Dodong Gullas

Dodong Gullas (in red) with John P., Johnvic Gullas and Fritz Tabura

Our friendship started 26 years ago.

Jose Rivera Gullas, one late afternoon after playing doubles with his brother Eddie at the Cebu Country Club, called to have a chat.

“What can we do to help tennis?” he asked.  

Our afternoon chatter extended to multiple meetings at his UV office.

“Sir Dodong,” as we called him, wanted to uplift the youth. He longed to establish a tournament that would reach out to 8-year-olds and 18-year-olds; to beginners and multiple-champions. He wanted a small grassroots event that would transform into a major championship.

The 1st Gullas Tennis Cup was born in 1995.

Year after year, the tournament grew. First, the locals joined. Next, those from Bohol and Dumaguete hopped to our island. The Gullas Cup turned into a must-join sortie in the Visayas and Mindanao. It garnered the Philta Group 2 ranking and Manila netters would skip a week at the metropolis to join Cebu’s top game.

Fritz Tabura, our tournament director, and I would visit Mr. Gullas’ office at the UV Main Campus every year to discuss the event.

Each summer, when the Gullas Tennis Cup would normally be held, Mr. Gullas wanted to give more to the players. We were one of the first to give free T-shirts. The registration fee, usually P400, we offered at P150. 

We concocted a Fellowship Night where we had free food (lechon), dance and song numbers (by the players), and raffle prizes. Since players from all over the country trooped to the many venues that we had through the years — CCC, Casino Español, Citigreen, Alta Vista, Pardo TC, Naga, Lahug (Suson), Consolacion, Villa Aurora, Sancase — the party was a fun experience for the tennisters. 

It’s not all about tennis, he’d often say.

Dodong Gullas was known for his love of basketball as a player, coach and manager. Back in 1957, he led the UV Green Lancers to the national title, defeating the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

He loved tennis. Dodong Gullas played the sport as a form of exercise for many years. And in the Jose R. Gullas Tennis Cup, he would visit to watch the games or to attend the trophy ceremony. Many of those that he and his son Johnvic awarded became national champions: Niño Alcantara, Sally Mae Siso, Jacob Lagman, Niño Siso, Michael Quiñones, Oswaldo and James Dumoran, and Ilak Tabura.

Sir Dodong valued the word “values.” In the annual press conference that we’d conduct before the tournament’s start, he would stress the importance of sports among the youth. He despised the prevalence of drugs in society. He often said that sports was the cure

Our last Gullas Tennis Cup was the 23rd edition in June 2018. I remember visiting his brand-new office at the UV campus. He inquired about my dad Bunny and daughter Jana. We talked about his two major events that were unfolding the following year (2019): the 100th anniversary celebrations of UV and The Freeman.

Dodong Gullas left us for good last Thursday. It was game, set and match for our tennis mentor. 

I’ll never forget his humility and kindness.

JRG. He was Just, Respectful, and a Gentleman.

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Scoring at Love

Happy heart’s day! Allow me to reprint an article I wrote a few years ago. It’s a true story…

There once was a dream girl named Jasmin. Intelligent, funny and the president of our college student council, she was a cross between Alice Dixon and Sharon Cuneta. To top all that, she bagged the Intrams MVP award when she smothered that softball for a last inning home run that captured her senior team’s gold medal.

She was all you could ask for. And like any warm-blooded reptile, what’s a man supposed to do? Just drool and stare at her like some lizard with clipped mouth? Naah. Chase her, of course. And so I planted the moves. She said yes to my first date request, lunch at Shakey’s Mango (across Fooda). We climbed Tops. Laughed in “Something About Mary.”

I was close. Or so my imagination thought. I was making inroads, yes; felt her feeling reciprocal, true; but up until then, four weeks past our first date, I never “scored.” And isn’t it all about the score?

We play games for what? The score. We put our money in the bank for what? To keep score. We teach our kids to study hard and do well in the exams to get a high score.

But I was scoreless. Zilch. Nil. Nada. Not even HH. (You know, holding hands.) Then, lo and behold, tadang! Like the genie that popped out in Aladdin, an idea sprung to mind. Take her out on a tennis date! 

One afternoon, surrounded by yellow flowers that danced and the swirling wind that sung when one’s in love, we climbed Cebu Plaza Hotel and had our first tennis date.

A beginner she was, thank you, Lord! That meant one thing. I can smell her perfume. And so I went up close, close, closer. You can’t go screaming the Tennis ABCs from 40 feet across the net, right?

One point. Then I held her hand. You can’t teach a semi-Western grip unless you gently take her hand, look her in the eyes and guide her step by step, right?

Two points. Then we relaxed, sitting side by side with legs almost touching, sweat flowing through our faces while I pulled out a towel then moved closer. She pulled back slightly, hesitated a moment then took the towel to wipe her face — all with a smile. Romantic, intimate — whatever you call it.. I’m scoring! 

Three points. A couple more dates ensued before I convinced her to play a real game of doubles. This time, it was at the Cebu Tennis Club in Banilad and, with two friends, we rallied for half an hour then got ready to play our first set of tennis.

I served first and we lost, 0-1. Then 0-2. Then 0-3. Jasmin was frustrated, I noticed. Finally, when the score was 0-4 against us, I blurted out the four most meaningful words in my life, “We’re still in love.”

Her eyes enlarged bigger than an owls and she stood akimbo with arms locked at the hips as if to say, “What did you say?”

Zero points.

“I mean.. uhh.. our score is still zero. You know.. Love means zero in tennis.”

Good thing, Jasmin’s now my wife. Or else, my score in love would have been.. love.

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Australia

Not since World War II ended in 1945 has sports experienced a disruption like Covid-19. Every major athletic expo last year was canceled or postponed, none larger than the games in Tokyo. 

Tennis in 2020 was affected. Wimbledon, which began in 1877, got deleted from the calendar; that hasn’t happened since WWII. The US Open pushed through but, given its location in pandemic-stricken New York City, no fans watched. The French Open proceeded, allowing entry to 1,000 fans per day; the only normalcy in Paris was Rafael Nadal’s 13th victory. 

Melbourne, Australia. This is the site of the year’s first Grand Slam drama. Usually held in January, it was pushed back three weeks and started last Monday. 

What’s remarkable about the Oz Open is this: as many as 30,000 fans are allowed to watch each day.

Last year, the 14-day event was attended by a total of 820,000 spectators. This 2021, organizers are selling tickets that would allow up to 50 percent capacity; this will grow to 75% in the final week.

This is remarkable. I can’t think of another mega-event (sports or otherwise) that allows these many people. And it’s not like Australia is reckless and is inviting a surge in Covid-19 cases. They’re strict.

Here’s the backstory: With a population of 25 million, Australia has reported a total of only 28,857 cases and 909 deaths. Examine those Covid-19 numbers for a minute. They’re miniscule. By comparison, the Philippines has over 540,000 cases and 11,231 deaths. (Region 7 has logged 31,450 cases and 1,494 deaths — more than Australia.)

Melbourne has endured one of the world’s toughest lockdowns lasting nearly four months. As a whole, Australia’s Covid-19 management is one of the planet’s best. 

For the Australian Open, they chartered 17 planes to fly players, coaches, umpires and officials. As a result of their draconian Covid-19 measures, the mantra of Australia is: “We’re back to normal.”

I chatted with my good friend Jonel Borromeo about this last week when we ran together. Jonel, who calls Sydney his second home, told me that Australia is so normal that they barely stopped face-to-face classes during the pandemic.

With tennis, the players are delighted.

“I’m just really happy to see people in the stands,” said Naomi Osaka, the 2019 champ. “It was a bit lonely in New York.”

Novak Djokovic added: “In Europe, it’s going to be I think far more challenging to experience something that we are experiencing here. We might as well enjoy it as much as we can.”

We hope that this Australian experiment — thousands of fans, most seen on TV not wearing masks — will be a success. But one thing is certain: The sound of the fans hollering and the sight of them clapping is the best music and sight to the players.

“Compared to what we were playing (in front of) last year, which is zero, this is huge,” said Venus Williams. “I am not complaining. It’s exciting. I think every single person there was probably in awe to be sitting at a sporting event, as much as I was to have them there.”

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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.

Time for Thiem

In sports, when you say “Big Three,” you mean the dominance of a triumvirate. The NBA is credited with (Celtics) Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish; (Spurs) Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli; and (Cavs) LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.

Tennis has Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Starting with the 2003 Wimbledon and ending with the 2020 Australian Open, Tennis’ Big 3 has won 56 of the last 67 Grand Slam singles trophies. This number is incredible considering that there are tens of millions of men’s tennis players worldwide and only three have won 83.58% of all majors in a 17-year span.

“Give chance to others” is not the motto of the trio. 

Which brings us the US Open final tomorrow: Dominic Thiem vs. Alexander Zverev. No Roger (injured), no Rafa (preparing for Paris), and no Novak (disqualified). You can say that the Austrian and German are lucky because they didn’t have to face the Big 3 en route to their first major win.

My pick: He started tennis at the age of six, resides in a small town (pop: 3,000) called Lichtenwörth, and he plays with a one-handed backhand. I first saw Thiem at the 2015 French Open. Then, he was only 21 but was already rumored to be a future star. Watching his match against Pablo Cuevas (in a side court), I stood a few meters away. His Adidas shirt got drenched in sweat as he would muscle and batter each forehand. 

In October 2019, I had another chance to watch Thiem. With my wife Jasmin and doctors Ronnie and Stevee Medalle, we watched the Shanghai Open. Thiem lost in the quarters to Matteo Berrettini (and Daniil Medvedev, whom Thiem beat in yesterday’s semis, won in Shanghai) but nobody impressed us more with hard-hitting tennis than the 6-foot-1 Austrian.

The practice court is the best place to be upclose to these players. For an hour before their match, they’d warm-up and rally. Federer was relaxed and carefree with his strokes.

Not Thiem. The 27-year-old bludgeoned the ball. His hour of practice-hitting was 60 full minutes of 100% I’ll-give-it-my-all tennis. He was Nadal-like intense — and this was just the warm-up. This ferocity and forcefulness makes Thiem the favorite in tomorrow’s final (plus, he carries a 7-2 win-loss record). 

Sascha Zverez, though, is no pushover. He has won the 2018 ATP Finals and, at 6-foot-6, his serve can exceed 140 mph. If he records a high first serve percentage, he’ll be difficult to stop. And remember this tennis adage: “He whose serve doesn’t get broken doesn’t not lose.”

SERENA. If the Big 3 are out, the Big One of women’s tennis was also booted out. After winning the first set (6-1) against Victoria Azarenka, who would have thought Serena Williams would lose?

This US Open has been peculiar and strange. No fans. No qualifying matches. No juniors. No Roger and Rafa. Six of the top 10 women opted to stay home. Djokovic throws a ball to the back and hits the line judge in the throat. A few inches off target and he — not Thiem — would be claiming the US Open trophy.

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Tennis United

Since the Covid-19 lockdown started over three months ago, there have been plenty of virtual gatherings and videos. If you’re a tennis fan, one good one is done by the ATP Tour. Check out Episode 12:

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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.

2020 Australian Open

Melbourne ranks as one of my favorite cities in the world. (It was voted “the world’s most liveable city” for seven years until it was toppled by Vienna in 2018.)

If you love the outdoors and you bike, you can pedal endlessly around Port Phillip Bay. If you’re a runner, this city of 5 million people has thousands of kms. of jogging paths. If you enjoy the water and rowing is your passion, you can exercise those upper-body muscles along the Yarra River, which snakes through the city. Melbourne is an exercise haven that’s heaven for fitness aficionados. 

Which brings me to the city’s grandest sporting event, the Australian Open. For two lung-busting weeks, over 800,000 spectators will visit Melbourne Park, a massive complex housing 35 courts, including the main stadium named after their best ever, Rod Laver.

Back in June 2016, my daughter Jana (who’s the team captain of the Ateneo de Manila women’s tennis squad) and I got the opportunity to rent the Show Court 3 for a full hour; we swatted forehands and smashed volleys, the sound of the yellow ball reverberating throughout the empty 3,000-seater Court No. 3. It was an experience that we’ll forever cherish.

Tomorrow’s start of 2020’s first grand slam tournament has been controversial. No, Nick Kyrgios did not slam his racket to destroy the Plexicushion surface; the controversy surrounds the recent national calamity called the bushfires — which have burned 18.6 million hectares and killed over a billion animals. The bushfires and the smoke they’ve generated have threatened the event.

“There is a lot of speculation about the Australian Open not happening, or starting later,” said tournament director Craig Tiley. “The Australian Open is happening.”

Mr. Tiley had to make that statement after receiving complaints from players related to the air quality. Earlier this week in qualifying, Dalila Jakupovic was forced to stop after succumbing to nonstop coughing brought about by the smoke. But the show will go on. 

Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic are the defending champions and favorites. The world No.1s — Ashleigh Barty and Rafa Nadal — will also be strong contenders. 

Ash Barty is popular in Australia. Only 23 years old and standing 5-foot-5, the Queensland-born star won the French Open last year. Her fellow Aussies hope she wins on home soil on Feb. 1.

Among the men, the biggest question is this: Will the “Big Three” finally be toppled in the majors? Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have won the last 11 (and 54 of the last 65) majors.

My answer: Yes, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Dominic Thiem or Andrey Rublev will triumph in Melbourne, Paris, London or New York this 2020.

One name that we should all watch is Alexandra Eala. She grew up in Manila but now studies and trains at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Spain. Alex, who’s playing her first Australian Open (girls juniors category), is only 14 years old. In juniors, she’s world No. 9.

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CSA – Bulacan

Where is the best tennis facility in our 7,107 islands? If you answered Cebu (no way!), Rizal Memorial in Manila (not anymore), Subic (yes, but once upon a long time) or PCA in Manila (no), you guessed it all wrong.

The answer? Bulacan. Yes, the province in Central Luzon that’s a couple of hours travel from Metro Manila.

The Colegio San Agustin (CSA) – Bulacan, the sprawling 20-hectare school that was built just three years ago, houses the country’s best tennis courts.

The total budget — based on what I heard — was P1 billion. This amount includes a mix of world-class sports facilities. There’s an indoor basketball gymnasium that seats at least 3,000. An Olympic size swimming pool. There’s a standard football rectangle and track oval. Plus several other top-notch sports facilities.

All are housed in a gigantic structure that looks like a spaceship (or a giant mall) from afar. And, at the topmost floor of the multi-level building are 11 tennis courts. Five courts on each side complete with bleachers and, at the far end, a center court that’s surrounded by its own seats. The 11 courts are all indoor and hard-court and they carry specs that’s similar to international standards.

Last weekend, my wife Jasmin and I were in Bulacan. For the first time in the history of the UAAP (now on its 81st year), the tennis matches are being played in CSA-Bulacan. In years past, the games were held at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, right beside La Salle and several universities.

Last year, when the players and school officials first heard of the move to transfer the games to Bulacan, complaints reverberated. That’s too far away.. a two-hour-plus drive! they hollered.

But as the games started and the 10 simultaneous matches were played (instead of the six in Rizal) and the indoor roof shaded the already-tan-skinned players, the gripes turned to praises. (Our daughter Jana represents Ateneo and they’re carrying a 2-1 win-loss record.)

The CSA-Bulacan indoor tennis stadium opened only last year. And, as evidence of that, many of the sturdy plastic chairs in the bleachers were still covered with plastic. The whole school is huge. Since they opened the campus in 2015, there are a few students thus far.. only 110 students in the elementary and high school levels. But the long-term goal is to have a full-scale university that will include college courses. The campus houses a building with dormitory rooms and a sizable chapel that seats hundreds.

From what I heard, the property (located in the city of San Jose del Monte) was donated by the Araneta family to CSA and the school raised the funds for the multi-billion project. It is situated beside the Ayala Land Inc. 98-hectare project called Altaraza.

Build it and they’ll come. That’s the overriding message that strikes me when I think about the humongous sports school project. Even if it’s located far from Metro Manila, they built it. And my bet is that, in the long-term, with the growth spreading outside the metropolis and better transportation systems are in place, this CSA-Bulacan sporting heaven will thrive.

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United States Open

There’s no city on earth like New York. Neon lights blink at noon, yellow cabs zoom past Times Square, skyscrapers touch the clouds, and Broadway shows are $450 real-life movies. The city that never sleeps is forever awake, hungry and restless.

It’s fitting that the United States Tennis Open is not located in sunny Florida or relaxed California but in the Big Apple.

I’ve been blessed to have visited the U.S. Open grounds twice, first as spectator and second as passerby, and it’s humongous. Flushing Meadows in Corona Park, where the 22 courts inside the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center are found, is sprawling wide at 46.5 acres. At the center looms the 23,771-seater Arthur Ashe Stadium, named after the 1968 Open champion who succumbed to AIDS in 1993.

Today, it’s the Women’s Singles final (at 4:30 a.m., Philippine time) and the organizers could not have choreographed a better finale. Two American ladies face each other in the only major fought on North American soil.

“Having four Americans in the semi-finals, I think that says a lot about American tennis and where we are right now,” said Sloane Stephens, who defeated Venus Williams in the semifinals.

Sloane Stephens vs. Madison Keys. Who are they? They’re the finalists. (I wouldn’t be surprised if had not heard of them prior to today.) They’re no Sharapova or Bouchard or Halep or Pliskova or Kerber.

The story of Ms. Stephens is incredible. At the U.S. Open last year, she withdrew because of a foot injury. Last January, she watched the Australian Open on TV while her leg was covered with a large cast. When she was able to move, she swatted tennis balls while seated. After 11 months, she returned to Wimbledon ranked 957th. Since then, she has won 14 of 16 matches and is en route to her first Grand Slam trophy. 

“I have no words to describe my feelings and what it took to get here,” said Stephens. “When something gets taken away from you, you kind of are forced to deal with your situation. Having surgery, being on that peg leg, not being able to live my life the way I wanted to, I don’t know if it was like a humbling experience, but it was more of just like—how do you say that—realization? I just needed to just appreciate all the things I had in my life.”

Madison Keys has an equally powerful story to tell. She started playing tennis at the age of 9 at the Chris Evert Academy in Florida. Now 22, she also got injured early this year, missing the Melbourne major when she had surgery on her left wrist. She’s back and, ranked 16, is slightly favored to beat Stephens.

The all-American final is a first not involving Serena and Venus in 33 years, when Martina Navratilova defeated Chris Evert in 1984. You can say that these two are lucky because Serena Williams just gave birth, carrying her own prize in the form of a baby girl (whose name has yet to be revealed).

For the men, Rafa Nadal’s path to a 16th major was cleared by Roger Federer when the Swiss lost to Juan Martin del Potro. After watching Nadal annihilate the Argentinian in the semis yesterday, it’s hard to see the Spaniard losing to Kevin Anderson. In basketball, yes, the 6-foot-8 South African wins. But this is tennis and Nadal is the old king of New York.

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