand!) and helped train a young 14-year-old champion that is my daughter Jana.

Through these 27 years of tennis, what tips can I offer the regular, thrice-weekly player? Here are five clay-court tennis tips — while we’re all watching the French Open each night.

One: Practice your serve. It’s funny. We often spend hours perfecting our backhands and forehands — but spend so little time fine-tuning our serves. Lest we forget, this rule applies: the serve is the only shot in tennis that we have complete control of. Think about it. If one has an excellent serve, one will win lots of free points.

Here’s another idea to remember: If you can’t be broken, you won’t lose. True. Just hold your serve and you won’t lose. Never. I like this saying that differentiates the average club player (that’s us) versus a pro like Novak: “We serve to START the point. The pros serve to END the point.” Got it? On that first shot alone (serve), the pros try to finish the point.

Here’s a favorite saying: “Life is like a game of tennis. He who serves well seldom loses.”

Two: Employ the drop shot. Study the French Open players tonight. (If you subscribe to SkyCable HD, go to channel 702 where the free HD on Roland Garros is found.) On the red clay of Paris, the best players employ a strategy that’s wise and proven successful: When the opponent is far, they hit a feather-like drop shot. It works. The key point is the element of surprise. You can’t hit a drop shot every other point — your opponent will guess it and sprint forward. Disguise. Surprise.

Three: High topspin is best. Watch Nadal. He’s the greatest ever on the dirt surface. What does he have that nobody else has? Tremendous spin. It’s been recorded that his forehand generates 5,800+ revolutions per minute (RPMs) — the most of any pro. (Federer, at 4800+, is a distant second.) The higher the allowance over the net, the deeper the shot. Add more spin with the high-bouncing shot and you’ve got a Rafa-like chance of victory.

Four: Watch only one player. While watching tennis on TV, you really want to learn and improve? Watch only one person. Yup. That’s no joke. Instead of moving your eyeballs up and down, stick to focusing on one player. Observe Maria’s side-to-side movement (not her yellow-colored bikini shorts). Copy the best backhand down-the-line shot in today’s game (Djokovic’s). Relish the inside-out forehand of the Rolex-sponsored Swiss codenamed RF. Watch only one player. You’ll learn more.

Five: Play the game. Majority of readers who’ll read this are non-tennis players. That’s a fact. Few people have ever gripped an Eastern backhand grip and performed a slice shot. Tennis is not as easy to learn as, say, bowling or Zumba. You need a racket. You need a person at the opposite end of the court (although I spent hundreds of hours as a young junior practicing against the pelota court’s high wall — at the old Casino Español). In tennis, you need balls, tennis shoes, grips, new strings (once they break) and cash to pay for the court fees, etc, etc. It’s not as inexpensive as the most inexpensive of sports: running.

Yet tennis is fun. It’s a game you can play from six until 86. It’s a chance to group together with friends. It provides some of the best form of exercise. It enhances your competitive spirit. It offers both rigorous (singles) and recreational (doubles) options. Plus, it’s a game of contradictions, as Billie Jean King once said: “Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility.”

The Beauty, the Best and the King of Clay

Roger+Federer+Rafael+Nadal+Serena+Williams+xJOo07m_WPkl

The first time I saw Serena Jameka Williams was in 1999. We were in New York. It was the US Open and, as a young 17-year-old, Serena was not expected to win. But she did. It was her first Grand Slam singles title. Since then, Serena has won a total of 30 majors (15 in singles, 13 in women’s doubles and 2 in mixed doubles).

The second time I watched Serena in person was in 2008. Playing doubles for Team USA with her older sister Venus, they won the Olympic gold medal in Beijing. In singles, she won another gold.

Last Sunday night on Solar Sports TV, the 31-year-old Serena faced Maria Sharapova. It wasn’t the first time they met. I recall their Wimbledon encounter in 2004 called “Beauty and the Best” — won by the long-legged Russian blonde.

Not two nights ago. Holding a 12-2 win-loss record, Serena has a mental edge over Maria — just like Rafa has over Roger, or Novak has over Rafa.

Williams easily defeated Sharapova, 6-1, 6-4. The match was over in 78 minutes. Serena — who has not lost to Maria since 2004 — is nearly-invincible because of two Bs: brawn and brains. If we talk of physical strength, nobody is more muscular. If we talk of mental strength, nobody possesses more resolve and willpower than Ms. Williams. (Add another B: a Boombastic serve, at times clocking 207 kph.)

With one more B — big bucks — it’s also the same: nobody, in terms of prize money among women athletes, has earned more. In her career so far, Serena has amassed $44.1 million.

And if that’s not mind-boggling enough, here’s further bad news for the women: At the press conference after her Madrid victory, she wore a red shirt that said, “Bestest Ever.” She then explained: “Every time I play, I really relish it more. I feel like, honestly, Serena, when are you going to get tired? I don’t know.”

With Maria, well, this we know: she doesn’t mind losing these days because she’s in love. Previously engaged to NBA star Sasha Vujacic, she has since dribbled away from basketball.

Maria’s new boyfriend is Roger Federer. No, not the Rolex endorser and the married man codenamed “Federer Express.” It’s the player whose game resembles that of RF: Grigor Dmitrov. The Bulgarian (who’ll turn 22 this Thursday) stands 6’2” and was a former world no.1 junior. He shocked Novak Djokovic in the first round of the Madrid Open.

In this sport where the word “love” is used each game, these two have found a love game.

photo_verybig_150184

NADAL. Of the Spanish superstar, I’ve watched Rafa play twice. The first was together with Dr. Ronnie Medalle and his wife Steph and my wife Jasmin in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That was in 2007. The following year, Jasmin and I witnessed the Olympic gold medal victory of Rafa in China.

Intense. Spin-filled. Physical. Tenacious. These are a few words I’d use to describe Rafa. Here’s one more: the Best Clay-Court Player Of all Time.

For all you tennis players, you know this: Grass is slippery fast; hard-court, too, is quick — but red clay is slow. And, when the games are long and the rallies are long, this is when Rafa excels.

Like last Sunday. In Madrid, Rafa was as comfortable speaking Espanol as he was winning points. He beat Stanislas Wawrinka, 6-2, 6-4. (The first set he won in half an hour.)

Rafa was out for seven months until last February because of a knee injury. He missed the Olympics and the US and Australian Opens. He missed too many — and this is why he’s winning many today, reaching seven straight finals and winning five.

Which brings us to Rome this week for the “Italian Open” and, in two weeks’, to the Super Bowl of clay-court events: the French Open.

Ranked No. 5 in the world, this number troubles Novak, Roger, Andy Murray and David Ferrer. That’s because Rafa can meet any of the top four in the quarterfinals. Imagine a Novak-Rafa contest in the Round of 8? Ouch. That would be bad.

I hope that doesn’t happen. I’m hoping for a Novak-Rafa final that goes five hours, five sets, with all four socks brown and a million drops of sweat watering the dusty red Parisian clay.

An unforgettable week with Fr. Ben Nebres

I’ve never had a more profound Holy Week than this week. No, we didn’t fly to swim in Boracay or do underground cave-watching in Palawan — we just stayed home. What we did was to join the Easter Triduum Recollection at the Sacred Heart Parish Church. What a moving and touching three days. Last year, it was Fr. Johnny Go — a very inspiring teacher. This Holy Week — from Thursday to yesterday — we had mornings of teachings from one of the most respected of teachers: Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, SJ.

Still filled with so much energy and wisdom (at the age of 73), Fr. Nebres imparted so much from the life of Jesus our Lord. He gave so many examples (Gawad Kalinga, his experiences after 18 years as president of Ateneo de Manila Univ., his humble work with the public school children and with our Muslim brothers — sharing with us hours of lessons with zero notes on hand).

To me, apart from the three mornings of listening and reflecting, a most humbling moment came Thursday night when, as one of the apostles, Fr. Nebres washed my right foot. He knelt down like a servant before each seated man, washed our feet with water, wiped it with white towel — and then, like a man who did not despise but felt joy in the act, he shook our hands and, with his trademark sincere and joyous face, he smiled.

It was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve encountered. Not only because, kneeling in front of you and cleansing your dirty feet is one of our nation’s most respected men — but that Jesus himself did the same. It’s a lesson for all to follow: He who wants to be great must be the greatest servant.

On Good Friday night, our household watched The Passion of The Christ. Though we had seen the movie before, watching it on the day when Christ was humilitated and beaten to death — that’s another profound event.

Today, as we celebrate the most important day of the year, let us be thankful to the Lord for he has rescued and uplifted us. Isaiah 53:5 says, “But He was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed.”

TENNIS. The next seven days will bring to Cebu’s shores two mega events: the 14th Truflex National Junior Championships and the Davis Cup weekend between our Philippines and Thailand.

Randy Villanueva, the VP of Philta (Phil. Tennis Assoc.), is bringing, for the first time, his Truflex event outside of Manila. To be held at four different venues in Lapu-Lapu City (Mactan Airbase, the City Hall, Amores court and Haruhay Resort), Truflex is a Group 1 (highest-ranked) tournament. We welcome all the participants!

Next weekend (April 5 to 7), it’s Davis Cup. The venue is at one of Asia’s best: Plantation Bay Resort and Spa. Tennis lover or not, everyone ought to watch. It’s an international meet. It’s for free. And it’s not in Rizal Memorial or at the PCA courts in Manila — it’s here in Mactan.

SUMMER HEAT. Whew! It’s getting hot. It’s not only the Heat of Miami that’s getting hot in the NBA (they finally lost!) but our own summer.

April 1, tomorrow, is officially the first summer day. Here’s a non-April Fool’s Day joke: Enroll your children in sports. When can you find uninterrupted time to learn a new game? Now is the best time. Instead of your kids watching TV (or playing online games or texting) all day — get them active.

Before I recommend other sports, I’d like to just suggest one coach and one sport.

For tennis, learn it from one of the top tennis coaches in Cebu today: Tommy Frederiksen. He’s the coach of my daughter Jana and our Bright Academy tennis team — and he’s open to coaching as many children in Cebu.

His tennis camp begins this April 9 at Casino Espanol. It’s month-long and will be held every Tuesday and Thursday from 8 to 10 A.M. The fee is P2,000 (for the whole duration) — and you don’t even need to be a Casino Espanol member to participate.

Call Casino Espanol now (2531260) or call Coach Tommy at 0917-3010338. Happy Easter!

The Heart of a Champion

Sally Mae “Em-Em” Siso cried last Tuesday. We were in Puerto Princesa for the National Championships of the Palawan Pawnshop Junior Tennis, a Group 2 Philta-sanctioned event.

Em-Em, possibly the most decorated junior netter Cebu has ever produced, was in tears. Our group of nearly 30 players and parents trekked the Subterranean Underground River. But, when we arrived at the PNS tennis court where Em-Em was to play the Girls 18 final, she was told the shocking news: You lost. By default.

What?! The underground river visit was an official tournament trip. Weeks earlier, when my wife Jasmin, our daughter Jana (who joined the Girls 14/16) and I decided to go to Palawan and we invited Em-Em to join us, it was because of one major reason: We wanted to see one of the “7 New Wonders of Nature.”

We did. All-smiling. But when we arrived on-court, the joy turned to tears.

Maia Balce, the player Em-Em was to face in the final, would not agree to play.

For some reason — despite my being told the day earlier by the tournament referee, Bobby Mangunay, that Em-Em’s match was “between 3 to 4 P.M.” — the official print-out read “3 P.M.”

We arrived on-court at 4 P.M. We pleaded. To no avail. The Balce family wouldn’t budge. Technically, yes, they’re correct. But the truth is, it was absolutely not made clear to us that the final was “3 P.M.” (Bobby Mangunay, in fairness to him when he wrote ‘3 P.M.,’ never imagined that one side would insist on a default — especially a final.)

The travel time from the underground river to tennis court was nearly two hours. Had we known, no way would we have agreed, in the first place, on the 3 P.M. schedule. Plus, almost 30 of us (players and parents) joined the excursion — including the tournament organizer himself, Pet Santos, and his family.

In our entire trip, we never got a single call or text message about the impending 3 P.M. schedule. Plus — and this is important — in the previous five days, almost all matches got delayed anyway. I’m sure Maia, in her previous games, never got one match played on time — because there were only three courts to accommodate a record 220 entries. Flexibility of schedule transpired throughout the whole tournament — and so the same thing for the final, right?

But, no. The Balces — led by her mom, Pia, and Maia’s coach, Czarina Arevalo — would not relent.

I tried calling Maia’s dad, Boboy, in Manila. After 31 missed calls and several text messages, no response. He wouldn’t answer. It was obvious he didn’t want to talk to me. (During that time, I pleaded with Pia: kindly ask Boboy to take my calls — it’s the least he can do; to show some courtesy by speaking to me.)

Meanwhile, Em-Em was crying. Also in shock were all the spectators. This wasn’t the first round or second round — it was the final. Of the premier category: the Girls 18. Imagine not playing the final! (It’s not like the Balces were rushing to go to the airport — their flight was 23 hours later… at 3 P.M. the next day! More on that below..)

PLEASE, PLEASE… PLAY. Cherry Pie Picache, the celebrity mom who joined us the whole week (including the underground river trip), was in disbelief. Why can’t they just play? (The night before, when the Iloilo and Kalibo contingents arrived late from the same trek — their opponents adjusted and agreed to play. I know Bong Martin allowed Jake to play. The super-talented Eala children, Mico and Alexandra — they, too, played the doubles.)

Everybody pleaded with the Balces, including tournament referee Bobby Mangunay. He told the dad that, in so many past occasions, they’d request for favors (scheduling, etc). Now, for the first time, he was asking for a favor: play the final. Still, the Balces said no.

Bobby’s reply: “Delete my number!”

Why wouldn’t Maia play? Simple. Had the opponent been lower-ranked and easy-to-beat, I’m sure they would have agreed. But Em-Em Siso? Consider this: In the Girls 16 semis, Maia lost to Alexie Santos, 6-3, 7-6. Alexie? She was handily beaten by Em-Em, 6-2, 6-0. Get the point?

“We want the points.” That’s what coach Czarina explained to me. You know what the difference is in Philta points? The champion receives 120 while the runner-up gets 100. A mere 20 points!

Em-Em Siso doesn’t need points. The reason why we brought Em-Em along was because this was her “swan-song” event. After a decade of holding trophies and representing the Philippines, this was her final tournament. Yes, her very last. By January 1, Em-Em will no longer be eligible to join the juniors. She doesn’t care about the points. She just wanted to play.

FINALLY, WE TALK. Boboy finally calls! It was around 7:30 P.M. And it had to take another side incident — when, during the mini two-point side event, Maia was booed by the Visayan contingent and un-called for comments (not by me) were said and her mom stormed the court to confront me (that’s another story!).

Boboy and I got into a lengthy conversation, me explaining every reason why the final should be played (we didn’t know exact time of match; we were in a trip with 30 others; in all matches the previous days, none followed the schedule).

I told Boboy that Maia not playing the final would actually not do her good. Wasn’t this trip to give his daughter more experience? Then why not play! And what kind of a victory will it be? A hollow, meaningless one?

Finally, before our talk ended, I made a request, “Boy, you know what, let’s just play the final first thing tomorrow..  this will put to rest this issue. It’s just a game. It’s just one match.”

Boboy promised to talk to his wife and daughter and said he’ll get back to me. I didn’t hear from him again that night.

At 6:35 A.M. the next day, he calls. We talk. He said that he tried asking Maia to play but that they’ve scheduled a visit to a beach resort.

Can’t they just play the match at 8 A.M. so this issue will be settled? I asked.

AIRPLANE GAME. Another funny addition to this telenova-like story? The Balces were not in a hurry to catch a flight. Their flight back to Manila was 3 P.M. — the next day! In fact, the original schedule of the final was Wednesday morning — until it was moved to Tuesday afternoon. And so there was plenty of time to play the final.

Our flight back to Cebu? It was 11:30 A.M. yesterday, Wednesday. I told Boboy that Em-Em and Maia could still play at 8 A.M. Let’s settle this issue, I requested.

Guess what he later told Bobby Mangunay, the tournament referee: Can Maia and Em-Em play at 12 noon, Wednesday?

Unbelievable. I told Boboy in our next conversation, “What do you want us to do, play in the airplane?”

That’s not all. They came up with another preposterous idea: Maia will go to the court around 11 A.M. (remember, our flight was at 11:30), play a few points with Em-Em and ask to be defaulted.

To “diffuse” the issue, now they wanted Em-Em to win! Crazy. Can you believe that?

Obviously, they don’t know who Sally Mae Siso is. Em-Em is a two-time awardee of Cebu’s “Athlete of the Year.” These awards are given by the Sportswriters Association of Cebu (SAC) in cooperation with San Miguel Brewery. This is the most prestigious sports award in the entire island of Cebu. Who receives this once-a-year recognition? The likes of Donnie Nietes (the world champ) and Gerry Peñalosa (another boxing champ). In Cebu, Em-Em Siso is that highly-regarded.

Also, her family story — she and her two siblings, Bernardine (Niño) and Sally Dine, were taught by their dad, Dino, who shockingly passed-away when Em-Em was only 12 years old — is heart-wrenching.

Back to Palawan… Em-em didn’t need the trophy. She has over 100 trophies and medals at home! That’s no joke. Now they want Maia to default? To appease her? Unbelievable suggestion. All Em-Em and the spectators wanted was for the Girls 18 final to be played.

AGASSI. This controversy reminds me of a story that I read many years back. In the 1994 Lipton Championships, Pete Sampras was scheduled to meet Andre Agassi in the final. Unfortunately, Sampras ate something bad the night before and woke up feeling sick. He needed an IV injection for 90 minutes prior to the final. At their appointed time to play, Sampras was unwell and not ready.

Agassi won! By walkover. The trophy was his! The prize money — $242,000; a large, large amount back in 1994 — was his. Yehey!

But, wait. No. Agassi analyzed the situation. It didn’t feel right. It wasn’t the right thing to do. He didn’t want a hollow victory. He didn’t want to win without sweating. He wanted to win on the proper venue: on court.

You know what Agassi did? He waited. He waited until Sampras recovered an extra hour before they played. And you know what?

Agassi lost. But he gained the respect of the entire sporting world and, most of all, of his arch-rival, Sampras, who said, “He showed me a lot of class, and it’s something I’ll never forget.”

Why did Agassi agree to wait? It was the right thing to do. It’s called Sportsmanship.

“If I can’t beat the best player in the world,” said Agassi. “I don’t deserve the trophy.”

DEAR FELLOW PARENTS,

In such a highly-competitive sports world for our children, we’re often faced with two scenarios.

One screams “VICTORY-AT-ALL-COSTS.”

True, we win. True, we claim the trophy. True, we gain points. But at what cost? At the cost of damaging friendships and relationships? When we’re but a small community of families who’ll often meet? At the cost of damaging our reputation… with dozens of others talking behind our backs, asking why we didn’t play? This victory is hollow. It’s empty. It’s meaningless.

On the other hand is the scenario called “DOING THE RIGHT THING.”

Given the circumstances last Tuesday — us explaining that we weren’t properly informed of the schedule; us going with 30 others on an official trip; and knowing well that the schedules were all flexible in the past days — was it the right thing not to play the final?

To those who know me in the tennis community, they know that — for 20+ years since I’ve been involved with tennis in Cebu… as Philta RVP for many years and as one of the organizers (with Randy Villanueva) of last year’s two Davis Cup ties in Lapu-Lapu City — that I’ve always been friendly, fair, good and just. You can ask anyone. I dislike putting people down. That’s not my style and never will be. But what happened in Palawan, to my mind, should be explained and known by all. I hope that, as parents, we understand this: In our pursuit of win-win-win, we do not become too selfish and callous; we do not become heartless.

FINALLY… this story will not end without another parang-telenova twist. Would you believe that, of the 130+ children who joined, only two families stayed in the same Tropical Sun Inn Hotel.

Guess who? The Pages and Balce families. And so, for the past six days, we’d see each other at the lobby, smile, chit-chat; often having our breakfasts just a few feet apart.

Yesterday (Wednesday) morning, as we were about to rush to the airport, Em-Em Siso and my daughter Jana — despite our shouts to rush to the van — just had to do a final act that would make them feel better. They knocked on Czarina’s room.

Em-Em, in all kindness, said “Coach, aalis na kami.” She shook Czarina’s hand. And, as she and Jana were leaving, Em-em added, saying, “Pakisabi na rin kay Maia na ba-bay at saka sa Mama nya rin.” Despite her crying the entire night before, Em-Em had the heart to bid them goodbye. Now that’s what I call the heart of a champion.

Palawan!

At Ka Lui with Roland So and family and Mayor Edward Hagedorn

Em-Em and Jana (left-most) with the So sisters: Mariel, Camille and Mia

Binoy Hitosis, Francis Lambayan, Alexie Santos, Em-Em Siso, tournament organizer Pet Santos, Cai Hitosis, Jana Pages and Noynoy Seno

Smile!

The Arguelles, Siso and Pages families on the way to the UR!

With super-nice and friendly tennis parent, Cherry Pie Picache

That’s Cherry Pie (center) with the Trillanes and Santos families

Cai, Alexie, Jana, Kara Salimbangon and Em-Em

Go, Chief Lambayan!

Bobby Castro, the owner of Palawan Pawnshop, poses with Em-Em and Jana (who slipped, twisted her ankle and had to default at 1-0 her Girls 14 final match with Alexie Santos)

About to enter the bat cave!

The Girls 18 doubles champions!

With Em-Em Siso, our week-long “adopted daughter” and the “People’s Champ!”

Jed Olivarez

Jed with Dato Patrick Liew, the president of the Sarawak Lawn Tennis Association

Another junior standout and future Philippine men’s tennis star is Eric Olivarez, Jr. Nicknamed “Jed,” I had the chance for two weeks to watch him play in two Asian Tennis Federation (ATF) Under-14 tournaments in Malaysia. Wow.

Jed won the singles crown in Kuching. He also won the doubles title there. The following week, he bested the top Asians to win in Kota Kinabalu. And, to top all that, he won the KK doubles crown. It was a four-for-four record for the 14-year-old Jed. Amazing. It was the first time in Philippine history that a Pinoy went undefeated in singles and doubles in two straight international events.

Three weeks after, Jed joined us here in Cebu for the Babolat Junior Championships. He entered the Boys 16 and Boys 18 categories — battling players two- and four-years older than him. The result? The same. Jed went undefeated to win both titles in the Group 2 Philta-sanctioned tournament.

The young Olivarez comes from an illustrious tennis family. His grandfather, Dr. Pablo Olivarez, was a long-time president of the Philippine Tennis Association (Philta). His uncle, Congressman Edwin Olivarez, is the current Philta president. His aunties, Eva and Edna, are some of the country’s most prominent former champions; as are Jed’s cousins, all champions — from Tamitha Nguyen to the Orteza sisters, Katrina and Isabella.

Jed’s biggest fans? Of course, his dad, Parañaque City Councilor Eric Olivarez, and his mom, Aileen, whom we got to know well during their recent Cebu visit. Jed is coached by one of the nicest (and funniest) coaches you can meet, Bobby Esquivel, an astute and sharp tennis tactician (I saw that for myself in Malaysia).

And the best part of all this? Jed is such a humble and quiet person, never bragging about his amazing accomplishments. I watched his match point in Kuching against the Japanese player (Daisuke) and, after winning the championship/last point, he simply nodded his head and smiled a shy grin. No in-your-face fist pumps. No extra-loud chest-bumping. No bragging.

Jed, at such a young age, is already a classy act. The Philippines is looking forward to a bright tennis future for the young Olivarez. Good luck, Jed!

Our island-hopping trip in Kota Kinabalu (from left: John, Jana, Jasmin, Jed and coach Bobby Esquivel)

The Kuching finalists: Daisuke Sumizawa with Jed Olivarez