Maria Sharapova

Forbes has named her the “world’s highest paid female athlete” for 11 straight years. Since turning pro in 2001, she has earned nearly $300 million. But as wealthy and famous and beautiful as Maria Sharapova is, has she received the esteem and respect of her colleagues?

No. The reason: Last year, she failed a drug test. She had been taking the drug “meldonium” for many years when it was legal. But when it was banned effective Jan. 2016, she still took it.

Positive! That’s the bombshell that shocked the 6-foot-2 Russian. Maria was banned for two years. While away from tennis, she wrote her autobiography and enrolled in Harvard Business School. She was an intern at an ad agency, spending a week with NBA’s Adam Silver and another at Nike HQ. She promoted her candy business, Sugarpova. “It was just a different way my mind was working for a few months,” Maria said, “and I loved that.”

Her 24-month suspension was reduced to 15. And when she returned last April at the Porsche Grand Prix, her counterparts voiced opposition. Eugenie Bouchard complained: “She’s a cheater and I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play again.. I think from the WTA it sends the wrong message to young kids: cheat and we’ll welcome you back with open arms.”

Ouch. In reply, Sharapova said she didn’t want to listen to the negative talk and called the women’s locker room “my least favourite place in the world.”

At the US Open in New York, controversy has once again followed the 30-year-old five-time Grand Slam champion. She was given a “wild card.” What’s that? It’s a direct entry into the main draw that’s chosen by the tournament organizers. Ranked a lowly No. 146, Sharapova was given a wild card at the US Open. (At the French Open a few months ago, they denied her that privilege.)

This exemption has troubled some critics. Chris Evert, the 18-major winner, said in response: “I don’t necessarily think that in the grand slams, she should be given a wild card, no.”

Serena Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, told CNN, “If someone gets caught for doping, this person shouldn’t be helped to come back faster to the top of the game.”

You can’t blame the US Open organizers. Ms. Sharapova is the biggest draw among the ladies, especially with Serena pregnant. She’s one of the few who can outrival the popularity of a Roger or Rafa. What has angered other players was how they’ve accorded her extra privileges.

In Sharapova’s first three matches, including last night’s win over Sofia Kenin, she played at the Arthur Ashe (main) Stadium. In contrast, Caroline Wozniacki, ranked No. 5, was relegated to an outside court.

“Putting out a schedule where the number five in the world is playing on court five, fifth match on after 11 p.m., I think that is unacceptable,” said Wozniacki. “When you look at center court, and I understand completely the business side of things, but someone who comes back from a drugs sentence, performance-enhancing drugs, and then all of a sudden gets to play every single match on center court I think that’s a questionable thing to do. It doesn’t set a good example.”

I agree. Life is unfair. But Maria is Maria. I’m sure her WTA players would like to sing the Sound of Music song, How do you solve a problem like Maria?

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US Open

(Getty Images)

At the 29th SEA Games, our Philippine netters pocketed two silver and two bronze medals. Clarice Patrimonio reached the women’s singles finals but got clobbered, 6-0, 6-1, by Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand. The heartbreaker was the men’s doubles. With Treat Huey unable to join, our top duo was Ruben Gonzales and Niño Alcantara. They played the Ratiwatana twins, Sanchai and Sonchat, in the finals last Friday. The Pinoys lost a thriller to the Thais, 6-4, 2-6, 10-7. That 10-7 is not a third set but a super-tiebreak. We got two more bronze medals: mixed doubles (Denise Dy and Ruben Gonzales) and women’s doubles (Katharina Lehnert and Denise Dy).

US OPEN. In New York, it’s the final Grand Slam tennis event of 2017. The biggest news? The injuries. Among those who are out include Murray, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Raonic and Nishikori. Why these many withdrawals? Tennis is one-on-one. You can’t get substituted like soccer or volleyball. Coaches aren’t even allowed inside. You play on grass this week, on red clay the next, shift to hard courts after; there are indoor and outdoor venues and you sprint back and forth for 3 hours; all these take a physical toll on an athlete’s body.

Rafael Nadal is the world’s No. 1. This is incredible. At 31, he was battered with injuries last year. He withdrew from the 2016 French Open and from Wimbledon. Ranked as low as No. 9 last January, in just several months, he has overtaken everyone.

Roger Federer is even more impressive. He won the Australian Open and Wimbledon and he’s favored to win a sixth US Open crown next Sunday. Aged 36 and 31, Roger and Rafa are defying the conventional wisdom that athletes can’t last long. Bjorn Borg retired at 26. Pete Sampras left at 31. Federer and Nadal are able to extend their careers because of proper scheduling. Injured? They stop and take an extended vacation. Tired? They don’t play the following tournament. They space out their commitments and listen to their bodies. It’s called wisdom from old age.

How does the US Open compare to the other majors? It’s loud. It’s filled with thousands of people crisscrossing the Tennis Center inside Corona Park, a colossal venue of 363 hectares in Queens. The Arthur Ashe Stadium is the largest tennis stadium on this planet, seating nearly 24,000. I remember watching with Fabby Borromeo at the top-most bleacher and Andre Agassi looked like an ant! It’s summer in New York today and the weather can get scorching hot. So the spectators wear sleeveless shirts, baggy shorts and sandals. They drink Heinekin. Because as formal as Wimbledon is, the US Open is the opposite: it’s noisy, high energy, pump-fisting tennis.

Among the men, I’d love to see an Alexander Zverev or Dominic Thiem win the $3.7 million singles champion’s prize money. Among the women, Serena Williams is pregnant. This gives everyone a chance. The first round match to watch? Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova. If my Google research is correct, this match should be shown at 7 a.m. today at Fox Sports.

As for Treat Huey, our best-ever Filipino-American doubles specialist who was ranked as high as 18 in the world (he’s now 62), it’s the same sad news as Djokovic and Murray: Treat Huey has withdrawn due to injury.

 

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Maria Sharapova

The girls are unhappy. They’re complaining, criticizing, saying it’s unfair. The controversy surrounds the most popular female athlete on this planet. Standing 6-foot-2 with flowing blonde hair, Maria Sharapova could have been a Vogue or Prada model. But she’s more than a beautiful face with long legs. She’s a 5-time Grand Slam champion who was ranked world No. 1.

Sharapova, who’ll turn 30 this April 19, is in the midst of a 15-month ban after she failed a drug test at the Australian Open last year. Humiliated, Sharapova has been busy off the tennis court: she enrolled in the Harvard Business School and has been attending to her myriad of businesses including the premium line of candies named Sugarpova. For 11 years now, Forbes has named her “the world’s most marketable female athlete” and her estimated on-and-off-court earnings exceeds $285 million.

Back to her WTA suspension, it will officially end this April 26. Now here’s the controversy. There’s a big tournament called the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix that will start on April 24 — two days before her suspension ends.

This means she can’t join, right? Wrong. The Porsche tournament organizers decided to delay her first round match to Wednesday — the day after her suspension ends.

Right? Or wrong? Technically, and the WTA has approved this request, they said it’s okay. But is it the correct thing to do?

“I don’t think it’s right but what can we do about it? She’s still banned but she can come on site on Wednesday, that’s pretty strange,” said world no. 4 Dominika Cibulkova. “For me it’s not OK and I spoke to some other players and nobody is OK with it, but it’s not up to us. All the people who are taking care of these things should know the rule and do the right thing. It’s not about her, but everyone who was doping should start from zero.”

Why was allowed to join midway through a tournament? Simple. The Porsche-sponsored Sharapova will draw the biggest attention. “From the tournament standpoint she will bring in the crowds, make money,” said British No. 2 Heather Watson. “But from a moral standpoint you should have to work your way back up if you’ve been on a ban. It just seems a bit easy.”

Caroline Wozniacki added: “Obviously rules are twisted and turned in favour of who wants to do what.”

For me, this is wrong. After a 15-month-long ban, what’s a wait of a few extra days? She’s now ridiculed by many of her peers. As one of my favorite sayings goes: “The truth is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”

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Buddy Andrada: Why, why, why?

I don’t understand this penchant for clinging on to power forever. Take the case of Col. Salvador Andrada. I’ve known him since 1986. That was the year when I started joining tennis tournaments. That was the year Andrada became president of the Philippine Tennis Association (Philta).

For 20 years until 2006, Andrada was Philta chieftain. Was that dynasty too long? Absolutely. It’s not like he produced a Pinoy version of Djokovic or Murray or Kerber. (Come to think of it, those three were not even born when Andrada headed Philta in ’86!)

If you find that two-decade-long overstaying tenure as ludicrous, wait till you hear this: Andrada is back. He reinstated himself last June. Unbelievable. As we say in Bisaya, baga ug nawong.

When Jean Henri Lhuillier (the main backer of the Davis Cup team and the CEO of Cebuana Lhuillier), and Philta VP Randy Villanueva (who helped bring the five Davis Cup sorties here in Plantation Bay Resort and Spa) questioned Andrada’s return, he vowed to step down. But, as the cliche goes, promises are meant to be broken. In a Philta board meeting last Wednesday — just after our Davis Cup team, led by Ruben Gonzales and Treat Huey, defeated Indonesia — the transfer of power was to have been effected.

Lhuillier, 47, would preside as the new Philta head and Andrada would gracefully exit. But like a stinging backhand that stabbed Jean Henri flatfooted, Andrada reversed his decision.

“We walked out of the meeting because we were made to understand during our last board meeting that Col. Andrada had decided to step down for health reasons,” Lhuillier said. “As it turned out, this was not the case.”

I know Jean Henri and you cannot find someone with more enthusiasm and passion for tennis. He is selfless, humble, approachable, has contributed tens of millions to the game, and whose only objective is for the upliftment of Philippine tennis.

I do not understand the Philta board members who voted for Andrada over Lhuillier, namely Romy Magat, Paranaque Mayor Edwin Olivarez, Dr. Pablo Olivarez (attending in behalf of daughter Edna Nguyen), and the father and son Manny and Martin Misa. They have plenty of explaining to do.

“We wanted to participate in this election properly,” said Randy Villanueva, “but they misled us and now we’ll look at our legal options.”

Andrada is a “trapo;” an 82-year-old career politician disguised as a sportsman. Power-hungry. Selfish. Old. Like his buddy Peping Cojuangco.

Australian Open experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Like Duterte and Trump, change in tennis

As shocking as incoming Pres. Donald John Trump’s victory yesterday is this fact in men’s tennis: Roger Federer is out of the Top 10 — the first time it’s happened since 2002.

R. Federer is acknowledged as history’s greatest men’s tennis player. He’s won 17 grand slam singles trophies, ranked world No.1 for a record 302 weeks, has pocketed $100 million in prize money and, on a personal note, is such a sharpshooter that he is the father to two sets of twins with wife Mirka (Myla Rose and Charlene Riva then two boys named Leo and Lennart).

Federer is ranked 16. That’s astonishingly low. Same with Rafael Nadal, the 14-major winner, who’s ranked eighth. For those who follow the sport, the Swiss and the Spaniard ruled tennis for 211 nonstop weeks from July 2005 to August 2009 — the duo taking turns at the No. 1 spot.

Federer is out; so is Nadal. Same with the 29-year-old from Belgrade, Serbia named Novak Djokovic. While we had grown accustomed to one of the Big Three standing at Tennis’ Mt. Everest, now they’ve been supplanted. For the first time since Feb. 1, 2004 — that’s 666 weeks — not Roger nor Rafa nor Novak is No.1.

It’s Andy Murray. Thanks to an incredible run — seven trophies in eight finals out of nine tournaments — Murray has overtaken his childhood friend Djokovic. This is shocking. First, because of Novak’s collapse. After he won the year’s first two majors — the Australian and French Opens — his game collapsed, losing both Wimbledon and the Olympics.

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For Novak, who’s been so consistent the past years, this might be a case of “What more can I achieve?” After the career grand slam (in Paris), he may have lost his invincibility and motivation.

With Murray, the combination of Djokovic’s defeats and his triumphs have elevated the Scot. How elusive is that top spot? Since 1973 when the ATP rankings were developed, the 29-year-old has become only the 26th player to achieve that feat.

“To get to No. 1 isn’t about today, but it’s about 12 months of tournaments to get to this stage,” Murray said last week.

The No. 1 ranking has been Murray’s ultimate goal. He’s been No. 2 and hovered among the top four since August 2009. You can say he’s been the perrenial groomsman, winning only three grand slam titles after being in the finals 11 times. (This, too, is a double family celebration because his brother, Jamie, held the top spot in doubles earlier this year.)

But Murray can’t rest for more long. This Sunday, the year-ending Top 8-only event commences and if Djokovic goes undefeated, he’ll reclaim the top ranking.

“It might only be for one week, so I might as well try and enjoy it,” Murray said, “because I could lose it at the (ATP World) Tour Finals and never be there again.”

KERBER. On the women’s side, there’s a similar transformation. Serena Williams has been dislodged as the top female netter. In Wimbledon last July, Ms. Williams won her 22nd singles major— tying her with Steffi Graf for the most majors in the Open Era.

But like her co-No. 1 Djokovic, after that accomplishment, her game dipped. She lost in the Olympics and the in U.S. Open. Already 35 years of age, Serena has suffered knee and shoulder problems and decided to rest after New York. Two weeks ago at the WTA Championships in Singapore, she skipped the year-ending tourney.

Angelique Kerber is tennis’ new No. 1. And what a 2016. She reached the finals at the Olympics, in Wimbledon, and in Singapore last month and won the three majors of the year: in Melbourne, Paris, and New York. Ms. Kerber, a muscular and ultra-fit left-hander, hails from the same country as the wife of Andre Agassi.

“For sure, when I was growing up, Steffi was my idol,” Kerber said, “and this is also special that she is German.”

Talking about change, like our Pres. Rodrigo Duterte and the newly-crowned Mr. Trump for the nation that Duterte despises, tennis has its own change-has-come version: Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber.

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Peping and Buddy

I agree with Michael Jerome Limpag, our SunStar Cebu sports editor, in his piece last Friday, “It’s time for change, replace Peping in POC.”

Jose “Peping” Cojuangco, Jr. turned 82 years old last Tuesday. It’s time for him to relinquish his throne and turn-over the baton to somebody else.

It’s funny how people want to cling to power forever. Isn’t this being selfish? Instead of thinking of one’s self, isn’t the greater good — Philippine sports — more important than a solitary person’s quest to hang on for life… like Peping’s mission atop the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC)?

Peping hasn’t even accomplished much. It’s not like our 100-million-strong nation has produced gold medalists. If not for the silver medal achieved by Hidilyn Diaz last month, we were zero for zero in Sydney, in Athens, in Beijing and in London.

He has been POC president since 1994. It’s been a dozen years of despondent Olympic success and he wants another term?

The same I-want-to-cling-to-power scenario is happening in tennis.

Salvador “Buddy” Andrada, one of Peping’s closest buddies and who’s nearly the same age, also wants to return to head the Philippine Tennis Association (Philta). Andrada headed Philta from 1986 to 2006. That’s 20 very, very, very, very long years. He eventually stepped down as president of Philta and later because a commissioner at the Philippine Sports Commission.

Now 81, Andrada wants to return as Philta president.

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing but praises and love and respect for those who are older. My Lola Bebe Alcoseba is turning 96 next month and we still text each other and she still sports that infectious smile and laugh. Same with my dad’s mom, my lola Bing Pages, now 93. The grandma of my wife Jasmin (Corazon Gayanilo) is 105 years old! And I love them.

But, like the saying goes, there is a time for everything. And clinging on to power forever is unwise and awful.

With tennis, here’s what happened: It started last July when Edwin Olivarez, busy with his concurrent duties as mayor of Paranaque, asked to step down as Philta top honcho. Now, like in any organization, once a president steps down — and as stipulated in the Philta rules — the Vice-President takes over.

The VP is Randy Villanueva — the most active of tennis practitioners. (Randy heads the Davis Cup team as administrator and brought the Davis Cup sorties to Plantation Bay Resort and Spa in Cebu five times.)

But, no, like Peping, Mr. Andrada wouldn’t allow the 41-year-old Randy Villanueva to head Philta. Andrada supposedly called for a “special board meeting,” unanticipated to several board members, and had himself voted as president. It was a slick, dexterous and ludicrous move.

Here’s a funny but true story. Back in 1986, I was a newbie in tennis and I flew from Cebu to Manila to join my first tournament at the Rizal Memorial Tennis Center. The Philta president then, when I was a 14-year-old? Buddy Andrada. Fast forward to today, I have a beautiful and bright 17-year-old daughter named Jana who joins national tournaments in Manila. The person who still wants to head Philta.. 30 years later? Same guy.

My guess is that Peping must have called his buddy to return to Philta so the latter can vote for him anew in the POC elections this November. (The National Sports Association or NSA heads vote for the POC president.)

Prior to our country’s presidential elections, wasn’t this country’s mantra: “Change is coming?” We have a new president. Manny Pacquiao is now a senator and brilliantly asks simple yet sharp questions. Win Gatchalian is in; so is Risa Hontiveros.

With Philippine tennis, three weeks ago I attended the first-ever Philippine Tennis Summit.

Jean Henri Lhuillier, the largest benefactor for tennis in the country and a Class A netter himself, was in attendance. So was Bobby Castro, the CEO of Palawan Pawnshop, which sponsors dozens of tournaments around the archipelago. Coaches, parents, sponsors (of all the major sporting brands), champions (like Christine Patrimonio) were all in attendance. Randy Villanueva presented a new vision for Philippine tennis that got the hundred or so in attendance very excited.

As for Peping and Buddy? It’s time to rest, go on vacation, spend time with their grandchildren, take hour-long naps and surrender their selfish desires to new sports blood.

Change isn’t coming. Change is here.

Can Novak topple Rafa on clay?

For tennis fans, you can’t be more excited: Novak Djokovic is the undisputed world no. 1 but, when the game shifts to the slow and dusty surface, the greatest slugger in history is Rafael Nadal.

Who will triumph in their tussle this May? Three giant tournaments loom. First, this week, the smashes will boomerang at the Spanish capital and the 29-year-old Spaniard will try to stockpile his fifth Madrid Open trophy while the Serb will attempt to collect his second (after winning in 2011).

After Madrid they hop on a plane for the 2.5-hour ride to Rome for the Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Italian Open). Then, after these twin ATP 1000 events, all netters converge in the only Grand Slam sortie disputed on clay: the French Open.

Madrid. Rome. Paris. Ahhh, three enchanting cities.

Last year, together with Jasmin and Jana, I was fortunate to have visited Rome and Paris. While the schedule did not permit us to watch Italy’s biggest tennis party at the famed Foro Italico, we were blessed to have attended a service at St. Peter’s Square with His Holiness Pope Francis.

All over Europe, you see clay courts. Unlike in America where hard courts are predominant, it’s the dirty, sluggish, slippery and red-colored flooring that’s common in that continent.

At the French Open last year, Jana, Jasmin and I chuckled like small kids entering Disneyland. Stade Roland Garros, built in 1928, is the name of the 8.5-hectare complex that houses 20 courts, including its center stage, Court Philippe Chatrier.

We visited in the early rounds and got to see all the big names. The venue is not as humongous as the U.S. Open site in New York and you can trek from side courts to the bigger stadiums in a minute or two. This year, the French Open begins its two-week-long journey on May 22.

Question: Rafa or Novak? Their rivalry is the most prolific of any two players; they’ve challenged each other 48 times with Novak leading 25-23. In terms of Grand Slam trophies won, the Spaniard beats the Serb, 14 to 11. But when we tally their respective reigns as world no. 1, it’s Novak who leads, 193 weeks (and counting) versus 141 weeks for Rafa.

At Roland Garros, here’s where it gets interesting. Nadal has won this title a preposterous nine times (beginning in 2005 when he first joined it) while Djokovic has zero.

The 28-year-old right-hander from Belgrade who stands 6-foot-2 reached the finals in 2012 and 2014 but lost both times to Nadal. Last year, after he easily dispatched of Nadal in straight sets in the quarters, he was heavily-favored to beat Stanislas Wawrinka but lost to the Swiss in the final. That painful letdown was Djokovic’s only loss in all the Grand Slam tournaments in 2015. Which means he could have won the calendar Grand Slam (all four majors in one year) had he won RG.

That was last year. This 2016, Rafa is off to a terrific start, winning Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Of their expected showdown, Rafa says, “I just follow my path and I think that Djokovic follows his. I do the best to be at my top level, and I think I’m getting closer to it. I’m trying to manage it. For the moment, I’m happy with my level.”

In Madrid this week, the two won’t get to meet until they subdue all tormentors and reach the finals.

“I think Rafa is everybody’s main rival on clay courts because of his history on this surface and the results that he’s had throughout his career,” admits Djokovic. “This year, he’s already showing a much higher quality of tennis… He’s definitely the player to beat.”

Down-playing expectations. That’s a common tactic of players so they don’t add extra pressure.

My prediction? First, I’d want nothing more than multiple Rafa-Novak finals these next few weeks. And as big of a Rafa fan as I am (like Atty. Frank Malilong), I’d have to put my bet on Djokovic. He’s beaten Rafa in their last six matches (and 11 of the last 12) and he’s never won there — which makes him extremely hungry for that first Parisian croissant.

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Why, Maria?

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(Photo by John Russo)

Like Manny Pacquiao, Nike ditched her. Porsche, the German sportscar maker who annointed her their first ever female ambassador, sped away and bid her goodbye. But it’s not about the money. Maria Sharapova has plenty. She is the highest-earning female athlete on this planet. On average, she pockets $30 million each year from prize money, endorsements and her myriad of businesses.

This is about humiliation. It’s about one’s name and reputation being painted red and tainted with the ugly taste of drugs. It’s also about wanting to continue playing tennis — kicking those serves, flattening those forehands and pumping those Russian-born fists inside the rectangle.

This is embarrassing. Her fellow players now wonder: In all those 10 years that Maria digested the now-banned drug called Meldonium, was she cheating on us?

Ms. Sharapova said that, in the past decade, her “family doctor” advised her to take the medicine to cure some heart-related problems (like when she broke up with Grigor Dimitrov?). But who will believe her? It now appears that dozens of champions systematically devoured meldonium. The list includes Semion Elistratov, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist in short track speed skating, and Abeba Aregawi, the 2013 world champion in the 1500-meter foot race.

“I’ve read 55 athletes have failed tests for that substance since January 1st,” said Andy Murray. “You just don’t expect high level athletes at the top of many different sports to have heart conditions. If you’re taking a prescription drug and you’re not using it for what that drug is meant for, then you don’t need it. You’re just using it for the performance enhancing benefits that drug is giving you and I don’t think that’s right.”

Andy’s right. “I’ve used protein shakes since I was 18 years old, energy gels on court, obviously sports drinks when I’m playing,” he said. “Earlier in my career I would sometimes takes vitamins. Now I don’t take any supplements. If you’re taking a prescription drug that you don’t actually need, that’s wrong.”

Agree. It’s clear that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) included this drug among those to be banned (effective Jan. 1) because it was being abused. I’m sure they conducted tests that revealed its effectiveness in increasing sports-related performance.

“Meldonium is added to the Class S4 (hormone and metabolic modulators) of the WADA Prohibited List 2016,” read the official letter of RUSADA, the anti-doping agency of Russia.

In fairness to Maria, prior to this year, her taking the substance wasn’t illegal. So why did she continue taking it during the Australian Open?

Negligence. I believe her when she says that she and her team did not properly read the literature. But given that she’s THE Maria Sharapova, the Golden Girl who employs a battalion of coaches and lawyers and PTs and more, syaro sad. What a blunder. Just last May at the French Open and during the 2014 WTA Championships in Singapore, I saw with my own eyes her team of hitting-partners and assistants and coaches. What an oversight and foulup.

Because of this “unforced error,” Maria risks being banned for the maximum four years. Ouch. Imagine, at the peak of your powers at the age of 28, being deprived of playing the sport that you love (where you’ve accummulated five Grand Slam singles titles) — for 48 long months?

Her press conference earlier this week, facing the world head-on, was a good move. Unlike the greatest swindler in the history of sports, Lance Armstrong, who camouflaged his injections and tricked all of us not to LiveStrong but to Cheat Strong, Ms. Sharapova has been fortright. Let’s hope the ban gets reduced to two years.

While waiting a return to Wimbledon in 2018, Maria can do plenty. She’ll recuperate from her nagging shoulder and leg injuries. And to alleviate the drug penalty’s bitter taste, she can savor and taste her sweet candy Sugarpova.

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La Salle vs. Ateneo

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(Photo by Sherwin Vardeleon/CNN Phils.)

Like the Crispa Redmanizers and the Toyota Tamaraws of the 1970s, like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics of the ‘80s, like Barcelona and Real Madrid in soccer — there’s no rivalry in Philippine sports that rivals the one between La Salle and Ateneo.

One is green; the other is blue. One holds fort at Taft Ave. in Manila while the other is along Katipunan Ave. in faraway Quezon City. And while La Salle features a Green Archer as its symbol, who better to target the bow and arrow than the Blue Eagle?

Since their first meeting as founding members of the NCAA, the two private Catholic institutions have spiked and dribbled and swam against each other since 1924. Would you believe, that’s a 92-year-long tug-of-war.

I witnessed one such clash the other Saturday. And it featured the most popular women’s sport in the country today; the one featuring lady athletes who are celebrities. Women’s volleyball. And it was the first meeting this UAAP Season 78 between the Ateneo Lady Eagles and the La Salle Lady Spikers.

The Smart Araneta Coliseum was divided into two. In one half of the Big Dome, which seats approximately 20,000, you can see one blue color. In the opposite side are cheerers all wearing green. Drum beaters from both squads exchanged firepower. It can’t get more exciting than this.

With the help of my daughter Jana, who’s a first year ADMU student and who resides in the Loyola Heights campus dormitory named Eliazo, she and her tennis varsity teammate Jana Hernandez were able to secure tickets for their parents: for me and Jasmin and for Danny and Chu Fernandez.

DLSU vs. ADMU: Who was I cheering for? Although La Salle Bacolod was my school in elementary, I have since transformed into a blue-blooded parent, thanks to our only child. And so we were seated in some of the best seats in the Ateneo corner. Before the game started, I greeted Rene Almendras, who watched wearing blue.

Ateneo was expected to win. They won last season. They won the season before. In both of those final encounters, Ateneo defeated La Salle. In all, they carried a 24-match winning streak and La Salle was supposed to be an easy victim as the Lady Eagles closed the UAAP first round.

But, no. Alyssa Valdez was off. On multiple occasions, Ateneo would miss a serve and hand La Salle a free point. While Ateneo expected a quick victory, the result was reversed.

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(Photo by Sherwin Vardeleon/CNN Phils.)

First set went to DLSU, 25-22. In the second set, things got worse. La Salle scored the first eight or so points and steamed through the set, 25-14. Finally, in the third, it was the same, 25-18, in favor of the all-jumping and ecstatic La Salle.

I can’t wait for the playoffs, when these two squads hopefully meet again in the championships.

TENNIS. But this wasn’t our only La Salle-Ateneo experience the other Saturday. Earlier that morning, in the tennis courts of Rizal Memorial when the UAAP tennis season finished with the mighty National University Bulldogs winning both the men’s and women’s titles, another duel occured.

In the fight for 2nd Runner-up in the Women’s Division (NU was champion while UST was first runner-up), the scores were tabulated and you won’t believe what transpired.

Ateneo and La Salle were locked in a bout for the trophy. It was one meeting apiece (ADMU won in their first round while DLSU won in Round 2). It was five sets won per team. When the number of sets were computed, it was 10 sets per team. Finally, down to the last figure (the number of games won per team), it was 79-79. A tie!

During the awarding ceremony at the Rizal Memorial Tennis Center, it was a beautiful sight. The DLSU ladies in green on the right and the ADMU ladies in blue on the left. Archrivals standing side by side as equals. One trophy shared by two teams.

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