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.

40 is the new 20

Manny Pacquiao is 40 years old. Roger Federer turns 38 this August. LeBron James missed 17 games for the first time in his 15-year career — a sign of his aging 34-year-old body. Tiger Woods is 43. He’s improving and my hunch is that he’s poised to win a major this 2019. One more example of the old-but-still-the-best athlete?

Tom Brady. It’s Super Bowl LIII tomorrow (Phil. time) in Atlanta, Georgia and the protagonists are the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots. The leader of the Pats is, as we all know, their quarterback. A five-time Super Bowl champ, he is the Michael Jordan of the National Football League.

Tom Brady is 41 years old. For a sport that’s one of this planet’s most physical, Tom Brady’s endurance is phenomenal. The NFL is rough and ruthless. Imagine a 320-lb. linebacker sprinting 21-kph to smash an easy target? Tom Brady has faced that kind of assault since he started in 2000. And despite being 41, the 6-foot-4, 225 lb. Brady is still American football’s unparalled top dog.

Among us, the mortals and ordinary exercisers, the same pattern has emerged. If you survey the ages of those doing the Ironman 70.3 race, the average age isn’t 21 or 29. You see plenty of 40- and 50-year-olds. In the grueling 42K race called the 2019 Cebu Marathon, the 31 to 40 age bracket was a high 34 percent of all participants. For the 41 to 50 years old, the figure was 23 percent. In total, the ones aged 31 to 50 comprised 57 percent of all CCM runners.

Why is it possible for “old” athletes to excel?

First, the elite athletes are able to pace themselves better. Take the case of Roger Federer. Instead of playing every single ATP event, he chooses a handful of the most important and only joins those. He even skips the strenuous clay-court season (including the French Open) to rest his body for Wimbledon’s soft grass or the hard court of the US Open.

Two, better physical training. Given all the advances in physical therapy and conditioning, top athletes today are less likely to get injured. Or, if they do, the recovery is quicker. (Not the case, though, for LeBron or Andy Murray.)

Three, there are some people who are just one-in-a-billion. Take Pacquiao. At 40, he’s supposed to be long retired, having fought in 70 pro fights. (As comparison, Oscar de la Hoya retired after 45 fights.) But Pacquiao is still lightning-quick, lethal, high energy, and pocketing millions of dollars.

Four, attitude. Consider the remarkable story of Olga Kotelko. The Canadian began her athletics career at the age of … 77! She then amassed 30 world records and lived until the age of 95 (she passed away in 2014). We ought to memorize the lesson that Olga leaves all of us. She said:

“I think your age is just a number. It’s not your birthday, it’s how you age which makes the difference. It’s your attitude to all the things that happen in your life that plays the biggest part.”

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!

 

Roger’s 20th

Michael Jordan, after leading the Chicago Bulls to NBA titles from 1991 to 1993, stopped playing basketball and pressed the pause button. When he returned, MJ scored another three-peat from 1996 to 1998.

Roger Federer, a fellow Nike endorser (they jointly-designed the Zoom Vapor Air Jordan shoes), followed a similar pattern. After winning a record 17 majors from 2003 to 2012, he stopped winning the Grand Slam trophies. More than four years passed before he won again (last year’s Australian Open). And now, in a span of 12 months, he has collected 3 of the 5 Grand Slam singles titles.

Calm, relaxed and collected all throughout his seven matches in Melbourne, his emotions burst open during the awarding when tears of happiness flowed. As inhuman as he is with that Wilson racket, he’s human. He cries. He laughs like a little kid while being interviewed by Jim Courier. In the history of all sports, he ranks as one of the classiest and most respected of gentlemen. To the list that include Pele, Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus and Michael Jordan, add the name “Roger Federer.”

FRITZ STROLZ. I requested a dear friend to write about his fellow countryman. Dr. Fritz Strolz was born and raised in Switzerland. While there, he met a Cebuana (Pearle) and they settled and lived in the same land as Mr. Federer.

In a piece he entitled, “We Cried Tears of Joy,” here’s the commentary of Dr. Strolz:

“It is a privilege to follow the extraordinary career of a Swiss sportsman. He is an athlete and a man whose story that could not be better invented in the dream factory Hollywood.

“Last Sunday, we sat in front of the TV with our mouths open and with watery eyes. Pearle suffered with Roger; she tigered around like in a cage and at every point she cried out.

“We are desperately looking for superlatives for Roger. If you don’t have the words, music often helps. Then you can at least hum along in your mind. ‘You’re Simply The Best,’ by Tina Turner would be a variant. Or ‘You are the champion,’ the adapted version of Freddie Mercury.

“Roger is a star who, with his infinite ease, his unique suppleness, his incredible talent and his flair for tennis, is once again fascinating the world. The phenomenal successes are one thing. For him, winning is never a matter of course. Tears never lie. His emotions leave no one untouched.

“Roger embodies typical Swiss characteristics: Humility, respect, modesty and devotion. He is down-to-earth and yet worldly. Modest and yet self-confident. Cosmopolitan yet thoroughly Swiss.

“For someone who does such extraordinary things, he leads an astonishingly ordinary life. He resists being held hostage to his popularity. For example, he takes the children to the zoo by tram. He stands in the swimming pool for an ice-cream shake.

“The injury to his left knee showed his own finiteness. Since then, he has enjoyed every second he is allowed to stand on the world stages. When asked what drives him, the answer is always the same, perhaps banal: He loves tennis.”

19 at SW19

The number “19” refers to the number of Grand Slam singles titles that Roger Federer will amass if he triumphs.

SW19 refers to the exact location of the tournament that the Swiss is attempting to win. Wimbledon is located in SW19. That’s South West 19, its postcode in London.

A coindence, these “19” numbers?

Maybe. Or possibly it’s a sign of what’s to come tonight when Roger Federer meets Marin Cilic for the grandest prize in racket-sport. Will SW19 mean “Swiss Wimbledon 19?”

Often called “GOAT” for “Greatest Of All Time,” the Federer Express has accummulated a record that is peerless. Federer’s professional career started in 1998… guess how many years ago? That’s 19 years ago. And while he lost his first match to Lucas Ker in Gstaad, Switzerland, he has won and won and won. Of the 1,357 singles matches that he has played in 19 years, he has won 1,110 for an outstanding 82 percent winning clip.

In career titles, Federer has 92 trophies, behind the 106 of Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl’s 94 (which he will soon overtake, for sure).

With the most important tournaments (the majors), Federer has been champion five times at the US and Australian Opens, once in the French Open and, at the pristine green grass of SW19, he has seven.

Will he be eighth-time lucky tonight, starting at 9 p.m.? Yes. I don’t want to jinx it (as Jourdan Polotan would warn me) but it’s hard not to see the Swiss maestro lift that Wimbledon trophy, which was first handed to the champion in 1887. (As trivia: the actual trophy is not given to the winner; there is replica, three-fourths the size, that is given as prize.)

I’ve been blessed to have seen RF in person. The first was in 2007 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia when, together with a contingent from Cebu (that included RF diehards Michelle So and Chinggay Utzurrum, Renee Ven Polinar, my brother Charlie and sister-in-law Mitzi, Dr. Ronnie and Stef Medalle, Jess and Jacob Lagman), we watched Roger play Pete Sampras in “Clash of Times.” The year after, my roommate Jasmin and I saw Federer partner with Stan Wawrinka as the Swiss won the Olympic doubles gold medal in Beijing. At the 2015 French Open in Paris, I was in the center court as The Fed won his 3rd round match; he later sat inside the Press Room, seated just a few feet away, answering questions.

Up close and having watched hundreds of his matches on TV, what makes Federer special?

He’s good. Not only on the court but more so, off the court. He is a good father to his twin set of twins, spending most of his free time playing with them. He is good to his wife Mirka and their 17-year-old relationship (they met at the 2000 Sydney Olympics) is as rock solid as RF’s first serve.

Inside and outside; mentally and physically; while wearing Nikes or slippers at home; whether he’s meeting Pope Francis (Federer is Catholic) or smiling at a 9-year-old ballkid… RF is an honest-to-goodness good man.

I quote Nick Torres on his favorite player: Good guys do finish first.

One final word: When I visited the clay courts where Federer first started to play in Basel, Switzerland — he was four years old when he first held a racket; and the name of the club is “Old Boys Tennis Club” — I toured the facility and marveled at the brown clay tennis courts. I gazed at the courts and imagined an athletic young boy toiling for hours, swatting a racket to hone his forehand. Then I went inside the small clubhouse. It was adorned with signed photos of their prodigy. The club opened it’s doors for children to play; it was neat, clean, humble and spotless. Just like tonight’s champion.

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.

Swiss dinner with Roger on the menu

Last Saturday night, we were in Switzerland. The elevation stood over 300 meters high. The wind howled and the cold penetrated our skin. Red seats and red napkins adorned the table as we dined on Swiss cuisine: sausages from Switzerland and a fondue set which required us to pierce cutlets of bread that we dipped into melted Swiss cheese.

Ahhh, delicious. We were in the company of Dr. Fritz Strolz and his charming wife, Pearle. The location was their fabulous home in Alta Vista where Cebu’s blinking lights glimmered below, punctuated by the SM Seaside City tower.

Dr. Fritz Strolz is Cebuano. Well, he was born in Switzerland and studied in the same school as Albert Einstein in Zurich but since he married a Cebuana, then he’s one of us. The couple have been long-time friends of my wife’s (Mendez) family.

When Jana, Jasmin and I visited Switzerland two years ago, we stayed in their home in Basel. Dr. Strolz toured us in his Alfa Romeo as we drove hundreds of kilometers to visit Geneva, Lausanne, Mount Rigi and even took day trips to Germany and France (to see the French National Car Museum). One highlight? Uncle Fritz brought us to TC Boys Club, the red clay courts where a young boy learned to hone his volleys.

That’s Roger Federer. The other day, he defeated Stan Wawrinka. Dr. and Mrs. Strolz got to see the same all-Swiss encounter at the Australian Open last January. In a month-long trip Down Under, the couple made sure to watch the two men’s semifinals. It was Nadal-Dimitrov in one half; the other was the all-Swiss duel.

Back to last Saturday night, we were eight guests: Dr. Ronnie Medalle and his two sons, Dr. Stevee and Santi; Dr. Ron Eullaran and his boys, Rayne and Yani; plus me and Jasmin. It was a night that ended past 11:30 that included plenty of jokes. Rayne Eullaran conversed in German. His father, the top rheumatologist Dr. Ronald, made us a laugh the whole evening. Dr. Stevee Medalle showed us a photo of his room in Manila where, hanging above his bed, was a Swiss flag.

We learned plenty about Switzerland: their population of 8.5 million; the nurses who earn P300,000/month; the requirement for each home to build a bunker. How timely for this weekend, we thought, dining on Swiss food (including Swiss ice cream dessert) with our Swiss hosts, as the Swiss lord over tennis. Said Dr. Strolz in a message yesterday: “Pearle was never so proud to be a Swiss. We are the strongest tennis nation in the world at the moment!”

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!