Now at 21, Dr. Yong Larrazabal aims for 100

Seven days ago at the Kawasan Falls Marathon, nobody felt more pressured than Dr. Potenciano Larrazabal III. As organizer, 800 runners traveled three hours and 116 kms. to join his race. Worse, an intensifying typhoon threatened. To top all that, Dr. Yong was not a mere spectator — he was joining the grueling 42K.

But, like numerous hills that he’s climbed before, the Kawasan Falls Marathon turned out to be near-perfect. Jesse Taborada, a veteran of 9 marathons, calls it “the best I’ve joined in this country.” The weather? Cloudy but no rain. “It was the first Philippine marathon I joined,” said Yong, “that had no sunshine the entire time.”

Yong? He finished in 3 hours, 49 minutes. That’s Lamborghini-fast. Of the 271 runners that completed the 42K, he ranked 14th.

Why Kawasan? “After running marathons abroad, I decided Cebu needs its own Big Sur or Niagara Falls Marathon,” said Yong.

“After running there (Badian, Alegria and Malabuyoc) a couple of times last year, we (Dr. Pete Mancao and I) decided this is it. And what a finale and treat it would be for the runners to end the marathon running by the river leading up to Kawasan Falls. The course had mountains on the left and the sea on the right.

“We were fortunate that the 3 town mayors ( Mayor Robburt Librando, Mayor Melit Guisadio, Mayor Daisy Creus) were very receptive and cooperative. The townsfolk all lined up the route to cheer on the runners. We were also very lucky to get the very generous and supportive ThreeSixty Pharmacy to be our presenter. All hotels in the 3 towns were fully booked that weekend including the neighboring town of MoalBoal. It showed the trust the runners had with Run for Sight Foundation considering the place was 3 hours and 116 kilometers away from Cebu City.

“Even 50% of the runners have never been there and 30% have never heard of Kawasan Falls. This placed a lot pressure on the team (including Joel Baring) but I was glad we pulled through. With God’s Blessing, we had great weather for running as it was the first marathon I joined in the Philippines that had no sunshine the entire time I was running.

“Next year, we plan to have it on June 10 2012. This marathon is aimed to complement the CCM (Cebu City Marathon) which is six months apart and is set on the countryside. It will be also only for long distance runners ( 21k and 42k only). June 11 is a holiday, so runners may bring their families to have tour excursions and Island hopping afterwards (think Sports Tourism). This will be affordable to many but very limited to few ( 500 slots -21k 500 slots -42k) so as to preserve mother nature and the beauty of Kawasan.”

Here’s an amazing fact: Yong has completed his 21st marathon race. From latest to first: Kawasan (3:49). Sundown, Singapore (4:20); Los Angeles (3:57); Tokyo (3:51). In 2010.. Singapore (4:11); Niagara Falls (4:01); Camsur (3:47); Moray, Scotland (4:01); Milo (4:02). San Diego Rock & Roll (3:55); Seoul (3:46); Condura (4:16); Cebu (3:58). In 2009.. Macau (3:49); Robin Hood, UK (4:16); Big Sur, U.S. (4:26). In 2008.. Chicago (4:47); Hong Kong (4:19); In 2007.. New York (4:31); Milo (4:26); Pasig (4:55).

“I run more relaxed now and am more confident because of proper mileage and training,” he said. “Fear of cramps has gone. I calculate when to go slow or fast. Discovering the trick of using mind over body.

“If I run abroad, I try to enjoy the sights and sounds,” he said. “It is easily one good way of exploring the place you visit. I also try to get ideas so I can apply it here and share it with our fellow runners. I got a lot of good ideas from the Niagara Falls and Big Sur Marathon which we really enjoyed and applied them to the Kawasan Falls Marathon.”

His tips for us? “Get the right training with a proper mix of long runs, tempo and speed-work; most importantly, mental strength. Don’t pressure yourself too much. Conquering your marathon goal is 50% body and 50% mind. If you feel midway that you are not up to it (goal time), there is always a next marathon and just enjoy the run.”

Every 42K is unique, says Yong. “What excites me the most about marathons is that you never know what to expect and how your body reacts since this is 42k. And every 42k experience is different from one another. When running, so many things enter your mind; a simple ache or muscle twitch could lead to a cramp or injury which could result in my first DNF. I listen to my body: drink when thirsty, eat when hungry, rest when tired. When fear or stress steps in, I think of a happy memory.”

With injuries, Dr. Larrazabal has hardly been injured since running six years ago. He even completed 10 marathons in 12 months (Dec. ‘09 to Dec. ‘10). Why no pain and injury?

“I run less than recommended. When others run 100K/week, I peak only at 60K/week. Not because I want to, but because of my busy schedule. I do daily eye surgeries from 8 to 10am. Then clinic consultations till 5. After, I do eye laser procedures till 6pm. I get to run on weekdays when my kids are asleep at 9pm or earlier when there is bad weather or a typhoon and patients don’t make it to the clinic. I do my long runs on Sundays but I avoid road runs, opting to run in track, sand, water, grass and the treadmill.. all gentle to the knees. I confess to watching the full Schindler’s List movie while on the treadmill. I also make sure I rest at least one week after every 42K. This way, I have a longer, more enjoyable and pain-free running life.”

On his 42K list this 2011: Berlin in Sept., Korea in Oct. and Taiwan in Dec. And while he previously targeted to finish 33 marathons, that number has been tripled.

“Because I have learned to love running even more and discovered that there are so many marathons to conquer all over the world,” said Dr. Yong Larrazabal, “I have decided to increase my target to 100 marathons.”

Categorized as Marathon

The Manny Pacquiao of Philippine business

The MVPs of sports: Monico Puentevalla, Manny P. and Manny P.

Manny makes the world go round. Or, as we’ve been taught since pre-school: “Money makes the world go round.” In Philippine business and in Philippine sports, it’s the former statement: Manny does make the earth revolve. The two Mannys I’m referring to are: Pangilinan and Pacquiao.

MannyPa. Manny Pangilinan is the MVP of our country’s world of commerce. Pitted against billionaires named Lucio, Henry, Aboitiz, Zobel, E. Razon, Gokongwei, Andrew Tan, and Cojuangco, the MVP of them all is MVP.

He may not be the richest. He did not inherit a 175-year-old company named “Ayala.” He’s not even married and doesn’t have children. But, if you make a survey among CEOs and ask who, among their fellow chieftains, is the most aggressive industrialist in today’s corporate setting, the answer is obvious: MannyPa.

He is either the chairman or the president of these giant companies: PLDT, Meralco, ABC/TV5, San Beda College (Board of Trustees), Smart Communications, Metro Pacific Investments Corp., Piltel, Metro Pacific Tollways Corp…. and many, Manny more.

I write about him because of his involvement in sports. Again, compared to a long-time heavyweight in sports like, for example, Danding Cojuangco of San Miguel Corporation, nobody has done more for our nation than Manny Pangilinan.

He rebuilt Ateneo. They’re the three-time UAAP champions. And, with Kiefer and Greg, they’re expected to slaughter all opposition this school year.

He patronized the San Beda Red Lions. It was at San Beda where he studied his elementary and high school. In return, he’s helped their basketball program. The result? The Red Lions are the 2010-11 champions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. This means that, in both the UAAP and NCAA, the twin teams that MVP supported are the champions.

Smart man? In the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), he owns two teams: the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters and the Meralco Bolts. Talk ‘N Text have won the 2010-2011 Philippine Cup and the Commissioner’s Cup.

The Smart Gilas squad? Of course, based on their first name, “Smart,” it’s clear who sponsors our Philippine amateur team. MVP leads the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas. In boxing, he also leads the Amateur Boxing Association of the Philippines (ABAP). His long-term goal: to produce the country’s first-ever Olympic gold medal. In taekwondo, MVP also bolsters their national program.

And, if all this success within our Philippine shores were not enough, Manny P. attempted a deal that’s never been accomplished by any Filipino, ever: The purchase of an NBA team. MVP lobbied to buy the Sacramento Kings. “I have to admit, the idea is very titillating,” he said. “It’s a great tribute to the country… Whether we do it or not, it’s a great idea for a Filipino group to own an NBA team.”

The plan was for MVP to pay as much as $260 million for a majority stake in the Kings. This whopping figure (about P10 billion in Php Pesos) would have been funded, according to reports, by “his personal capacity.” Unfortunately, it appears that the deal won’t push through. But, whether it’s next season or three years from now, expect MVP, now 65 years old, to pursue that NBA dream.

Well, here we are this weekend of July 23 and 24. On the topic of the NBA, if MVP cannot purchase a team, he might as well bring their best players to our shores. Lucky for Manila but unlucky for us taga-probinsya, MVP has invited MVPs Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose. Also in Manila are Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Derek Fisher and many more are here.

Last night, the NBA selection played the PBA All-Stars. Today, at 1 p.m., Kobe and Co. will face Chris Tiu and the Smart Gilas national squad. Yesterday’s game was shown live on (where else), the IBC 13 (TV5) network of Mr. Pangilinan, while today’s game will be shown delayed at 5:30 p.m.

The venue? No longer called Araneta Coliseum, it’s recently been renamed to… “Smart Araneta Coliseum.”

Smart, aggressive, sports-obsessive… what a Most Valuable Pinoy.

Jacs shifts gears from 42K to the 70.3 Ironman

Jacs with his mentor and best friend, Dr. Vicente Verallo

Meyrick Jacalan is one of my closest friends. He’s also one of the most fanatical people I know about sports. At the past Cebu City Marathons, “Jacs” was the leader of the organizing Cebu Executive Runners Club (CERC). Also, as the entrepreneur behind ASAP Advertising, he created the concepts and designs for the Cebu Marathon.

Jacs has finished three 42K races. His first was when our 14-man Cebu group flew to Hong Kong in 2008; he timed a very respectable 4 hours, 51 minutes. Next, he joined the Singapore Marathon. We were together with Team CERC. Despite cramps, he did another sub-5, clocking 4:58. And, finally, at the 2009 Amsterdam Marathon, he did a sub-Oprah (besting Ms. Winfrey’s 4:29 clocking at the NYC Marathon). Jacs finished in 4:21.

What’s most amazing was this: months leading to Amsterdam, Jacs was injured. His painful Plantar Fasciitis injury (which later became Bone Spur) led him to stop many 30K practice runs. Once, running from Capitol to Cordova in Mactan, I saw him walk and grimace in excruciating foot pain. Never a quitter, Jacs considered backing out of Amsterdam—yet he persevered. He did a PR in that ’09 European 42K.

After the marathon in The Netherlands, all-smiles are Dr. Albert Santos, Nica Ong, Jane-Jane Ong, Andrew Ong, Jacs, Perl and Dr. Vic

Next month, Mr. Jacalan will embark on another target: to finish his first Half-Ironman Triathlon in Camarines Sur.

“I was advised to rest and ‘totally’ stop running after Amsterdam to allow my injury to heal,” he said. “I needed something to do to remain active for fitness so I went back to mountain biking and eventually decided to take up swimming, too.”

This was in 2010. A biker prior to becoming a runner, the most challenging discipline was the one that involved the water.

“My limiter is swimming,” Jacs said. “All I knew about it was very basic. My limited background meant I had to learn it from scratch. Running was also tricky since I have to balance it properly so as not to aggravate my foot injury.”

On swimming, Jacs says it’s not a natural sport like running. “The techniques involved are complex and challenging. Without question, swimming can be a life-or-death activity. It’s not difficult to learn but it takes perseverance and determination to endure the countless and thousands and more meters in the pool. For me, the path to swimming starts with learning to relax and be comfortable in the water. Everything else will follow.”

His training schedule for the August 14 Ironman include swimming thrice weekly. He does one short bike ride on weekdays and a long one on Sundays. Running? Two or three times a week.

“I hardly go out during the evenings, especially not on weekends; and as much as possible, business trips are limited to 2 to 3 days only,” he said. “If I do two workouts in a day, I make sure to take a 15-minute power nap noontime. I sleep early. Training and work schedule is pretty much manageable.”

His advice to all the married men who aspire to be triathletes: Ask your wives first for overwhelming support and understanding before jumping into the pool! (It’s good that Perl Jacalan, herself a half-marathoner, understands that her husband is a sports-obsessed person.)

At the Singapore Marathon where Perl finished her first 21K

Having completed three marathons and now just 25 days away from his first-ever 70.3 triathlon (1.9K swim, 90K bike ride and 21K run), how does Jacs compare both sports?

For Triathlon/Ironman training. . .

“It takes more training hours per week compared to training for a marathon as you have to undertake 3 disciplines altogether;

“Probability of accident/crash is much higher with the bike training;

“Overtraining is hard to detect. When your leg muscles are fatigued from running or biking, you can switch to swimming, or the other way around. Unlike training for a marathon, you can easily sense overtraining as your leg muscles and bodily aches will tell you to stop and recover.”

Comparing the two, Jacs says that marathon training is more difficult. “It’s more rigorous and taxing to the body,” he says. “Plus, there’s no variety… you keep using your legs, pounding your body on the asphalt 5 to 6 days a week. That’s tough!”

Since this is his first Half-Ironman, expectations are realistic. “I am a newbie to the sport,” said Jacs, “although I have ran 3 marathons and I have a background in mountain biking; doing all 3 disciplines (swim/bike/run) at one time is an entirely different game. My goal for now is just to finish before cut-off time.”

As to the popularity of triathlon in Cebu today, “you’ll be surprised” at how many are Tri’ing the Tri, says Jacs. This 2011 edition in CamSur, about 50 from Cebu will join. “Different teams are now being formed,” he says. “Team Reborn started with just 5 members, now they are 20. A revival of a popular Cebuano triathlon team years ago, the TRI-Loccos is now gaining new members. Former triathletes are on the comeback. An XTerra brand of Triathlon was just held here in Cebu.

“With Sugbu-Tri coming up various Triathlon races around the provinces, another big one in Lapu-Lapu City soon this year and with the neighboring Islands like Bohol hosting a Full (ironman) distance, races in Dumaguete, Davao,…. with Cebuanos flying all over the country as far as Matabungkay in Batangas, I would say, the sport is now enjoying a resurgence of popularity.”

Finally, asked about his parting words and motivation for enduring the pain of all the training, Meyrick Jacalan answers: “Every time I suffer, I am a better man because of it. That’s from the ultimate athlete himself, Lance Armstrong. And yes, every time I am in pain, I think of this line.”

With the Jacalans after climbing The Peak in Hong Kong

John, Jacs, Vic and Serge Amora

La Salle: 100 years and running

One of my all-time favorite songs is Tarzan Boy. To whose who lived through the 1980s, you know the tune: it’s universally-recognized as the most “baduy” song ever recorded. That’s according to my roommate Maria Jasmin.

But I had the best memories of Tarzan Boy. I was in elementary when, as a basketball point guard, that song played over and over again via the loudspeakers in many games.

Playing for La Salle Bacolod, my fondest recollection of Tarzan Boy was as a frail yet energetic Grade 5 student. I must have been only 10. One of the youngest in our varsity squad (La Salle had Grade 7), we were scheduled to play in Silay City, a 20-minute drive away from Bacolod. It wasn’t an ordinary encounter: we were to play the first game, in front of a packed coliseum, prior to the official PBA game.

You could not believe my excitement. I couldn’t sleep for 21 nights. In school, I daydreamed about Silay. Finally, the day arrived and, after wearing the white-and-green jersey and donning my Promodel Adidas high-cut shoes, I entered the arena to the loudest cheering I’ve heard in my one decade of life.

The music? Of course… Tarzan Boy.

Last Sunday, fast forward 29 years later, I ran. It was the Animo La Salle Run, celebrating the 100th year founding of one of the nation’s best schools. While jogging, I was tuned-in to my iPod and my song selections were a mixed assortment.

The music? Of course… Tarzan Boy.

It was unexpected. I set the iPod to “Shuffle” mode and, like God perfectly wanted to remind me of those youthful days, the perfect song appeared.

During a La Salle Run. Two days ago. Just like three decades ago.

La Salle today is a century old. Beginning in 1911 in Paco, Manila with 125 boys whose classes were conducted in all-Spanish, La Salle today has 17 schools nationwide, including, nearest to us, the De La Salle Andres Soriano Memorial College in Toledo City.

I studied in La Salle for eight years from Grade 1 until First Year High School. Our family relocated to Cebu beginning my 2nd year HS. Looking back, I consider those the most important years of my life.

The first dozen years of one’s life are the most essential. Like a 12-story building whose footing and foundation are the key to it’s stand and strength, so it is with us: We often become who we are based on who we were when we were young.

Confusing? Simply, it means our days learning ABC’s are the bedrock, the groundwork, the basics of our adult life.

I am proud to be a La Sallian. The school is named after St. John Baptist de La Salle (born in 1651), a priest who founded the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools.

In what I recall of my primary years, we were taught discipline, respect for others, service, excellence in all endeavors, and, above all, love of God.

Together with 350,000 alumni who’ve passed through the green-colored corridors, I owe a big part of my life story to La Salle.

Two days ago, it was a perfect race. The Animo La Salle Run had 3K, 6K and 12K distances. In the dozen-kilometer distance that I joined, marshals were plenty, water was sufficient, and, thanks to race director Raffy Uytiepo, from La Salle Bacolod, the route (from CICC to Salinas Drive and back) was ideal.

Nimrod Quiñones snapped photos at the finish line. Rico Navarro, whose son Popoy won 3rd place in the 3K sprint, was the emcee. About 500 joined. Edwin Salazar’s daughter, Wren Marie, won 3rd place. She’s only 11 and is on vacation from Gold Coast, Australia. Cousins Bobby and Mariano Martinez, die-hard La Sallites, ran.

My only complaint? The sky. It was all. . . . blue. A telling sign after losing the last three UAAP seasons to a certain team from Katipunan Ave.?

Categorized as Running

Hapit! Mandaue’s Landmasters/RDAK scares Smart Gilas

Marcus Douthit is 6’11”. Japeth Aguilar stands 6-foot-9. Together, side by side, standing on the parquet floor with their arms outstretched like wingspans of two Airbus A380s, they’re unstoppable.

I watched them play last Thursday. Inside the Mandaue City Cultural and Sports Complex, the Philippine team called the “Smart-Gilas Pilipinas” faced Cebu’s latest phenomenon, the Mandaue-Landmasters/RDAK squad.

We beat them. Hapit. Almost. With 3 minutes, 18 seconds left in the 4th quarter, our locals led the nationals, 64-61. This was after Mandaue’s latest recruit, Vic Manuel, did the unthinkable against the Gilas giants: In a fast-break, with two hands gripping the ball, Manuel vaulted up on air and slam-dunked. Yes! Mandaue slam-dunked Gilas.

I arrived at the gymnasium during the start of the 3rd quarter. Of the gym’s 5,000-seating capacity, the venue was 70 percent full.

We did not lead all the way. Earlier, Gilas led by as much as 16 points when the score was 37-21. They dominated. Like they did the night before in Cebu Coliseum, against the M. Lhuillier Kwarta Padala, when the Cebu Niños suffered a humbling 89-62 loss. That’s a 27-point margin.

Not in Mandaue City. I was seated between the two most influential VIPs in the coliseum that night: to my left sat Joe Soberano, the CEO of Cebu Landmasters, Inc. and the owner of the team; to my right was the Vice Mayor of Mandaue, Glenn Bercede. With them cheering from the front lines, Mandaue was invigorated. They played inspired basketball.

VM Glenn Bercede

With 92 seconds left in the ballgame, the score was 68-66. Gilas led. Then, as the seconds inched forward, the score read 72-70. Only 22 seconds were left. Imagine, our Landmasters/RDAK lineup had a good chance to tie—or possibly defeat—the much-heralded PHL team?

UPSET! Can you picture the headline-grabbing news that this will generate, nationwide? ‘PINAS LOSES TO M’DAUE!

And though this wasn’t a tournament, still, a game is a game. Nobody wants to lose. Not even in an exhibition contest.

With 15 seconds left in the final quarter, the score was 73-72. We had a terrific chance. When Gilas made a two-pointer to make it 75-72, we owned ball possession. A three-point shot to make it 75-all would have ended the game. Exhibition matches don’t extend to Overtime.

Mandaue did a trick shot. One player (I could not recall who), who was to do the inbounds pass, could not find an open man so he did a crazy yet effective ploy: he bounced the ball off the opponent’s back, caught it, then the ball was in play. He then passed it to his teammate. Smart play against Smart!

But, in the end, the 75-75 “dream score” would not happen: the Landmasters turned-over the ball in their last possession and Gilas scored one last time.

Final score: 77-72. (Had two-time MVP Mark Magsumbol played, many from the crowd, including Caecent, believed we’d have won.)

Despite the loss, VM Glenn Bercede was all-smiles. Looking fit and lean (he plays basketball, up to this day, at least twice a week), the top sportsman/ official is not only a huge basketball follower, he helps Landmasters/RDAK in all ways that he can. Two other ecstatic fans were Atty. Lito Pascual, the sports chieftain of Mandaue, and Rere King, the owner of RDAK.

Landmasters/RDAK is a three-time Liga Pilipinas weekly/leg champion. In this SMC Liga Pilipinas Conference V (fifth season), the first three legs were won not by Manny Pacquiao’s GenSan-MP Warriors… but by Jose Soberano’s group.

In the recent fourth leg, though, they lost to Misamis Oriental Meteors, the eventual champion. It all ends in the “Super Leg,” the Grand Championship, at the Xavier University Gym in Cagayan de Oro City starting this Tuesday, from July 12 to 17.

Too bad Cebu won’t be hosting the Super Leg. It would have given us home-court advantage. Still, with a 12-4 win-loss record in the past four weeks, and a performance last Thursday that had Gilas’ Chris Tiu in difficulty (he was blocked), let’s hope for a super win in the Super Leg.

Categorized as Basketball

Gio Gandioco’s dream: ‘Be like Rory’

Tiger Woods is outdated and passé. Today’s young golfers want to be like the 22-year-old Irish champion of the United States Open.

Take the son of Opep and Cora Gandionco. Only 16 years old, he possesses the confidence and maturity of Rory McIlroy.

Angelo Jose “Gio” Gandionco explained: “Rory inspired me to do better and to challenge myself; if Rory can do it, why can’t I? It may be tough to be the best or even get in the PGA Tour but if you have the will and desire, you can achieve it. Rory winning made me realize that it’s possible to win one of the biggest tournaments and beat the best. Like now, I’m touring America playing tournaments and I’m up against the best juniors. I know if I play my game I can beat them like Rory. If I focus on what I’m supposed to do and not get intimidated, I can win.”

Spunk, spirit, and self-assurance. That’s Gio.

From the U.S., he emailed last week. “I just finished my first tournament this second trip here,” said Gio. “It’s the AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) Club Corp Mission Hills Desert Junior in Rancho Mirage (Palm Springs), California. Despite jet lag since I just arrived three days earlier and playing in 114-deg, I finished 2nd with a score of 71-73-72, which is my best finish so far here. Most of the other players were from California, LJ Go (from Cebu) also played.”

Gio, third from right, winning 2nd place

Gio, a 2-handicapper who also idolizes Rickie Fowler (“He stands out with his fashion statement”), travels next to Pinehurst, North Carolina and Huntsville, Alabama. He then returns home to Cebu, where he is a 4th year high school student at PAREF-Springdale (and a five-time Student-Athlete Of The Year).

“Last April,” he added, “my mom’s family had a reunion in Hawaii so we went on to Texas to join a tournament at the Texas A&M University. I finished 14th (that was a highly-ranked junior tourn) and, at the PGA Golf Club in Florida, I finished Top 10. Here in the U.S., there are 5,000 junior golf players… so I think I have been doing well.”

Gio started golf at the age of four. He used Little Tikes plastic golf clubs and his dad, Opep, who heads the family-owned giant Julie’s Bakeshop, was the person who taught his son how to swing.

By age 7, Gio joined golf events. But, he also had a similar interest in the Azkals game of football. He was Springdale’s striker. Finally, he had to choose. “When my soccer tournaments and golf coach schedules competed for my time,” he said, “I knew I had to make a choice. Although I enjoyed the team play in soccer with my friends, I knew it was Golf I really loved! So at 11, I started to seriously work on my game.”

Mixing academics and sport has not been easy. “My schedule is very hectic,” said Gio, an honor student who consistently averages 90+. “But, I always try to put time for both practicing and studying. During schooldays, I get dismissed 4:30pm so I head to either the range or the golf course on MWF. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I work out in the gym. I get home 6:30pm, study, eat, sleep. It is not easy being a student-athlete; you have to learn how to manage your time well. Even while I’m away for a tournament, I still have to read books and do homework to prepare for tests.”

Gio’s dream? To play in the PGA Tour. But first, he says, “My goal in the medium term is to get a scholarship at a prestigious U.S. university. I would like to play college golf, at the same time graduate with a degree in Business.”

His best score? A 5-under par in a Men’s Amateur tournament late last year. “Although I am still working on my game,” he says, “my short game has always been my strength. Every aspect of my game is still a work-in-progress, and I am open to learning and improving.”

As to the aspects of golf that he enjoys most, he answers, “I love every part of the game: the pressure, the challenge, the intimidation, the hard work, the difficulties that come everyday and, most of all, the feeling of knowing you’re improving.”

Only 16, Gio sounds like a very, very mature person. Just like Rory.

Categorized as Golf

Novak’s ‘Independence Day’ from R + R

(Toby Melville/Reuters)

HONG KONG—The headline news here yesterday, in The Standard’s back sports page, proclaims it clear and loud: “DJOKOVIC REIGNS.” In an all-green Wimbledon backdrop photo, Novak Djokovic thumps his right fist on his left chest, opening his mouth to a scream, clasping his Head racquet with the other hand, as if to shout, “I AM NUMBER ONE!”

Novak “The Djoker,” is, no joke, the world’s best. In a span of 72 hours, he clinched the No. 1 world ranking and, two nights ago in London, his first ever All-England Club trophy.

“It’s the best day of my life,” said Novak. To win undefeated in seven matches spanning two weeks in the oldest and most exalted of all the tennis tournaments, it ought to be the best. Wimbledon is the best. Novak is the best.

Djokovic did it by dismantling and mutilating the usually-unconquerable Rafael Nadal. In the first two sets, which Novak won, 6-4, 6-1, his game was as polished as Jason Terry’s three-pointers. Novak hardly missed. He retrieved unretrievable shots. He drop-volleyed. He was, as sports writers would term it, “in the zone.” His game flowed. He was inspired. And, buoyed by the new No. 1 ranking, mentally, he could not be defeated.

He was not. Except the third set. He had a momentary lapse of focus. And, when the Spaniard won that stretch, 6-1, weren’t the members of the “Rafa We Love You Forever Fans Club” relieved? They must have thought… if Rafa can only get the fourth set… we’ll score a come-from-behind victory.

Novak didn’t allow it. Oddly, except for that third set, it was Rafa, the 10-time Grand Slam champion, who was nervous at critical points of the match. At 4-5 in the first set, anxiety crept into the left-hander’s fingers. Same with the latter stages of the fourth set when he made plenty of un-Rafa-like mistakes.

The happiest bunch today? With Rafa’s loss? Yes, of course, the Djokovic fans—though they still number in the thousands. But, by the tens of millions, the happiest are the Roger Federer devotees, for though their man was halted in the Quarterfinals, at least his arch-rival was terminated, too. (Here in Hong Kong, I watched, while sipping Heinekin beer and munching on pizza, in a bar. In another of those Oh-no-not-again moments, my hotel room didn’t have Star Sports. The lady bartender who watched while I sat on the bar stool? Of course, she’s a Roger fan.)

Who is this new Manny Pacquiao of tennis? “I started in the mountains,” said Novak, 24, of his early days when he first held a tennis racquet at age four. “Started in a very small place, and then I continued in Belgrade, practicing tennis—that wasn’t really popular at the time. We were going through some difficult periods—you know, our country had wars and stuff. So it wasn’t easy to hold that desire and really believe in yourself. But I always did, and the people close to me did.”

(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Belief. Yes. Self-belief. In anything and everything in life, this is what matters the most. To you. To me. To all things that we do. If we possess this six-letter word, “belief,” then we can achieve everything and anything we aspire for. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or believe you can’t, you are right.”

It begins in the mind. Tennis, you think, is physical? Like boxing? True, these sports are brothers—they are a handful of games that are one-on-one, mano-a-mano. And, true, a muscular Nadal flexes his biceps to win points. Tennis, like boxing, is physical.

But it’s more mental. Take Pacquiao. It’s his mind that defeats the Mexicans. The same with Novak. Beginning late last year when he won for Serbia the Davis Cup crown, that win changed his outlook. I AM THE CHAMPION. I CAN BEAT R + R.

And, yes, has he beaten the Roger-Rafa combination, these two who’ve combined to corner that No. 1 ranking since 2004. Yes, in one of those hard-to-believe sports statistics, for the past 7.5 years, only Nadal and Federer have been tennis’ No. 1.

July 4, 2011. Independence Day. A new No. 1. The serving Serb is an ace.

In Wimbledon, it’s Numero Uno vs. Number One

Why is tennis often referred to as “lawn tennis?” That’s because, back in the 19th Century, when the modern game originated, tennis was played on a lawn. Yes, a patch of green field that’s covered with grass.

Tennis started in the United Kingdom. Just like golf. And, just like golf, whose oldest major championship is “The Open,” in tennis, it’s the same: the oldest tournament in the world is found in England. It’s the tennis version of The British Open: Wimbledon.

It began 125 years ago. Imagine that longevity? But the best part about “The Championships” (as organizers want their event called) is not only Wimbledon’s survival and resilience after World Wars I and II—but more so its tradition.

Grass. Unlike all the other tennis contests on Planet Earth, with surfaces that range from hard-court to red clay to indoor carpet, Wimbledon uses the same, old playing field that it’s utilized since 125 years ago.

The surface is alive. Grass grows. They water the court. This happens prior to the two-week-long Wimbledon. And, after Petra Kvitova and Bernard Tomic and Sabine Lisicki trample and pound on the surface, the grass dies.

From green, healthy turf, the grass is massacred and mutates into brown, dead clay. This is Wimbledon. This is what makes the All-England Club exclusive. Its breed. Its antiquity. Its unparalleled class. Its all-white formality.

Two nights ago at Ayala Center, I met two men who’ve been to Wimbledon.

Ramon Saret, my long-time friend from Manila, visited our Queen City for an overnight stop. Mon’s daughter, Jennifer, was ranked among the top two junior tennis players in Asia during the ‘90s. With that lofty ranking, she and her father toured the world—including Wimbledon. In one instance, Mon was dining at the exclusive, for-players-only Dining Hall when two empty seats were soon occupied by familiar names: Boris Becker and Jim Courier. (The two, said Mon, hardly spoke to each other. Puzzled, Mon soon found out why: Boris and Jim were to play each other an hour after that sit-down meal.)

Ernie Delco, a top official of the MCWD, was in London last week. The tennis nut that he is, he queued for two miles before watching Roger Federer in Centre Court.

Both agreed—and had me envious—that Wimbledon stands alone as the most revered of all in tennis.

Which brings me to tonight, 9 P.M., Sunday, July 3. After two weeks of nightly Star Sports shows, starting 8 P.M., we arrive at the conclusion. This is Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It’s the Sunday of the U.S. Open golf in the Congressional Country Club (sadly, a non-Scottish player, unlike Rory McIlroy, will play since Andy Murray lost).

It’s No. 1 versus Numero Uno. Novak Djokovic, beginning tomorrow when the new ATP Rankings are announced, will become the world’s top-ranked player. Rafael Nadal, today’s No. 1, will meet tomorrow’s best in the finals. Isn’t that interesting? A plot and script as good as Steven Spielberg’s?

After six uninterrupted years of all Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, when both won a combined 21 of the last 24 Grand Slam singles titles (an unbelievable statistic!)—we finally have a different finale. I like this ending better. Para lahi na sad.

The Spaniard is targeting his 11th major title. (If he wins, he’ll be just five away from Roger.) He has not lost in Wimbledon since 2007 and, against the Serb (Novak), their record is 16-11 (including 5-0 in Grand Slam events), in favor of Rafa.

The odds favor the lefty versus the right-hander, right? Not exactly. Because the last four times they played, including two on clay, Mr. Djokovic has triumphed. Which thickens the plot tonight. Watch it, starting 9 P.M., over Star Sports. (Good news for non-cable TV subscribers: live telecast over local channel IBC.)

So… Today’s No. 1 or tomorrow’s? Rafa in 5.