Roger the Brave

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(Credit: Rex Features)

Down 3-1 in the fifth after emerging from the dugout for a medical timeout and with Rafael Nadal looping that high-bouncing topspin, who’d have predicted that Roger Federer would break Rafa’s serve twice, slam that backhand crosscourt for winners and win five straight games to hoist No. 18?

“I told myself to play free,” Roger said. “Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded here.”

Roger the Brave. Standing inside the baseline and not waiting for Rafa’s spin-loaded shots to bounce roof high, Roger pounced for half-volley unreturnables, scoring 73 winners to Rafa’s 35 and pounding 20 aces to Nadal’s four.

“He put a lot of balls in, and taking a lot of risks,” Rafa said. “And taking the ball very early, playing very fast.”

The first four sets were unexciting. Like appetizers to the entree or prelimaries to the main bout, they were designed to whet our appetite for what would be one of the most thrilling endings in tennis history.

In the final set of the whole Oz Open, Roger had plenty of chances early but failed. “I could have left disappointed there and accepted that fact,” Roger said. “I kept on fighting. I kept on believing, like I did all match long today, that there was a possibility that I could win this.”

Positive. Hungry. Inspired. At the brink of losing a painful one to his nemesis, Roger found a way. As Rafa emerged from the 4th set all-confident, the Spaniard looked destined for another one of those endings we’ve seen before. “Oh, no, not again!” we all screamed. But Roger, like the Roger of 10 years past, or even better, found a way.

Rafa did not lose. Roger won.

Never mind his high-risk brand of tennis where his flat balls would clear the net by an inch, he went for it. “Bahala na,” if we were to say it. If I lose, I’ll lose dying, bloodied, red like my Swiss flag. But if I win…

And win he did. For RF fans, the script couldn’t have been written any better. Against Nadal. Down in the 5th. Not winning a Grand Slam since 2012. Six months out injured. Aged 35, same as the ladies’ winner. Rod Laver presenting the trophy inside his home. Lights out, spotlights blazing, Mirka smiling. An 18th major, tying him with golf’s Jack Nicklaus.

“I would have said a great event would be quarters,” Roger said. “Fourth round would be nice.”

God is good. God is good to those who are good. Last Sunday night, Roger was too good.

Maestro or Matador? We, the tennis fans, win

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Few rivalries in sport can rival the one of Federer-Nadal. Swiss vs. Spaniard. Single-handed backhand utilizing the right arm against a two-fisted lefty. GQ’s “Most Stylish Man of 2016” vs. the underwear model of Tommy Hilfiger. Wimbledon grass maestro vs. French Open clay-courter.

But as contrasting as their playing styles are, you cannot find two future Hall of Famers (with a combined 31 majors) who are more humble, genuine and courteous — the perfect role models off and on the court in this era of trash-talking Trump and Duterte. (Or Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor.)

Who will win tonight? Ha-ha. It’s like asking me if I prefer biking or running, or tennis over a steak dinner. Crazy comparison, I know, but that’s the offering in tonight’s menu.

Tennis is like boxing. It’s mano-a-mano. But what makes a five-hour marathon played inside that rectangle even more challenging is this: you’re alone. Split in between by a 3-foot-tall net while swatting that bouncing yellow ball, there’s nothing else that will separate Roger and Rafa.

Nobody expected this. Not even these two legends who’ll trade 19-shot blows, slice drop volleys, and pump fists while respectfully staring the other. Tonight, blood in the form of sweat will flood Rod Laver Arena. Passing shots will wow the Aussies as 205-kph aces will fly; Roger fans will paint their faces red while Rafa’s followers will hoist bandera Española.

In this era of boring backhands by Murray and Djokovic, an endless pingpong of counterpunches, who’d have expected the 17th and 9th seeds to meet? Destiny.

For Roger, expect him to cry if he wins No. 18; nobody is more gifted than RF (even his baby-making skills are incomparable: he has two sets of twins, girls then boys, with wife Mirka).

For Rafa, tired after a five-hour slugfest with Dimitrov and unfairly given only 39 hours of rest compared to Fed’s three days, it’s all about his heart. No one gives 1,001 percent, screams louder, punishes his body more than the Mallorcan. Roger fans hate Rafa but they honor his doggedness and grit. But as ferocious and Spanish bullfighter-like as he is, Rafa is polite and gracious.

In defeat or in triumph, he and Roger exhibit this outstanding humility — not just as athletes but as human beings. Consider ourselves blessed. This is it. I’m doubtful if this boxing slugfest — their 35th fight — will ever happen again. Go, Roger! Vamos!

A Swiss watches the Swiss

Dr. Fritz Strolz was born in Switzerland and graduated in ETH Zurich — the same university where Albert Einstein studied. When we visited two summers ago, Uncle Fritz drove his trusted Alfa Romeo and toured us. We inspected the artifacts inside the IOC Museum in Lausanne and climbed Mt. Rigi, gazing at the Swiss Alps. Dr. Strolz also brought us to the Tennis Club Old Boys — historic because a young kid learned to hit forehands there. That child was Roger Federer.

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With Dr. Fritz Strolz at the IOC Museum

Dr. Strolz and his beautiful wife Pearle are in Australia this week and he sent me this message two days ago: “We are headed to the Rod Laver Arena to watch the Maestro against Stanimal! The Swiss fans have the torture of choice. We are in a dilemma. To whom do the hearts fly? Roger, the biggest player in the tennis circus, who inspired the world with his comeback? Or Stan, the tireless fighter, who also gave us a lot of great sport hours?”

The Strolz couple had good seats. They sat in Row 20 with each ticket priced at Aus$296 (P11,250). “The tournament is world-class,” he said. “Great stadiums, excellent infrastructure, helpful and friendly staff.” That day — Jan. 26 — was special not only for Switzerland but also because it was Australia Day.

“For us, it was a crazy game,” Dr. Strolz said. “There were all ingredients for a tennis fire. Stan or Roger, Roger or Stan? The answer kept waiting long. As Roger fans, we trembled. Stan had advantages in the 5th set before he gave Roger the decisive break. Roger was supported loudly during the whole game.”

The Federer vs. Wawrinka battle was a seesaw fight. Roger won the first two sets. Stan took the next two and gained the momentum. In the decider, Stan had two break points that could have sealed the match. He missed those and lost an error-prone service game to hand his doubles partner (Jasmin and I watched them win the Olympic gold in Beijing) and Davis Cup teammate the victory.

Among the 18,644 tennis fans who watched were plenty of Swiss. “There were spectators who painted their faces with the Swiss flag,” Dr. Strolz said. “All RF fan articles were sold out.”

Why, I asked the man who lives in the same city (Basel), is Roger so loved and respected?

“It is certainly his record,” Dr. Strolz said. “On the other side, his style: elegant, stylish and light-footed. In addition, his restraint and humility, on and off the court. He always sports good behavior.”

Mon Fernandez: an athlete fighting for athletes

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(Photo from Ascano)

I spoke to the man often called “The greatest Filipino ballplayer” last Friday. In a freewheeling exchange that touched on topics like the Phil. Sports Institute and Batang Pinoy and how he’s grown taller and now stands 6-foot-7, Ramon Fernandez is one of us. He’s Bisaya. Born in Leyte and now residing in Cebu, his goal is to extend the reach of sports beyond Metro Manila.

“I’ll be visiting more cities around the Visayas in February,” said the 63-year-old PSC Commissioner. “Under my responsibility are the Phil. National Games (PNG), the University Games, collegiate games like the UAAP and CESAFI, and more.”

He wants to institutionalize the Batang Pinoy. “Last year, it included the 17-and-under category but we’re bringing it back to purely 15 and below,” Fernandez said. “PNG is for 18 and above. For those between 15 to 18, we’ll have a tertiary league.”

Mon and I talked about the PSC and POC. They had a gathering early this month in Tagaytay where the functions of each sports body was clarified.

“We now have a clear delineation of roles,” he said. “We made it clear that the National Sports Associaitons (NSAs) are the ones responsible for preparing the athletes for international competition: the SEA Games, Asian Games, Olympics. The role of the POC is to accredit these athletes chosen by the NSAs. Finally, for us at the PSC, we are tasked to supply the funding for the training of the athletes. We have no say with regards to the choosing of the players and coaches. But we help in sending them abroad and with their incentives.”

Part of POC’s role, Fernandez added, is to help in athlete development and in the training of coaches. “Visit the IOC website and check the Olympic Solidarity Committee,” he said, noting the 2015 report for each NOC and how other nations have availed of these progams.

“We never knew that. What’s sad is the POC availed of only one program called ‘Sports For All’ that had a small budget. There are various other programs that the POC could have availed of with millions of dollars as budget,” he said.

“We just had a meeting with the Leyte Sports Academy officers and they told us of their visit to Peping Cojuangco after Yolanda. And instead of getting assistance, they were scolded by Peping. I got mad. You guys better tell me all of this! I’m setting up a media bureau so that complaints of athletes can be heard.”

Can the 17th seed with 17 majors win in ’17?

Roger Federer has not lifted a Grand Slam trophy since Wimbledon 2012. Aged 35 in a sport where you start playing at five, the almost-never-injured Roger succumbed to knee injury (and surgery) last year. He was out for six months. This, despite a previous record where he appeared in 65 consecutive majors.

This 2017, the 17-major titlist is the lowly 17th seed. Can he or his compatriot Rafael Nadal — both a combined age of 65 — triumph in Melbourne? Do the old dogs still have the dog-fight to clash in the finals? I hope. I wish.

Rafa beat Sasha Zverez last Saturday in five sets. Same with Roger. Against Kei Nishikori, RF finished with 24 aces and 83 winners.

“The last shot, when it didn’t come back, it was an enormous joy,” Roger said, after an exhausting 3 hours and 24 minutes. “I think I’m playing better and better. I felt great in the fifth (set). Great energy.”

How about those Zverev brothers? The younger German (Sascha, only 19) pushed Nadal to nearly fall down in Down Under. The older one (Misha, 29) will play Federer in today’s quarterfinals.

Tennis fan or not, if you have cable TV, watch the Oz Open finale this week. Or, with internet connection, go to YouTube and choose from a myriad of 15-minute summarized contests.

NICK TORRES. A former Class A netter whom I exchanged volleys with at the defunct Cebu Tennis Club, Mr. Torres sent me this message last Sunday:

“When I saw Aleksandr (for the first time) beat RF last month, I was so impressed by his maturity and demeanor that I told my friends that he was a sure bet for top 10. I only saw his elder bro today. I was saddened that Mischa didn’t come into his full potential earlier. Unbelievable how he dismantled one of the best returners and defensive specialists of the game with the almost-extinct serve and volley game. Best of all, if you appreciate humility, grace, and magnanimity in victory, ya gotta see his match with Murray.”

Then, yesterday morning, this SMS from him: “Now that he has the best chance in a very long time to win another slam, my love for RF got the better of me. I’m rooting for him again. Zverev or no Zverev! A 17th seed winning a Slam? Only one man could do that. The G.O.A.T.!”

El Presidente the Commissioner

When I asked Ramon Fernandez — possibly the greatest player our basketball-crazy nation has ever produced — if he still follows the PBA or watches Durant or Westbrook, the answer was as swift as Mon’s famous one-handed running shot: No.

Apart from Manny Pacquiao and Robert Jaworkski, and maybe Efren Reyes and James Yap, there is no sportsman in our 7,107 islands who is more recognizable than Mon.

Just revisit with me his PBA statistics: four MVP awards and 19 championship trophies that saw him don the uniforms for San Miguel, Purefoods, Tanduay, Manila Beer and Toyota. He is the PBA’s all-time leading scorer with 18,996 points and his 8,652 rebounds is No. 1 in the league’s 41-year-old history. He is the all-time leader in blocks and minutes played, and ranks second in assists (to Jaworski) and in steals (to Johnny Abarrientos). In a PBA career that spanned 22 years, his statistics are akin to combining the records of Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.

But when I attempted to talk basketball with him in our 20-minute conversation the other night, he pivoted and dribbled way. The reason: El President is now PSC Commissioner. His game encompases all of Philippine sports.

When Pres. Duterte assembled his team to lead PHL sports last July, at the top of his list was Butch Ramirez, his long-time friend and the former head of Davao sports (and the PSC). Next, he recommended a sports giant whom he’s idolized since the 1970s.

Mon Fernandez is one of four Phil. Sports Commission (PSC) commisioners that include Charles Maxey, Celia Kiram and Arnold Agustin.

“For the last six months,” Mon said, “we have been busy cleaning house, putting the PSC house in order. We have been meeting with various stakeholders: the Local Govt. Units (LGUs), the National Sports Associations (NSAs), schools, athletes.”

The commissioner has been part of a listening tour, collecting inputs from everyone. And the good news is, led by a Davaoeño president and a Davaoeño PSC head in Butch Ramirez, our national sports programs are no longer limited to the secluded gates of Imperial Manila. That was the complaint before; everything’s in Manila: the money, facilities, coaches. And the Maasin, Leyte-born Fernandez, who has called Cebu home for the past many years, especially after his marriage to the dynamic Karla Kintanar, is one reason for this change. Said Mon: “We are decentralizing sports.” 

Coral Tee and a rainful of blessings

Cebu Country Club hosts dozens of tournaments each year; but nothing compares to the Coral Tee — a member-guest invitational held every Sinulog week (Wednesday to Saturday) that’s now on its 36th year.

Atty. Jovi Neri, one of CCC’s top golfers, said that the 36th Coral Invitational, next to Manila Golf’s Golden Tee, is the second oldest member-guest invitational in the country.

But last week may have been one of the most challenging.

“While we assumed that we would have a wet Coral Tee as early as two months ago, we did not expect it to be this wet,” said CCC board director and golf chairman Julius “Jayjay” Neri, Jr. “We were very nervous on opening day (Wednesday) as it was raining most of the morning. Thursday had the least rain and gave us hope that conditions would improve.”

After the 430 participants completed the first two days, it poured heavily again on Friday and the forecast on Saturday was more rain.

“It was crucial that the tournament would not be stopped due to the weather or the Calcutta bets as well as the ‘Palusotan’ would have to be cancelled because these were based on the 2nd day scores,” said Jayjay. “And half of the field were playing on that rainy Saturday.”

To make things more problematic, there was no mobile signal. “I got to the club at 9:30 a.m. and did not leave until after the awarding ceremony,” said Jayjay. “Twice on Saturday morning, I was on the verge of declaring the course unplayable. But just as I was about to do so, the rain would slow down.”

Jayjay Neri, who is also the general manager of SunStar, considers being able to finish the 36th Coral Tee despite the torrential rain (and having no major accidents apart from a few who slipped due to the muddy conditions) as a major blessing.

Talking of blessing, two others received major surprises. The first was Rolando Casing of Cagayan de Oro. Last Friday on the 3rd hole of CCC, he used a 7 Iron Titleist 762 club and swung. The ball flew high above the Banilad trees, bounced on the green, rolled and disappeared for a hole in one. Witnessing the rare occurence were Richard Hong, Benedict Uy and Hisashi Miyashita. As reward, Mr. Casing took home a Jeep Wrangler. 

Another blessing happened to my good friend Alvin Alazas, a former CCC club champion. At the conclusion of the Coral Tee, the most awaited moment is the grand raffle.

“In the past, I always bought the tickets numbered 118 and 318,” said Alvin, in our phone conversation yesterday. “The number 118 is my civil wedding date (Jan. 18) and 318 is our church wedding date (March 18).”

But as fate would have it, these numbers were taken. Alvin had to choose another raffle number and picked “018.”

“The first number called was ‘0,’” he said. “In our table were Jiji Gullas, Manolet Heredia, Hector Almario, Armando Serafin and Peter Mancao. We have one ticket, they said, referring to our consortium (we bought tickets as a group). When the next number ‘1’ was called, the others, said, sorry, we didn’t win.”

It turns out, Alvin bought his own ticket. Finally, when the number “8” was called and Alvin’s name was announced, all his friends jumped.

“It was exactly 25 years ago that I first joined Coral Tee,” said Alvin. “That was in 1992 and I’ll never forget that tournament because the first day was my wedding day!”

Tomorrow, Alvin and Mimi celebrate their silver anniversary.  And as gift, a brandnew 3.6-liter V6 Jeep Wrangler.

Australian Open experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categorized as Tennis

Aldeguer looks ahead to 2017 and beyond

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Michael Aldeguer (center) receiving the award in the 2009 Cebu Sports Awards with (from left) Jun Migallen, John Pages, Manny Pacquiao, Jingo Quijano and Raffy Osumo

Pinoy Pride has become too big a show for the true boxing fans in the provinces, said Michael Pastrano Aldeguer, the president and CEO of ALA Promotions.

That’s quite a revelation. Having concluded its 39th edition last November, the “Pinoy Pride” brand has become synonymous with tremendous success. Why mess with it?

But Michael Aldeguer — the first Asian promoter to organize boxing events in the U.S. — is realistic and forthright.

“Pinoy Pride will be for the bigger fights in the bigger cities around the world,” he said.

Ever since the ALA gym was founded by Antonio Lopez Aldeguer in 1985 — whose mission then and now continues to be training aspiring boxers, including the out-of-school youth, to become the best that they can be (including becoming world champions) — the ALA group has continued to evolve and prosper.

NEW FOR 2017. “We are looking to launch different events all over the country and abroad,” Michael Aldeguer said. “We will continue to provide an avenue for prospects all over Philippines and the world as we are working on bringing back the smaller events to connect more to the fans.”

There’ll expand a new feature called “Fists of the Future,” which they launched in San Mateo, California last July. It will continue under the “ALA Stars on Tour” brand.

“It will be smaller than Pinoy Pride and will be held in smaller cities around the Philippines and the U.S.,” he said. “We saw the potential of growing our U.S. events in the coming years; but the plan for 2017 is to go more to the provinces around the Philippines as there are a lot of talents that need to be showcased.”

ALA Boxing’s “IDOL” will also remain. “IDOL will be our grassroots program that will provide young fighters an avenue to fight and develop their potential,” Aldeguer said. “The TV show Pinoy Pride is consistently one of the top Sunday shows. This proves that our market is growing. Filipinos will always have a healthy appetite for boxing. As long as ALA Promotions and ABS-CBN continue to do its part, Phil. boxing will soar.”

To Michael Aldeguer, today is the best era for boxing.

“Manny (Pacquiao) is back as world champion and looking great,” he said. “Philippine boxing has four world champions and one interim world champion. It could have been six if Donnie Nietes didn’t vacate his title to move up in weight but he will be fighting for a world title this year.”

MMA FOR ALA? “ALA Promotions is officially ALA Sports Promotions International, Inc. (ASPI),” Aldeguer said. “We’re not an exclusive promoter of boxing, however focused we are to the sport. It will always be our top priority but this does not mean we are not open to expanding and supporting other fields. I believe the upsurge of MMA helps people appreciate the athletes and sports, in general, including boxing, therefore raising awareness leading to the respect that these unique professionals deserve.”

INSPIRATION. “Boxing is a part of the life of every Filipino since the time of Pancho Villa to Flash Elorde to Manny Pacquiao,” he said. “From the beginning, it has been ALA Boxing’s commitment to help sustain and grow the sport as a means of helping underprivileged kids achieve their dreams. While it’s true that not all who go into boxing succeed the way Pacquiao and Nietes have, ALA Boxing believes that there is a future for the sport.”

Aldeguer spoke about the beginnings of both Pacman and Ahas.

“We can draw inspiration from their stories. Boxing has helped improve their lives and their families. Pacquiao left home and turned to boxing at the young age of 14 because of poverty. Nietes came to Cebu to work as a janitor for ALA Gym before he turned to boxing,” he said.

“We hope to continue working towards supporting the stability and growth of boxing. We can do this by creating more avenues for both the new and experienced fighters; this will bring their dreams closer to reality and build a stronger future for Philippine boxing.”

Categorized as ALA Boxing