‘Go, Pete!’ scream the fans of Roger

KUALA LUMPUR—I’ve always been a Pete Sampras fan. And so three nights ago, when we watched him clash with Roger Federer in the “Clash of Times” exhibition match here in Malaysia, I cheered for Pistol Pete. Same with seven others in our group: Rene Ven Polinar, Mark Aseniero, Charlie, Mitzi and Jasmin Pages; Dr. Ronnie and Steph Medalle—all Sampras fans.

The ones who rooted for Mr. Federer? From our group of 10? Two ladies who brought a specially-printed, hand-carried-from-Cebu “FEDERER FOREVER” banner: Michelle So and Chinggay Utzurrum.

And so we screamed, “Go, Sampras!” When Pete buried a 217-kph ace, we rose from our seats. When he attacked the net and banged a volley winner, we shook our heads in disbelief at this 36-year-old, half-balding American who’s five years retired.

Shook Pete’s hand in Shook

KUALA LUMPUR—Yesterday, when my watch read “3:15,” I knew it was improbable. The exclusive, by-invitation-only Cocktails Party for Roger Federer and Pete Sampras was scheduled at 6 p.m. and, less than three hours shy of that time, I still had not received any confirmation.

But by 3:30 p.m., as I pulled out my mobile phone, my eyes enlarged reading the text message: “Ok I will meet u @ Starhill 530pm. I will pass u the invite then.”

WOW! I couldn’t believe it. We were at the IKEA store, 30 minutes away from the hotel, and I had barely two hours left. Plus, I had a problem: I brought no formal attire. So I rushed to buy a pair of leather shoes, bought a Giordano gray T-shirt, and, just as I was searching to buy a black coat, Dr. Ronnie Medalle phones to say that I can borrow his black jacket. Perfect. And so I ran. Got to Hotel Capitol by 4:15, changed, then sprinted to the venue.

Flying to Malaysia to see Roger and Pete

KUALA LUMPUR—Our Cebu Pacific flight 5J501 left for Manila at 9:10 p.m. last Sunday and landed at the KL Airport at 12:45 a.m. yesterday. The flight was, to borrow Thai Airways’ slogan, as smooth as silk.

From Cebu, on board the plane were myself and my wife Jasmin, top ophthalmologist Dr. Ronnie Medalle and his wife Steph, and Mark Aseniero and his wife Ding. Plus, there was a surprise Cebuano we met at the NAIA departure area: Vince Marc “Mac-Mac” Tabotabo. All of 10 years old, you’ve read the “TABOTABO” name publicized in these sports pages many times. He’s RP’s no.1 tennis player in the 10 and under category. Accompanied by his dad Titus and coach Dodong Ruelan, Mac-Mac (together with Nino and Sally Mae Siso and Jacob Lagman) will join four tennis events here in Malaysia.

In Boston, an avid spectator from Cebu

The Boston Celtics are 8-0. They own the NBA’s best scorecard. Last week, top Cebu rheumatologist Dr. Ronald Eullaran fulfilled his lifelong dream to watch “Larry Bird’s team.” Here’s Dr. Ron Eullaran:

“I was in Boston from Nov. 6 to 11 for our Annual Meeting of the American College of Rheumatology at the new Boston Intl. Convention Center. The topics were great but we were more excited to watch the game between the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets. I have long been a fan of the Celtics since the era of Larry Bird. Visiting the Boston Garden is one of my dreams. Well, it became true last Wednesday, Nov. 9. Boston Garden, now named Banknorth Garden, is huge but it wasn’t difficult for me to spot the #33 jersey among the retired numbers that hung from the roof.

Roger Federer advertisement by Nike

Among all the TV ads I’ve seen, this has to rank one of the best. You may, or may not, have seen it. It doesn’t matter. You’ve got to watch it again… and smile. To those who can’t view the YouTube clip below, click here.

Pete Sampras live? Roger on that!

I’m a tennis fanatic. I’ve walloped forehands and smashed volleys for 21 years. Watched Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg “Live at the Araneta Coliseum.” Saw Carlos Moya at the 2003 Thailand Open. I’ve never missed a tennis grand slam watch on Star Sports. Read 112 issues of Tennis magazine and gobbled up autobiographies of John McEnroe and Boris Becker. I am, as I said, a tennis freak.

On clay, the No.2 is always No.1

I pity Roger Federer.

He’s Tiger Woods holding a racquet, the Michael Jordan of his game, the Michael Phelps of this dry swimming pool named tennis court, and yet, when it comes down to a boxing fight between the world’s No.1 and No.2 players—he bows down, wobbles, trips, and gets KO’d.

Funny? No. Embarrassing. How can you be declared Numero Uno if you keep on losing to Numero Dos? Think about it: In the last five times they’ve met on clay, Rafael Nadal has dirtied and spat at and thrown dust into the face of Roger Federer.

Yet, if you visit the Basel, Switzerland home of Roger, he has 10 Grand Slam singles trophies that adorn his cabinet. For years, he’s been perched at the summit of tennis’ Mt. Everest. In 2006, he won three major titles and last January, snatched the Australian Open. Inside his Swiss bank account sleeps $30 million in prize money earnings and, for sure, more than double that in endorsements.

But, whenever he faces this 20-year-old Spaniard, the red color of his Swiss flag turns pink.

The other night, together with two of my closest tennis buddies—Dr. Ronnie Medalle and Macky Michael—I watched the Monte Carlo Open finals.

Was it a contest? Sure it was. It’s called a “No-contest.” Nadal bloodied Federer. He ran him left. He ran him right. He feathered a drop shot that died as the ball crossed the net. He hit to Federer’s weaker backhand, hit to Federer’s stronger forehand—it didn’t matter—Nadal hit straight at Federer’s chest. He stabbed him. With Nadal’s high-bouncing topspin, the Swiss was defensive, unsure, shaking his head, shaking the demons. The normally unflappable Federer struck 19 winners and 38 unforced errors. Yes, no misprint there: 19 winners, 38 unforced errors! The man labeled as “The Greatest” was renamed “The Weakest.”

Here’s my observation: I’ve never seen Federer defensive. Not against Andy Roddick or James Blake or Tommy Haas. Roger is Roger because he’s the aggressor. He dictates play. He’ll shoot an ace down the T, rifle a forehand crosscourt, or chip a slice backhand that’s as sharp as a Swiss knife.

But not against Rafa. And not on clay.

You see, this is why I love tennis. The surface changes. Name me a sport where, after this month or that season, they change surfaces. Basketball is always on wooden parquet. Golf, though hopping from Augusta to Dubai to the Scottish links, is on grass. Same with badminton and bowling and billiards.

Not tennis.

In this game, there are a myriad of surfaces: clay, grass, Taraflex, indoor carpet, artificial grass, Har-Tru. And so, this is what makes tennis different—and interesting. On grass (Wimbledon arrives on our cable TV this June), it’s fast! fast! fast! On hard-court at the US Open and the Australian Open, it’s fast and not so fast—or medium-paced. On clay, it’s this….


Why? Because on grass the ball skids and slides while on clay, the ball grips the dirt and hugs it for half-a-second before flying.

And this is where Rafael Nadal was tailor-made by God to succeed. Nadal is quick, hits heavy topspin (that even a 6-foot-1 Roger has to hit above his shoulders), he never gives up a point, can sprint for 26 hours non-stop, is left-handed, and has the fighting spirit of a raging bull from Spain.
Nadal is a Spanish raging bull.

And so, after 67 straight wins on clay dating back to the Stone Age, here’s what’s next for Rafa: He’ll win Hamburg, he’ll win Rome and—against Roger in the finals on June 10—he’ll win the French Open.

And, guess what, he’ll still be No.2.