Alexandra Eala

The first time I met the country’s tennis sensation was back in October 2012. That was over eight years ago and the now-15-year-old standout was then a diminutive little girl who stood no taller than the 3-foot-high tennis net.

But even if Alex Eala was only seven years old at that time, she stood confident and tall and competed in the Unisex-10-and-under category to play against boys and girls who were much taller and older.

Back in 2012, my daughter Jana joined the Palawan Pawnshop Group 2 age group tournament held in Puerto Princesa. The day before the tournament started, we booked a time slot at a nearby court.

As Jana and I practiced forehands and backhands, the other court was occupied by the Eala siblings: 7-year-old Alex and her older brother Miko (now 18 and a tennis scholar at Penn State in the U.S.). They were accompanied by their dad Mike and their lolo, the late Bobby Maniego.

I don’t think the then-7-year-old Alex won that 10-and-under Palawan tournament but it was obvious, given her steely focus and the intensity of her left-handed shots, that she was a future star.

The past two weeks, every major Philippine daily had a story on Alex Eala. Her name appearred alongside major stories like SBP’s cancellation of the FIBA hosting and the transfer of PBA’s CJ Perez to SMB.

Alex Eala is now a major sports star. She’s only 15 years old but is already the world’s No. 3-ranked junior player. (In tennis, the age cap for juniors is 18.) She was briefly ranked No. 2 before she stepped one slot lower. But there’s no doubt that she will soon reach the pinnacle of girls junior tennis and be world No. 1.

If my memory is correct, only one other Filipino has been ranked at the top spot in juniors. That’s Manny Tolentino in the 1980s. 

To get a better glimpse of Alex’s game, I suggest you go to YouTube. Type “Alex Eala” and you’ll be treated to every match that she played the last two weeks. And what a treat! Her offensive forehand and impressive retrieval skills are a delight to watch. 

Last week in the W15 Manacor ITF Rafael Nadal Academy World Tennis Tour event in Mallorca, Spain, she bested five players (including the No. 1 and 5 seeds) to win her first pro title. This week, she won two more times before losing in the quarters. 

She won seven straight matches against much older and experienced ladies — and she’s only 15. 

No less than Rafael Nadal, who’s in Adelaide preparing for the Australian Open, congratulated Alex. This title is a major step forward and adds to her impressive 2020 when she won the Australian Open girls’ doubles title and reached the semifinals at the French Open. Unfortunately, no thanks to Covid-19, there will be no Australian Open junior event next month.

But, when the world health situation improves later this year, expect to see another junior Grand Slam title and a world No. 1 ranking for Ms. Alexandra Maniego Eala.

King of Clay

Tennis – French Open – Roland Garros, Paris, France – October 11, 2020 Spain’s Rafael Nadal celebrates after winning the French Open final against Serbia’s Novak Djokovic REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

One is the “King of Clay” and the other is termed simply, “King James.” Last week, Rafael Nadal and LeBron James trounced their assailants. 

For the 34-year-old Spaniard, the hippodrome was in Paris and the tournament was the French Open. The doubters were plenty. They said Nadal was sluggish and rusty. The week before, in the only event that he joined since March, Nadal lost to a player that he had never lost to before: Diego Schwartzman. In that loss, the 5-foot-7 Argentine drubbed and clobbered the Spaniard.

Nadal, never mind if he won the Roland Garros trophy a mind-boggling 12 times, was not the favorite to win in Paris.

Standing in his way in the final was a player that he had lost to 14 of the last 18 times that they played. 

Novak Djokovic was undefeated this 2020. Well, the record stated “37-1” but that single blemish was not because he lost in the normal sense; he got disqualified for hitting a linesperson in the U.S. Open. The Serb, 33, possessed the game to outplay Rafa. As he uncorks his two-fisted backhand, the ball would zip past Rafa in a cross-court exchange. Novak’s forehand would force Rafa to play defense as he’d whack that Wilson ball down-the-line.

At the 2020 Australian Open, the rivals played in the finals. Novak bulldozed his way to trounce the embarrassed Rafa, who won a mere eight games.

Would Paris be a repeat of Melbourne?

Goran Ivanisevic, who’s part of Novak’s coaching staff, said this before the final: “Nadal has no chance in these conditions, on this clay and with Novak, who has got into his head.”

Est-ce vrai? (Is this true?) The Djokovic-Nadal final seven days ago was like a heavyweight championship fight. Pundits termed it as the most consequential bout between the two. We expected a five-setter that would exceed 309 minutes. We expected sweat to ooze and drench Nadal’s light blue Nike; for winners to zip past Djokovic’s Head Graphene 360+. We expected Nadal to pulverize “le terre battue” (red clay) and Djokovic to dribble a dozen times before serving a 190-kph serve to outwit and vanquish his tormentor.

We saw the opposite. Instead of a shootout, where one rifles an ace and the other wallops a smash, we saw a demolition job.

First set, six-love. Second set, six-two.

I have watched hundreds of Nadal matches — including, in person, his 2008 Beijing Olympics gold medal win — and I must conclude that those were two of his most confident and dominant sets.

He zoomed to retrieve a Novak drop shot. He hustled and charged at every short ball. He backpedaled to strike an inside-out forehand with 4,291 topspin revolutions. He accelerated while Novak looked despondent and morose.

In the 3rd set, we envisioned a further drubbing when Nadal broke to lead, 3-2. But the warrior in Djokovic arose to resurrect his game. It was soon extinguished. The final score: 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.

Less than 12 hours later, after the King of Clay demonstrated his supremacy in Paris, it was the triumph in Orlando of another King: LeBron James. (To be continued.)

Hollywood Ending

From the King of Clay to King James: Unbeknonwst to either legend, less than 12 hours after Rafael Nadal won the French Open trophy, it was the turn of LeBron James to win the NBA title for the L.A. Lakers.

From Paris to Orlando, from the small yellow fluffy Wilson ball to the Spalding orange leather ball (coincidentlly, by the 2021 season, the NBA will also be using Wilson), it was a championship trophy from the King to the King.

Tennis and Basketball are opposites. One is one-on-one (without a coach) and the other is five-on-one with Frank Vogel and Fil-Am Erik Spoelstra sitting beside their players. 

On Sunday night, Rafael Nadal stood victorious. By Sunday night in the U.S., LeBron James did the same.

For the team representing Hollywood, what a real life 2020 that will rival a reel movie. The shocking death of Kobe Bryant last January 26 — the day after LeBron overtook him in the NBA all-time scoring list — plus the COVID-19 pandemic which has plunged the world into a tailspin, this meant that the Hollywood ending would have to be the victory of the Lakers.

The LeBron-Anthony Davis duo is the 3rd outstanding combination for the Lakers. First was Kareem-Magic then Shaq-Kobe.  

A year older than Rafa at 35 years old, LeBron James has been vindicated. A loser at the MVP awards, he claimed his own Finals MVP plum. Although regarded as No. 2 in the GOAT rankings to His Airness Michael Jordan, it’s LBJ who has more records than MJ. One statistic is the all-time playoff points. LeBron is top-ranked with 7,491 points vs. the second-ranked Jordan with 5,987.

For Lakers fans (including myself), this playoff season in the bubble felt like Christmas. It was a joyous and jubilant period. After the Bucks lost in the East and the shocking loss of the Clippers, there was no denying the Hollywood ending for the Lakers.

LeBron was unstoppable. When he 

Vindicated. Defense. Block. Intercept. Thwart. Stonewall. Charge. Close out. 

Bulldoze. Hustle. Force. Charge. Dart. excuse. Ooze. zip. Fly. dribble. Zoom. hotfoot. Accelerate. Propel. Motivate. Compel. Coerce. Animate. Clobber. Trounce. Outplay. Whomp. Whack. Pulverize. 

Nadal vs. Djokovic

Like Ali-Frazier or Navratilova vs. Evert or Prost-Senna or Nicklaus vs. Palmer, the rivalry between the Spaniard and the Serb is unparalleled. Well, okay, there’s Rafa and Roger but they’ve played “only” 40 times. 

Rafa and Novak are meeting for the 56th time when they collide today to contest the French Open final. 

Head to head, it’s Novak who leads 29-26 and 15-11 in the finals. He’s the world No. 1. This year, Novak is also “undefeated.” If not for the recent US Open embarrassment when he was defaulted, he’s won 37 of 37 matches this 2020.

Advantage, Novak, right? Wrong. Because on clay, Rafa leads 17-7 and, on the Roland Garros clay court, he has a 6-1 advantage. Rafa has reached the RG finals 12 times and has never lost (he’s a combined 25-0 in semis and finals). Of those 12 Finals, he won 36 sets and lost only 7 sets. This year, he has won all 15 sets that he’s played. 

Advantage, Rafa, right? Wrong. Because here’s the truth: having watched these two duel and spar the past 14 years (they first met in Roland Garros in 2006), they are dead even.

“He’s definitely my greatest rival,” said Djokovic. “Playing him in so many great matches, the past will have some effect in terms of respect towards each other and motivation to get out there and play your best.”

For Rafa, it’s obvious that against no other player is he more startled and anxious than Novak. Consider the Spaniard’s left-handed cross-court topsin forehand. Against every other player, when that high bouncing, side-spinning shot careens to the opponent’s backhand, it’s a missile. Not against Novak, whose backhand is arguably one of history’s best. Novak can pummel it back cross-court or wallop it down-the line. Or he can throw a featherly drop shot.

“The only thing I know is to play against Novak, I need to play my best,” said Rafa. “Without playing my best tennis, (the) situation is very difficult. I know that it’s a court that I have been playing well on for such a long time, so that helps. But at the same time, he has an amazing record here too. (He’s) one of the toughest opponents possible.”

Another area of strength for Rafa is his mental strength. But this, too, is an asset of Novak. They both enjoy grinding and wrestling. In every altercation between the duo, they brawl like prize-fighters. Their dispute mimics boxing. One smashes and the other flings a two-fisted winner. Sweat drenches their Nike and Lacoste tennis shirts.

History looms large today. If Novak wins, he’ll own 18 major trophies — against the 19 of Rafa. If Rafa wins, he’ll do a “20-20.” A 20th major this 2020 to tie Federer’s 20. Also, if the 34-year-old Rafa wins, he’ll notch his 100th French Open victory.

“It’s his ‘maison,’” Novak said of Rafa, using the French term for house. “I will have to be at my best. Playing Nadal at Roland Garros is the biggest challenge in our sport.”

If you have cable TV, watch this “King of Clay” final tonight at 9 p.m. (Phil. time) on Fox Sports. Espero que gane Rafa. Vamos!

Should the US Open close?

In a list of Risk Levels that’s been circulating in Viber, with “going to Bars” scoring a very risky 9 and “playing Basketball” a high 8, the risk level for Tennis is “1,” the safest of sports. This is understandable. If you talk of social distancing, your opponent is 78 feet away — the length of the tennis court. Your strongest Maria Sharapova-like scream won’t cough out any viruses from across that far net.

But tennis is in a quandary. Wimbledon has been canceled — the first time since World War II (1945).  

The US Open is scheduled soon, set from Aug. 31 to Sept. 13. Like the NBA, it will be a crowd-less match — no spectators. That’s a given in all sports this year. But even with that strict ruling, obstacles are aplenty.

One, the US Open is in New York — the site of what was previously a danger zone for Covid-19 cases (386,000+ afflicted with 30,500+ deaths). 

Two, the ironclad restrictions the organizers are imposing on the players. They include: 1) forcing the players to stay in a hotel outside Manhattan; 2) limiting the support team to just one person per player; 3) no singles qualifying; 4) only 24 doubles teams instead of the usual 64. It’s envisioned to be a “tennis bubble.”

Roger Federer is out of the Open. He’s had a second surgery on his right knee. Rafa Nadal is out sunbathing with his new wife Xisca Perello and his new yacht, an 80-foot luxurious boat costing $6.2 million. Said Rafa: “If you ask me today if I want to travel today to New York to play a tennis tournament, I will say no, I will not.”

Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1, has voiced the loudest opposition.

“Most of the players I have talked to were quite negative on whether they would go there,” said the Serb. “The rules that they told us that we would have to respect to be there, to play at all, they are extreme. We would not have access to Manhattan, we would have to sleep in hotels at the airport, to be tested twice or three times per week. Also, we could bring one person to the club, which is really impossible. I mean, you need your coach, then a fitness trainer, then a physiotherapist.”

Valid points, Novak. But while the Top 3 won’t join or remain undecided, others want to resume. (The US Open organizers have to make a decision whether to proceed or not by next week.)

Dan Evans, ranked 28th, disagrees with Djokovic on the one-assistant-only policy, saying, “Not everyone’s travelling with physios and fitness trainers like Novak said, so I think his argument there is not really valid for the rest of the draw, apart from the real top guys.”

My take? Djokovic won’t skip the US Open. He’s undefeated this 2020 and, during the lockdown, he stayed in Spain and trained daily because his friend owned a tennis court. He also has 17 Grand Slam titles compared to the 19 of Rafa and 20 of Roger. 

Don’t you think he wants to win the last two majors in New York and in Paris (the French Open is scheduled from Sept. 20 to Oct. 4)? He’s just voicing out his complaints to force the US Open officials to relax their draconian rules.

For tennis, it’s: Game. Set. Let’s watch.

Novak and Rafa

They’re No.1 and No. 2. One is Serbian and the other is Spaniard. One swats that forehand as a right-hander while the other is a muscular lefty. The two have met 52 times: Novak Djokovic with 27 wins vs. 25 from Rafael Nadal.

It’s the Australian Open final today at 4:30 p.m. (Phil. time).

Choosing one over the other is hard. In major finals, it’s Nadal with a 4-3 edge. But when you examine their outdoor hardcourt battles, Djokovic has a commanding 14-5 lead.

In Melbourne the past two weeks, the top seeds have been invincible. Rafa hasn’t lost a set while Novak steamrolled past Lucas Pouille in the semis. Said the Frenchman: “Novak is playing like really, really fast, really low. He’s close to the baseline. Always he has good placement in any situation. Even in defense, he’s going to put the ball really deep maybe 10, 20 centimeters from the baseline.”

Novak and Rafa are at the peak of their games and both are raring to fight for tennis’ heavyweight championship.

My pick? Unlike Dr. Rhoel Dejaño who idolizes Djokovic, I’m a Nadal fan. And with his improved serve and forehand, I hope the Mallorcan-native will win his 18th major. Not having played in a tournament since his US Open injury last September, he has resurfaced as a hungry Spanish bullfighter.

Stefanos Tsitsipas said of Nadal: “He has this, I don’t know, talent that no other player has. His game style has something that it kind of makes the other half of your brain work more than it usually does. I’m trying to understand, but I cannot find an explanation.”

I hope Rafa wins. But that’s far from certain. If we look at the odds, they favor his nemesis, who’s a -135 favorite (bet $135 to win $100).

But while the choice of winner (prize money: $2.9 million) is no guarantee, what’s guaranteed is a combat; a baseline warfare loaded with two-handed backhand bombs, delicate drop shots, volleys, slice shots, screams, fist pumps. 

The only time the two met in the Oz Open final was seven years ago. It lasted 5 hours and 53 minutes with Novak winning 7-5 in the fifth set. At Wimbledon last July, Novak won 10-8 in the fifth (five hours and 15 minutes).

Tonight, are we expecting another five-hour, five-set marathon? Maybe. It will be a Gladiator-like bloodbath with the Head and Babolat rackets as swords; an Ironman contest between a Lacoste-wearing 31-year-old vs. Nike’s 32-year-old star. It will be about longevity. It will be about dominance. Because while the likes of Tsitsipas, Zverev, Thiem and Khachanov want to triumph in the majors, they’re not welcome yet.

Including Roger Federer’s 20 majors and Nadal’s 17 and Djokovic’s 14, the Big Three have won 51 of the last 62 Grand Slam trophies since 2003. The rest of the world has won only 11 in the past 15 years. This is more than dominance. It’s a near-monopoly and dictatorship by Roger-Rafa-Novak. Today will be 52 of 62 major wins (with an 84% win ratio) for the Big 3.

Rafa in four sets. Vamos!

 

Rafa’s 10 + 1

Tennis fanatic or not, you’ve got to watch the French Open men’s final tonight at 9. If you don’t have cable TV access, try live streaming. Just a few Google clicks will lead you to several real-time options.

With SkyCable, while I complained before when the NBA coverage was cutoff, this time with Grand Slam tennis, there’s much rejoicing. Thanks to the Fox Sports HD channels, we get two simultaneous matches (channels 758 and 759). One shows the Philippe-Chatrier (main) court and the other, in Suzanne-Lenglen. To those who’ve been watching the past 14 days, aren’t the games scheduled perfectly? They start at 5 p.m. and run throughout the night. The problem is, if you don’t sleep late (I normally sleep at 11), then your sleeping pattern is disturbed with the late night drama.

Roland Garros (the other name of the French Open) is the toughest among tennis’ four majors. It’s played on slow red clay where the ball bounces high and is softened by this dusty material — which means more rallies and shots executed before a point’s completion.

Marco Cecchinato is the biggest surprise. Prior to his defeat of Novak Djokovic and semifinal finish, he had never won a Grand Slam match. If you didn’t catch his game against Djokovic, find a YouTube clip and watch the exerpts. Drop shots. Slice backhands. Angled forehands. The match was not your boring bang-bang type — credit the Italian’s flair and creativity, like Fabio Fognini — it was exhilarating.

Diego Schwartzman? He’s named after his fellow Argentine, Mr. Maradona. Both are diminutive, standing the same at 5-foot-6. Diego The Tennis Player nearly concocted the mightiest upset in sporting history when he led Rafael Nadal, 6-4, 3-2 in the quarters. The rain poured, much to the Spaniard’s delight, and Diego’s upset try was doused in futility.

Which brings us to tonight: Dominic Thiem vs. Nadal.

“He’s a big favourite against everybody,” said Thiem, when asked about Rafa. “Still, I know how to play against him. I have a plan.”

Thiem is confident. Only 24, he’s ranked world no. 4. And, as pointed out by my best buddy Jourdan Polotan yesterday, the Austrian has defeated the Spaniard multiple times. While Nadal has won six of their matches, Thiem has won thrice — and all their previous matches were on clay. Thiem’s biggest morale booster? He beat Nadal last month in Madrid, 7-5, 6-3.

My prediction? I answered Jourdan this word yesterday: “Irrelevant.” Thiem’s latest win and his upbeat attitude are irrelevant. Paris is 3 out of 5 sets. There’s a reason why Nadal’s record is 10 trophies and only two losses (Soderling and Djokovic). He might call Mallorca his home but his heart and spirit reside in Stade Roland Garros.

Three years ago, I was fortunate to have watched three days of action in Paris. I watched in awe of Nadal’s every match. He sweats profusely, sprints like an unleashed dog, spins his strokes with that wicked wrist snap.

Expect Rafa to collect his 17th major.. drawing him closer to the 20 owned by his friend Roger Federer.

Sweet 16

I set the alarm at 4:30 a.m. yesterday but only got up an hour later. When I switched on to Fox Sports (channel 758 in SkyCable), Rafael Nadal was leading 6-3, 4-2. An hour later, dressed in black with pink Nike trimmings, the Spaniard had defeated Kevin Anderson.

Prior to the 2017 start, did you ever think that Rafa and Roger Federer would win all four Grand Slam singles titles? Before January, Roger was ranked No. 17 and Rafa was barely inside the Top 10. Both were over 30 years old and had not won a major in years. That was then. Now, they’ve alternated victories: Roger in Melbourne, Rafa in Paris, Roger in London, and Rafa in New York.

R & R own 35 majors. Comparing tennis with the same individual sport that also has four majors per year, golf has Jack Nicklaus with 18 majors and Tiger Woods at 14. That’s 32 for golf vs. 35 for tennis. But the big difference: Nicklaus is 77 years old while Tiger, who sat in Rafa’s box over the weekend to watch his fellow Nike endorser, is no longer going to win the big ones. Roger and Rafa, while aged 36 and 31, are getting better and will add to their harvest.

Speaking of harvest, Rafa pocketed $3.7 million for winning seven matches at the U.S. Open, the largest purse in tennis. Overall, including endorsements from Kia Motors, Richard Mille and Tommy Hilfiger, Rafa is estimated to have earned over $90 million.

(Photo: AP/Julio Cortez)

With his New York victory, you can say that Rafa is also lucky. Juan Martin del Potro dispatched of his biggest threat, Federer, and he never had to face an opponent who was ranked No. 24 or higher. Since the seedings were increased from 16 to 32 in 2002, this is the first time that a major winner did not face a top-20 seeded player. Also the first time for Rafa to win a Grand Slam trophy without facing Roger, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray or Stanislas Wawrinka.

The main cause for this less-difficult-to-win Slam for Rafa? One word: injuries. None of the Big 3 (Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka), winners of the four majors in 2016, joined the U.S. Open. Added to the list of non-participants were Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic.

Nadal took advantage of this lack of competition and, excluding two four-setters in the earlier rounds and his first set loss to Del Potro, he played near-flawless tennis.

Anderson, who himself came back from injury, praised the 16-major champion, saying, “I know we’re the same age but I feel like I’ve been watching you my whole life… You’re one of the toughest competitors in the game and one of the greatest ambassadors of our sport.”

I agree. I’ve been following tennis for over three decades now and there is no one with more fire and competitive spirit than Rafa. In my assessment, his 10 French Open crowns (the Paris major is the calendar’s toughest event) is one of the sporting world’s most incredible achievements.

Rafa and Roger, No. 1 and No. 2, will continue to battle for that year-end top spot until the season ends. As for 2018, how exciting can it get? Novak, Andy and the others are returning, well-rested. Plus, there’s Dominic Thiem and Sascha Zverev. And, having just given birth, Serena Williams will win the Australian Open in January.

  

Rafa

(Photo: Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

Dominance. That’s the one word to best describe the past two weeks of Rafael Nadal. It started at the Australian Open. Leading 3-1 in the fifth set against Roger Federer, he was at the brink of winning his 15th major. But the Swiss reeled off five straight games to steal the match. Still, that impressive showing from Rafa would continue. He won a 10th title at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. And now, this, “La Decima.” He has played 81 times at the French Open and won 79. How amazing is that record? On his first event as a 19-year-old in 2005, he won in Paris. He won four straight before losing to Robin Soderling. After that loss, he won another five straight before a defeat to Novak Djokovic in 2015. Will this be another five year streak? No less than past champion Gustavo Kuerten has declared: “Rafa could potentially win up to 15 times.” I agree. If you saw any of his seven matches the past 14 days, you’d nod your head in agreement.

Rafa lost only 35 games in seven matches. That’s an average of five games surrendered per match — and these are best-of-five setters. He now moves to world No. 2 and, given his tremendous start and because he has few points to defend in the year’s second half, there is a good chance that he’ll end the year at No.1.

Nadal this 2017 has been the best I’ve seen. He steps forward to strike that crosscourt backhand early. He serves wide or down the T with unpredictable variety. His forehand is so dangerous and offensive that even if he’s in a defensive position, he can hit an outright winner. He also has a new coach in the former Roland Garros winner Carlos Moya, who hails from the same island of Majorca. Best of all, Rafa is healthy. Last year, he had to quit in the third round because of a wrist injury. Today, the only injury inflicted is upon his opponents who have to run side to side and suffer in defeat.

My dad Bunny watched the Madrid Open last month and, watching up close, he noted what we know well: Rafa plays a physical game. Famous in Spain, he’s a bull-fighter; always charging, attacking and aggressive. On the tennis court, what differentiates Rafa is his spin: Unlike a Roger or Sampras who play with flatter shots (thus, less margin for error), the groundstrokes of Rafa clear the net high. They land deeper in the court and kick upon landing. The spin rate exceeds 4,000 rpm.

Humility. That’s the another astonishing word to describe Rafa. (Lucky for us tennis followers, it’s also a fitting word to describe Roger.) In a serious of post-match interviews, Rafa was never cocky or boastful; he credits his success to hard work and dedication. He’s the man who once said, “I think the tennis is only a game. You can lose. You can win. After that? In life, there are much more important things than tennis.”

Rafa now has 15 majors. Roger has 18. Come July 3, the winner of the year’s first two majors will meet in Wimbledon. This early on, I’m hoping for another final between the two. Roger is all-confident; so is the winner two days ago.

Rafa’s 10th crown isn’t the only major story in Paris. There’s also a player who turned 20 just a few days ago and had never won a WTA tournament before. Employing a very aggressive game, her average forehand shot is clocked at 76 mph — faster than Andy Murray’s 73 mph. She scores 50 or more winners per match and she’s the Roland Garros champion. Will write a story soon on Jelena Ostapenko.

  

Old is the new New

(Photo source: AP)

Roger Federer is 35. Every day for the past three decades, he’s been swinging at that yellow orb, sprinting for dropshots, smashing a towering lob, punishing his 187-lb. body. How is it possible that the Swiss is able to produce that crosscourt backhand winner or strut and glide like MJ on the hardcourt given his grandfather-like age?

It’s called experience. Age is the price of wisdom. Through the years, Federer has been able to pace himself well. He doesn’t play every Tuesday to Monday. He understands his body; he listens to the only God-given, flesh-and-bones machine that he operates, and he doesn’t overplay. Especially the last few years since he’s breached thirty, he chooses to vie only for the big trophies.

His fluid, relaxed and graceful game is to be credited. He glides like a Michael Martinez. Effortless. Smooth. If you were to train an 11-year-old the ABCs of T, look to nobody else but RF. In a 19-year pro career, he also rarely gets injured. And when he does, we know what happens. Last year, while helping his twin girls in the bathroom, he twisted his knee which resulted in him having to undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus. What did Roger do? He quit tennis for six months. Physically and mentally, he pressed pause. Normally, after such a long layoff, one’s comeback would be rusty. Not RF. At the Australian Open last January, he won Major #18.

That triumph over his tormentor Rafael Nadal, when he was down 1-3 in the fifth set of the final, was the clincher. That win boosted his conviction. Before that victory (when he had not won a Grand Slam title in 4.5 years), his biggest win was being named GQ’s Most Stylish Man for 2016. People said he was decrepit. Some called for his retirement so he could spend more time with this twin set of twins.

Feeling rejuvenated, he was a rabid dog unleashed. The elderly felt young and born again. He has since changed to a larger 97-inch-head Wilson racket. And his backhand! What used to be his only weakness has now transformed into an offensive slingshot. That Rafa-forehand-to-Roger’s-backhand combination used to be painful to watch. Now, it’s become a cannon. He serve-and-volleys, attacks the net, slices; he’s an artist weaving his craft on Nikes. And the Swiss is no longer afraid of the Spaniard. After the Oz Open, RF won Indian Wells, and now, in Miami, lifting a prize he hasn’t carried since 2006 when he defeated — with a sweet twist of irony here — his coach, Ivan Ljubicic. He’s at 19-1 this year and 7-0 against the Top 10.

“I’m moving up in the (rankings) and I just want to stay healthy,” Federer said. “When I’m healthy and feeling good, I can produce tennis like this… It would be great to be No. 1 again, but it’s a long way away.” 

Can RF, who last climbed the summit of Tennisdom in Nov. 2012, ascend to become No.1 again? In military lingo, I say: Roger that.

Roger the Brave

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 2.05.47 PM

(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.