Argentina or France?

Chad Songalia, Mike Limpag and Neil Montesclaros are three football fanatics (out of the 3.5 billion who follow the sport) whom I asked to comment on tonight’s World Cup final: 

SONGALIA: What have stood out in the World Cup in Qatar? You don’t need big name players to be successful. Look at Morocco. Who would have thought they’d reach the semis? What has stood out also is the emergence of young players: Bellingham, Gavi, Pedri, Gakpo, Musiala and Tchouameni and the strong performances of the goalkeepers (Yassine Bounou and Dominik Livakovic). 

LIMPAG: This year’s World Cup, at least for Asians, can be best remembered for the success of the continent: Japan, South Korea, Australia (in football, Australia is considered Asian). Saudi Arabia started it with that shock win against Argentina; Japan beat Germany and Spain to top their group.

MONTESCLAROS: Lower rank teams beating higher rank teams. Upsets. Last minute goals and drama that impact results. Penalty saves. Goal keeping: spectacular and critical saves. Messi’s brilliance and exceptional skills. Asian and African teams’ rising competitiveness. The game-changing VAR. Ronaldo’s fading popularity. 

SONGALIA: Whoever can slow down Messi or Mbappe have a good chance of winning. Regardless if Argentina wins or not, Messi is “one of the greatest.” The argument of who is the GOAT is subjective. Let’s not forget Maradona, Beckenbauer, Zidane, Pele and Ronaldo.

LIMPAG: France vs. Argentina will boil down to one man for each: Lionel Messi for Argentina. He hasn’t scored in previous appearances in the knockout stages in four previous World Cup appearances but has already scored in each of the knockout games this year. He has four Man of the Match awards this year, 10th overall, but I think there’s only one title he’s after. Whether he wins it or not, will depend on how their defense will cover Mbappe, who has three Man of the Match awards this year, a testament to how important he is for France.

MONTESCLAROS: Both teams have equal chances to win. I don’t see one really dominant than the other. But Messi is the game changer. He can create something out of nothing. My pick is not a matter of an estimated superior strength. I just prefer Argentina to win as a crowning glory for Messi’s unparalleled impact to the sport.

SONGALIA: Argentina or France? Hmm. This is a tough one. Argentina, so Messi can cement his legacy but my grandson River Killian was named after Mbappe so whoever wins I’ll be happy. 

LIMPAG: I don’t want to jinx my favorite team but I still remember the emotional and financial heartache of watching France beat Brazil in a girlie bar (the only place in town that showed the World Cup live) back in ‘98 so I hope Mbappe and company will have that medal they’d rather not display after Sunday’s final.

MONTESCLAROS: Even if Messi does not win the World Cup his football exploits are off the charts. Considering the great footballers as Messi’s contemporary and he out performs them, he is the greatest so far. The World Cup will just be a confirmation of what he already is.

Real Madrid

MADRID — How does it feel like to experience sitting beside 58,367 screaming fanatics of one of the world’s most famous football clubs?

Our JJJ family watched the Real Madrid C.F. vs. Girona FC game in the capital of Spain last Sunday. 

Jasmin, Jana and I arrived from Cebu to Madrid early that morning and, within hours, we were ready for the 4:15 p.m. kickoff time.

Bull horns echoed outside the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, home of the Galacticos for the past 75 years. Souvenir booths were scattered around selling scarves, magnets, water bottles — items plastered with the brand “REAL MADRID,” declared by FIFA as the “most successful and best football club of the 20th century.”

When we entered and took our seats on the 2nd level (of five levels), the song “I Ain’t Worried” by OneRepublic blared over the loudspeakers. Goalkeepers danced to the Top Gun Maverick tune, warming up and stretching. Water sprinklers automatically emerged from the pitch to shower the perfectly-manicured grass.

The game took place last Sunday — meaning the audience was filled with families: dads and moms with their young girls and boys; all wearing “EMIRATES Fly Better” jerseys by Adidas with the names BENZEMA, VINI JR., and MODRIC.

The most visible jersey? Although he could not play that afternoon, it had the name BENZEMA plastered on the back. Yes, Karim Benzema was the newly-crowned Ballon d’Or winner (“the world’s best footballer”). 

GAME TIME. The Girona FC players first entered the pitch and they were greeted with howls and jeers. But when the white jersey-wearing Real Madrid players entered, pandemonium started: drums echoed as the fans stood to clap for their home team. The Madrileños screamed and whistled. (Here in Madrid, nobody wears masks anymore.)

The game started and, as expected from world-class play, the passing and goal attempts and defense were exceptional. Real Madrid, the La Liga defending champions, were clearly the better team against the 17th-ranked Girona. They had plenty of ball possession (58% of the time by game’s end).

Luka Modric, the Croatian captain, was a star. So was Toni Kroos. The first half went scoreless despite Real Madrid having plenty of goal attempts. 

Finally, in the 70th minute, Vinicius Junior scored from within a few feet from a superb pass from Federico Valverde. That’s when the bull horns erupted and the fans roared. And just when the fans thought that a 1-0 win was looming, a controversy happened on the 80th minute. The referee, Mario Lopez, who was jeered countless times by the home fans, went to the VAR and ruled that Marco Asensio’s arm touched the ball. Penalty reward for Girona. That’s when Cristhian Stuani, the 6-foot-1 Uruguay player, calmly thrust the ball to the right corner. 

One-all! You could feel the disappointment among the fans. Then, in the 89th minute, Rodrygo of Real Madrid scored! But, wait, the referee concluded that the ball was taken away from the goalkeeper’s hands and it was deemed a foul. No goal. Minutes later, the game ended in a 1-all draw. 

Looking back at the game, Real Madrid fans are some of the most passionate of any sporting fans that I’ve seen. 

Inside the Santiago Bernabeu, you feel the sense of history dating back to its inception in 1947. Real Madrid is the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Yankees of football; one of the planet’s wealthiest sporting outfits with annual revenues of $750 million and a fan base exceeding 225 million people.

You imagine the thousands of games played inside and the superstars who’ve sprinted across the field: David Beckham, Kaka, Iker Casillas, Raul, Luis Figo, Ramos, Sanchez and Zinedine Zidane. This hallowed ground was the home of Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Santiago Bernabeu is the Centre Court of the world’s most popular sport.

Thank you, Roger

John McEnroe said it best: There is no more beautiful tennis player than Roger Federer.

On this sport of tennis that I’ve been playing since 1986, no one has impacted the game more than the Swiss maestro. The profoundness of Roger’s career goes beyond the records that he’s amassed. If we speak purely of numbers, he has accumulated plenty of hardware and highlights.

World No. 1 for 237 straight weeks (310 weeks total). Eight Wimbledon trophies to go with five from the US Open, one from the French Open and six from the Australian Open.

The longevity of the Federer Express is a hallmark of his legendary career: He reached the Grand Slam finals in 21 of 28 majors from 2003 to 2009 and ended up winning a total of 20 majors. 

He pocketed over $130 million in prize money and hundreds of millions more of Euros from sponsorships that many call him the “Billion dollar athlete,” like MJ, Tiger and LeBron.

And while you’d think that his opponents would hate him for endlessly beating them, the opposite has happened. He has been presented the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award (voted upon by the ATP players on that player with the utmost fairness and integrity) a record 13 times! Roger won the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year trophy a record five times.

IN PERSON. I have had the opportunity on three occasions to see Roger Federer. The first was in 2007 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — with Michelle So and Mrs. Chinggay Utzurrum, among others — during his “Clash of Times” exhibition with Pete Sampras. I got to within a few feet away from both legends during an exclusive meet-and-greet session.

The year after in Beijing, Roger won a gold medal in Olympic men’s doubles (with Stan Wawrinka) — a match my wife and I got to witness with our bare eyes.

Then in 2018, with doctors Ronnie and Stevee Medalle, we witnessed the Shanghai Masters with the Swiss as the star attraction.

Back in 2015, my wife Jasmin, our daughter Jana, and I had the opportunity to visit “The Old Boys Club.” It’s a tennis center filled with red-clay courts in Basel, Switzerland where Federer first learned his tennis and became a top junior. 

My take on his game and having observed him up close? If Nadal is physical and Djokovic is clinical, Federer is classical. 

Tennis is an artform for RF. His Wilson racket is his fountain pen and he writes poetry while in motion.

Roger glides to his left, skating as much as sprinting, and he effortlessly feathers a slice backhand. His 125-kph serve is relaxed and easy. When he drifts to hit a forehand, he is unrushed — floating, sailing, drifting. He dances like a danseur. He strolls like a knight. 

Rushing the net to stab a volley, his stroke is fluid. His movement is painless; to the opponents, it’s painful. 

Roger is classy and fashionable. He walks with distinguished steps — like a Swiss guard gliding on a tennis rectangle. He looks dashing, off and on the court. (He was GQ’s Most Styling Man of the Decade.)

RF is a role model, much like his BFF from Spain. Well-behaved and always polite, Roger’s mantra reads, “It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.”

PBA Finals: TNT vs SMB

MANILA – My wife Jasmin and I are here to attend the graduation of our daughter Jana. She “graduated” in 2020 but their ceremony then was only virtual. Good move by Ateneo to request the graduates from the past two years to return to Loyola Heights and join Class 2022 in a physical “paso” this weekend.

We arrived last Friday and decided to stay near the SM Mall of Asia. After touring the world’s largest IKEA store, we descended the escalator and were greeted by another gargantuan structure: the MOA Arena.

It was the PBA Finals, Game 3!

While Jana was off to ADMU visiting her former professors, Jasmin and I decided to watch the San Miguel Beermen versus TNT Tropang Giga.

We arrived at halftime and took our Lower Box seats (priced reasonably at P450/ticket). The stadium was 70 percent full but 100 percent for San Miguel. Ha-ha. Of course, there were TNT fans but they were outnumbered by the roaring voices of the fanatical Beermen. 

The SMB congregation wore red, screamed “SEE-JAY!” for CJ Perez, booed when RR Pogoy’s jumpshot misfired; they banged the inflatable clappers, and carried placards that read, FEAR THE BEER.

The Talk ‘N Text faithful? Despite the appearance of team owner Manny V. Pangilinan and the loud pounding of their drums — the Tropa troops were subdued.

(In between the game’s highlights, I was messaging a former SMB hotshot, Cebu’s top-notch Councilor, Dondon Hontiveros.)

The entire second half was close. SMB led by two points and this was quickly erased by a Jayson Castro jumper. Poy Erram would score a driving layup and, seconds later, Jericho Cruz equalized with a 22-footer.

When the 4th quarter started, TNT led, 76-74. This hard-fought battle ensued all the way until the dying minutes. When the clock stopped with 11.7 seconds to go, San Miguel was up, 94-93. They were poised to claim victory. But TNT held ball possession. Would you believe.. the Beermen were called for a delaying-the-game violation.. Twice! A technical violation ensued resulting to a “free” free throw which RR Pogoy calmly sank. Game tied, 94-all. 

Would Game 3 be a repeat of Game 1 when the spitfire Jayson Castro sank the buzzer beater? 

Yes, Castro dribbled, pivoted left, faked right, attacked the rim and attempted a hurried shot.. it left his hands, traveled the Manila air for a millisecond… but, no, it missed.


(An hour before that miss, when we arrived and missed the entire first half, my wife Jasmin jokingly predicted, “I don’t care who wins.. as long as the game extends to overtime.)

In OT, Robbie Herndon of SMB scored and scored and made the 5-minute extension a no-contest. When the buzzer sounded, it was 108-100, the winner was the winningest team in PBA history.

The night’s biggest star? The big man from Pinamungajan who led all scorers with 27 points. Here’s more: He grabbed a whopping 27 rebounds. We’re proud to call him Cebuano.. June Mar Fajardo.

2022 Winter Olympics

Beijing hosts a historic Olympic games. It will be the third consecutive Olympics played in East Asia (in 2018, it was the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea; last year, the Tokyo Games).

For 16 days starting last Friday and ending this Feb. 20, Beijing will host its first-ever Winter Olympics. Back in August 2008 — an event that my wife Jasmin and I witnessed in person for 10 days — the same city of Beijing hosted the Olympics. 

Beijing becomes the only city in history to host both the Summer and Winter Games.

I checked the temperature in Beijing yesterday and it stood at 0 Celsius. It dips to -7C at night and “heats up” to 4C during midday. (During summer, it’s a hot 30C.)

The Beijing National Stadium was the venue for the Opening Ceremony two nights ago — the same venue China used in 2008. Jasmin and I had a chance to watch the athletics competition 12 years ago (when it was called “Bird’s Nest”) and the 80,000-seater complex is both stunning and humongous. 

The Winter Olympics is much smaller than the Summer Games. In Tokyo last year, 206 nations and 11,656 athletes competed in 339 events. This week in Beijing, the Winter Games will involve only 91 nations and 2,875 athletes in 109 events.

Among the popular sports include Ice hockey, Figure skating, Ski jumping, Alping skiing, snowboarding and Cross-country skiing. Another event is Bobsleigh. If you watched the sports comedy film, “Cool Runnings,” a story of the Jamaican team joining the 1988 Winter Olympics, you’ll smile and understand Bobsleigh (or bobsled).

With the spectators, it appears that as many as 150,000 locals will be allowed to watch in a tightly-controlled environment involving strict Covid-19 tests and limited seating. Not all venues will have spectators.

With the athletes and coaches, similar to Tokyo, Beijing is implementing a closed loop system with daily testing.

For the Philippines, our choice of flag bearer was an easy choice (usually, the most accomplished athlete gets to carry the flag). It’s Asa Miller — because he’s the only representative of Team PHI. 

In last Friday’s Opening, he was our lone athlete (carrying the flag) and was followed by four other officials, including POC President Bambol Tolentino. (It’s sad to note that figure skater Michael Martinez, the two-time Olympian, is recovering from injuries and won’t be competing.)

Asa Miller, only 21, will be competing in the Men’s slalom and Giant slalom events. 

This is not Miller’s first trip to the capital city of China. In 2014, the then-14-year-old Miller was an exchange student.

“It feels great that it’s real now,” said Miller. “And it feels great to be in China again – the Olympic spirit and the culture all over the place, as well as the other athletes.. They’re very fun and motivating.”

To watch Asa Miller, whose event is on Feb. 13, and to witness the other “cool” athletes, coverage in the Phils. is available via Cignal TV (channels 198 and 298).

Categorized as Olympics

Like Father, Like Son

(Photo by Jay LaPrete/AP)

LeBron Raymone “Bronny” James Jr. is one of the most famous sons on Planet Earth. He is the first born to the King and heir to the throne.

Bronny turned 17 last Oct. 6. Now a sophomore at Sierra Canyon School in L.A., he plays point guard and has set his sights on achieving a dream that’s never been done before: For father-and-son to play together in the NBA.

Sure, there have been plenty of fathers and sons in the league.

Before Klay Thompson, there was his dad Mychal, who helped the Lakers win two NBA crowns. Kobe Bryant’s dad Joe was a 6-foot-9 power forward who played from 1975 to 1991. His son would join the NBA five years after he retired. Bill and Luke Walton stood tall. You have Rick Barry and his sons Brent, Jon and Drew. And, of course, Dell, Stephen and Seth Curry.

But while the NBA, founded 75 years ago, has witnessed many such combos before, never has it seen one where both played at the same time.

Baseball has Ken Griffey Jr. and Sr. playing together for the Seattle Mariners in 1990. But never in the NBA.

Not until LeBron and Bronny.

This may happen as early as 2023 or 2024 after Bronny graduates from high school. Two years from now, Bronny will be 19 and his dad will be 39. (Bronny, the eldest, has two other brothers and a sister.)

Will James and James don the Lakers jerseys? That’s the plan, I’m sure, according to LBJ.

“That would be an unbelievable moment not only for myself but for my family, for everybody,” said LeBron, in a 2018 interview. “That would be pretty dang cool if I were able to be on the NBA floor with my oldest son.”

What are the odds of this happening? Very, very high. 

Barring a (knock-on-wood) career-ending injury, LeBron is expected to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s all-time leading scorer and play until he’s 40. With Bronny, it’s certain that he’ll turn pro. This early, top collegiate teams (Kentucky, UCLA) are eager to recruit him.

And wouldn’t James & James be the sporting world’s biggest story? LeBron dribbles the ball for a fast break as he throws it up for an alley-oop by Bronny!

The question is: Is Bronny really that good or is it just hype?

LeBron (age 17), left; Bronny (age 16) and his friends

Wherever Bronny plays, fans ask for his autograph. ESPN broadcasts his team’s games. Bronny has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Gyms are packed to watch the 6-foot-3 guard with the number “0.”

I’ve watched YouTube footages of Bronny and he’s quick and athletic. He made his first dunk at the age of 13! Bronny got the brawny genes of his dad.

In his freshman year in 2020, although he averaged only 4.1 points in 15 minutes of play, he did score 17 points in one game.

“He’s a great young man, he doesn’t let anybody phase him,” said his former teammate Zaire Williams. “You’d be surprised all the stuff he has to go through. It’s not fair, but he doesn’t let it faze him.”

Being LeBron’s son is both a blessing and a burden. The pressure is immense and he will always be compared to his father. 

It all depends on Bronny.

As Paulo Coelho said: Every blessing ignored becomes a curse.

PBA vs. B.League

Thirdy Ravena and Kobe Paras (photos in this post from Rappler)

Shaq said it best: I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok.

Always the funny man, the 7-foot-1 member of the NBA’s 75 greatest players list is correct. 

Sport is entertainment and entertainment means dollars.

The Philippine Basketball Association right now is in a quandary. Founded in 1975, the PBA is Asia’s oldest pro basketball league and ranks as the world’s second oldest (next to the NBA, born in 1946).

The PBA has a money problem. Sure, the league has 12 ballclubs owned by the nation’s largest conglomerates. But, no thanks to the PBA’s salary cap, some are not being paid enough which leads to the exodus.

Kiefer Ravena. His younger brother Thirdy. There’s Kobe Paras. How about Ray Parks, Jr.? Then the Gomez de Liano brothers Javi and Juan. There’s Kemark Carino and the 6-foot-4 Fil-Am who was supposedly one of the hottest prospects for the PBA, Dwight Ramos.

These eight athletes are no ordinary names. Many of them are UAAP heartthrobs with a torrent of social media followers. Kobe Paras, the son of Benjie, is a superstar-in-the-making. All eight of them are not playing in Manila but in Japan.

It’s called the B.League and, while founded recently in 2016, it has aggressively recruited big names from the international market.

Simply put, the Japanese pro league is offering our stars (in particular, the rookies) double or triple the money they’d earn if they were to suit up as an NLEX or Barangay Ginebra point guard.

Take Thirdy Ravena and Ray Parks Jr. They are two-time UAAP MVPs whom we’d love to see playing in Araneta Coliseum or the MOA. Instead, the Iloilo-born Ravena is not playing for the Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters but for Japan B League’s San-en NeoPhoenix. 

Bobby Ray Parks played with Blackwater Elite and TNT in Manila before heading north to suit up for the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins.

Long-term, this exodus of top caliber talent will continue to be a PBA problem. The world has turned borderless. This pandemic has changed our outlook — even how we can quickly buy a product from China via Lazada or Shopee and have it delivered in our doorstep on 12 days.

Same with our players. While before they were stuck in the Philippine archipelago, who would stop the pro leagues from South Korea or China from offering P1 million per month when SMB can only give P450,000?

The other day, I heard NBA Commissioner Adam Silver say that 25% of the NBA players are not native Americans. One out of every four in the NBA today is a foreigner. Globalization has created a borderless planet. There is no preventing our talents from leaving and going to our Asian neighbors or Europe or America. 

Money, money, money. The PBA ballclubs have to offer more. The problem is, I’m unsure about the 46-year-old league. And if the PBA’s reputation and following diminishes, so will the incentive of companies to spend more.

It’s all about content. Is the PBA able to continue offering entertainment that excites and energizes?

Categorized as PBA

Back to Normal

It has been 19 months since the world changed in March 2020. That’s when the Covid-19 pandemic affected the lives of the planet’s 7.9 billion people. 

The world of sports was impaired. The Tokyo Games was moved 12 months later. Wimbledon got canceled. And while we used to watch 25,639 fans screaming inside an indoor arena, we’ve gotten used to observing empty stadiums with fake spectators plastered on LED screens.

This was 2020. It’s 2021. In Europe and in the U.S. today, mask-less fans sit side-by-side at Premier League games and the U.S. Open. The world of sports has slowly returned to normal.

The NBA is back to live action. This October 19, the 76th season of the NBA begins and all teams get to play 82 games. Two blockbuster encounters are scheduled on Opening Day: the LA Lakers vs. the Golden State Warriors; and the defending champs Milwaukee Bucks against the Brooklyn Nets.

LeBron, AD and Westbrook vs. Steph and Klay Thompson. Plus, it’s Giannis vs. Durant and Kyrie. Can it get any better than this double-header?

Yes. The even better news is the return of the boisterous, crazy and loud-voiced human beings who will spillover the arenas.

The NBA has 30 teams. Each city will have varying rules but, in general, we expect tens of thousands back in attendance. (I did a quick research and, since the pandemic struck, the largest sports gathering was the Indy 500 race last May when 135,000 fans packed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.) 

With the NBA, what are the Covid-19-related policies?

First, the non-negotiables that all teams must follow. This includes requiring all coaches and staff to be vaccinated. This rule, however, does not apply to the players. It’s estimated that only five percent are unvaccinated — including Kyrie Irving. The 6-foot-2, Melbourne, Austrialia-born guard is in a quandary; New York has strict rules and Kyrie might have to be tested daily before playing.

For the spectators, the league-wide policy includes requiring all fans seated within 15 feet of the court or player benches to either be vaccinated or to show proof of a recent negative test. 

Of the NBA’s 30 teams, at least half of the squads will employ a ruling that will allow only the vaccinated or tested spectators to enter.

The strictest is the Toronto Raptors (Canada). They require proof of vaccination. No jab, no entry. Also, fans must wear masks (except when eating or drinking). Three other teams are as strict as the Raptors: the Knicks, Nets and Warriors.

Eleven teams will require either a jab or a test. These include the Pelicans, Lakers, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Mavericks, Clippers, Thunder, Jazz, Bulls, Kings and Celtics.

The rest of the teams are not as strict. The Atlanta Hawks, for example, do not require any proof of vaccination or negative Covid-19 test to watch. They don’t even require the fans to wear masks.

I can’t wait for the start of the N.B.A…

Normal. Ballgame. At last.

Categorized as NBA

United States Open

(Photo: Jerry Lai/USA Today)

Tennis is unlike any other sport on earth. It’s one on one. No coaches are allowed to sit beside you and whisper suggestions. You only use one racket but you have six extra in your bag. 

The surfaces differ. There’s grass. There’s clay. There’s hard-court. You play indoors. You play outdoors. Or, you can start playing outdoors and, when the rain starts dripping, the roof closes and you resume indoors. 

The scoring in tennis is weird. There’s “love.” There’s “15,” and “30” and “40.” When you’re at 40-all, it’s called Deuce. 

Tennis was said to have originated from the French in the 12th century. It was then a handball game called “jeu de paume.” In English, that’s “game of the palm.” This evolved into using wooden rackets. The original surface was grass; thus, the name “lawn tennis” (which is still used today, particularly by the British).

Having played tennis for the past 35 years, do I consider the game easy or difficult to learn? If you’re naturally athletic, tennis is uncomplicated. Once you’re taught the basics of the spin, follow-through, footwork and many more, it’s quick to become good.

But surely, tennis is not as effortless to learn as, say, badminton or ping-pong. With tennis, there are multiple technicalities. There’s the forehand, backhand, volley, serve; you have the slice, topspin, overhead and drop shots. 

U.S. OPEN. In New York City today, the world feels normal. Tens of thousands of fans have crowded Flushing Meadows, majority without masks. (They have a ruling: no proof of vaccination, no entry.)

This tournament is historic for many reasons. One, it’s the full return of the spectators (compared to last year’s empty stands). Two, a couple of guys named Rafa and Roger are in Spain and Switzerland watching Netflix. Three, Serena Williams is also absent. Four, you have names like Zverev and Medvedev who have a big chance to win the title. Fifth, a potential Grand Slam — all four majors this 2021 — awaits Novak Djokovic if he wins next Sunday.  

Yesterday, a pair of 18-year-olds created major upsets. Carlos Alcaraz of Spain defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in a fifth set tiebreak. In the next match, Naomi Osaka was serving to win the match before losing to Leylah Fernandez. 

Leylah Annie Fernandez is Pinay. Well, half-Filipino.

“I’m a bit of a mix,” said the 5-foot-6 lefthander who’ll turn 19 tomorrow. “I was born in Montreal. I’m Canadian. My father is from Ecuador and my mother is from Toronto but her parents are Filipinos. I’m happy to be Ecuadorian and Filipino.”

I watched portions of Leylah’s match against Osaka yesterday and, when the Japanese broke her to serve for the match at 6-5 in the second set, I thought it was game over. Next thing I knew, Fernandez was leading in the third set and won it, 6-4.

Which brings us to the darling of Philippine tennis: Alexandra Eala. Only 16, she is the No. 2 seed in the Girls’ Juniors in a field of 48 girls (aged 18 and younger). The hope is that Leylah’s triumph will motivate Alex to win her first major singles junior title.

Categorized as Tennis

Grand Slam

Like golf, the sport of tennis has four major tournaments. There’s the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. If you win all four in the same calendar year, that’s called winning a “Grand Slam.” 

That achievement is so rare that it has been accomplished by only five human beings — of the estimated 107 billion people that have inhabited Planet Earth. Don Budge was first in 1938; Maureen Connolly followed in 1953; Rod Laver did it in 1962 and 1969; Margaret Court in 1970; and Steffi Graf made it the “Golden Slam” when she also won the Olympic gold in Barcelona in that historic 1988.

Novak Djokovic can become the sixth human being if he wins in New York City next Sunday. 

To win a major, you’ll need to beat seven players in 14 days. Can the 34-year-old Serbian do it?

Consider this: Djokovic owns 20 major titles. The rest of the 127 players in the 128-player draw? Four majors. And if we take out Andy Murray and Marin Cilic, that figure drops to zero. “Overwhelming favorite” is an understatement.

The only blemish in Djokovic’s year was his Tokyo Olympics sojourn. He lost in the men’s singles; lost in the men’s doubles; lost in the mixed doubles. In between, he lost his mind, smashing his Head PT113B racket before hurling it to the empty stands; he also crushed the bronze medal hopes of his compatriot Nina Stojanovic when he defaulted their mixed doubles match. 

This is not the first time that Djokovic lost his temper. A year ago, he was on track to win the US Open when he accidentally swatted a ball that struck the throat of a line judge 40 feet away. Djokovic was given an automatic disqualification.

But that was 12 months ago. And, with the case of the Olympics meltdown — when he was expected to showcase two gold medals to a thunderous crowd in Belgrade, instead going home empty-handed — the Tokyo nightmare was one month ago.

Djokovic has not played a tournament since the Olympics. Will any of that matter? I doubt it. 

As hot-tempered as Djokovic is, his mind is also his greatest weapon. No player, maybe with the exception of Rafael Nadal, possesses a stronger will and spirit than tennis’ all-time leader in prize money ($151 million).

The US Open is a near-perfect venue for the world No. 1. He triumphed in Flushing Meadows in 2011, 2015 and 2018. Of his 20 majors, 12 were collected on hard courts — the same surface as the Big Apple’s.

And the big plus: the minus of Roger Federer and Nadal in the draw, both with a combined 40 majors (including nine US Open crowns). Also, the defending champ Dominic Thiem is out injured.

What also works for Djokovic: the three-out-of-five scoring system of majors. It’s tough to take a set off Novak; it’s very tough take two sets off him; it’s very, very, very, very tough to take three sets off him.

Which brings me to the three people who have the slimmest of chances to accomplish this: Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. 

Can Djokovic achieve the Grand Slam?

Only if he doesn’t slam his racket.