The Little Merman

(Cleevan, center; photos in this post taken from Cleevan’s Facebook page)

Cleevan Kayne Alegres circumnavigated Olango Island last week. He did not walk, paddle-board or sail around Olango — he swam all of it: 25,420 meters of swimming.

“My farthest distance before the Olango swim was 14 kms.,” he told me in our 28-minute-long talk last Thursday.

Cleevan’s ultimate goal is to encircle the entire Mactan island — a 40 to 45-km. swim. — later this month to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Mactan.

With the 25-K swim in Olango, he told me, “Kalit-kalit ra to because I needed to swim a longer distance.”

Starting at 3:30 p.m. last April 4, Cleevan completed the trek by swimming for 9 hours and 59 minutes. He had to stop for two hours at the latter part of the expedition because he was separated from his accompanying pump boat.

Starting at Sta. Rosa port, he ended at the same spot at 3:30 a.m. He swam a big portion of the 25K in total darkness.

“I swam at night because of the tides,” he said. “I studied the tide chart and currents and they’re favorable at night.”

While most, if not all of us, are afraid of swimming the open seas at night, Cleevan felt relaxed when submerged in darkness.

“I’m used to spear-fishing in the evenings and night-diving,” said Cleevan, whose house sits right beside the waters of Mactan (behind J Park Resort). “I’m not scared of the dark while swimming.”

He did not wear a full-body wetsuit but opted for the barest of barest: swimming trunks. 

“Swimming for 10 hours, there were plenty of jellyfish, but I just ignored them,” said Cleevan, who  believes his achievement was 40 percent physical and 60 percent mental.

Cleevan was accompanied by a team. At portions of the route, he was joined by swimmers Jason Earl Bilangdal, Ryan Galo and Reinwald Ebora. There were three stand-up paddler teams that included his girlfriend Gillan Mae Sayson, his sister Eaa, and friends Saysay Silawan, Janjan Cañete and Tado Amit. A pumpboat glided nearby.

Cleevan did not eat during the 25-K challenge. He did not take caffeinated drinks because of a heart condition that started when he was a baby; for two months after he was born, he was in the incubator. Today, his heart palpitates if he takes coffee. 

The only nutrition that fueled him was the supplement brand Vitargo, recommended by Atty. Ingemar Macarine, the “Pinoy Aquaman.” During the swim, Cleevan took sips of the carbo-electrolytes supplement every 20 to 25 minutes. 

Swimming is a lonely sport. I asked Cleevan how he survived the mental anguish of floating at sea for 10 hours.

“I thought of my Veterinary studies,” said the fifth year junior clinician at SWU-Phinma. “While swimming, I tried to remember the lessons and kept on repeating them. I also sang, in my mind, my favorite songs. (These included the songs Inspector Mills and Superman, Five for Fighting.) 

“I counted 1 to 1,000. I thought about my future plans. I prayed to the Lord to help my tiredness. At the 20K mark, I experienced hallucination and thought that a dolphin was swimming beside me…”

Part 2 (published last April 18, 2021)

Cleevan Kayne Alegres stands 5-foot-3 and weighs 121 lbs. When asked in an interview after he completed the 25-km. Olango Island swim what he wanted to be called, he paused, thought of a nickname and said… The Little Merman!

Bright. The Little Mermaid, as know from the Disney movie, is derived from an 1837 book by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. It was a fairy tale.

On April 25, it will be another fairy tale — this time, a real life tale of Cebu’s very own “Little Merman” attempting to encircle Mactan Island using only his God-given legs and arms. The around-Mactan swim is expected to cover the length of between 40 to 45 kms.

Swimming for 40+ kms. — this sounds ridiculous. If you consider that a marathon road race spans 42 kms. — I’ve done a bunch of those runs and they’re tough — how much more in a horizontal position.

OLANGO SWIM. Two weeks ago (on April 4) when Cleevan swam the 10-hour-long adventure around Olango Island, he experienced moments of hallucination. 

“A dolphin was swimming beside me,” Cleevan said. “It was past 1 A.M. and I had been swimming for over 20 kms. It was only later that I realized that they were only coconuts floating nearby.”

Cleevan’s 25K “practice swim” provided him with several lessons before his 42K “main event” on April 25.

Lesson No. 1: music helps.

“A boombox is important,” he said. “I’ll ask my companions on the paddle board and pump boat to play music during the swim. Swimming in the middle of the night and for many hours.. I need music.”

Bright head lamps so his path won’t be too dark, said Cleeven, will also help.

With the swim pacers, Cleevan plans to ask four swimmers to accompany him. But this time, instead of asking them to join him at the start, they’ll form a relay team with each pacer swimming eight kms. The ones who’ve enlisted as pacers include Reinwalk Ebora, Albert Godinez, Ryan Galo and Jaron Earl Bilangdal. 

ADVOCACY. When I spoke to Cleevan for nearly half an hour 10 days ago, he was very passionate about the reason for this exploit.

“My advocacy is to raise awareness and get rid of the garbage at sea,” said Cleevan. “I live right beside the waters; our house is very near the J Park Resort. Where I live in Maribago, I am able to collect as much as two sacks of garbage everyday.”

Cleevan will embark on his 42K marathon swim at 5 p.m. on April 25 — near the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Mactan. It’s a symbolic date. But the bigger symbol that the 25-year-old is attempting to achieve is this: We need to clean our seas and not throw plastics, junk or rubbish.

Cleevan wants to make sure that his swim will include passing along the Mactan Channel. While he previously only wore swim trunks, this time, for that stretch, he will have to wear a full suit. The reason is shocking and depressing.

“Hugaw, baho, lubog, daghan mag lutaw-lutaw bisag unsa, ang lapok itom pas black,” Cleevan said, of the Mactan Channel.

How sad.

Let’s hope that the swim of Cleevan Alegres will not only be historic but will help raise awareness to clean our seas and save the oceans.

40 is the new 20

A human being’s muscular strength peaks between the ages of 25 to 30. After that, no thanks to the word “aging,” our physical vigor and sinew naturally decline.

Then how, at the age of 43, do you explain a specimen named Tom Brady? For 21 years, he has accumulated an overabundance of trophies — culminating last week with his 7th Super Bowl ring.

“Tom Brady is an inspiration to me,” said Sen. Manny Pacquiao. “We are both in our forties, competing in sports that are dangerous and physically and mentally demanding.”

Pacquiao credits Brady’s lifelong dedication and conditioning.

“Tom Brady does that every day,” said Pacquiao. “He has no offseason. That takes superhuman dedication and discipline. Tom Brady is always in the back of my mind during training camp and between fights. Because Tom Brady is the gold standard.”

Manny Pacquiao is our Tom Brady. He’s 42 years old. And considering the physicality and brutality of boxing, that’s a very, very old age to be wearing boxing gloves. Back in 2019, the GenSan native became the oldest boxer to win a welterweight world crown. And Pacman’s not finished yet. He plans to engage in two more mega-fights. This 2021 against either Ryan Garcia, a fighter 20 years his junior, or the undefeated Terence Crawford. And in 2022, Pacquaio will climb the stage once more and aim to become our next Philippine president.

On tennis, two of the greatest ever to wield Wilson rackets will turn 40 this 2021. Roger Federer turns 40 this Aug. 8 and Serena Williams turns 40 on Sept. 26. 

That’s “40-love” in tennis-speak.

Both are still active and will, possibly at Wimbledon this year, win another major.

Tiger Woods is 45. His back is 85 years old but that did not deprive the injury-plagued American from winning, back in 2019, The Masters. 

Golf is nowhere near as physical as American football or boxing — and so Tiger is still competing. He’s three majors shy of equaling Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.

LeBron James is NBA’s representative in this “Age doesn’t matter” contest. He’s 36 and has signed a contract near Hollywood that will extend until 2023. By then, his son Bronny will be eligible to play. When the father-and-son play alley-oops together, this means that King James will reign past the age of 40.

LBJ is a lover of fine wine. 

LeBron, like wine, gets better with time.

Donnie Nietes turns 39 this May 12. The world titlist at the 105, 108, 112 and 115-lb. divisions is still fighting. The longest-reigning Filipino boxing world champion has an event scheduled in Dubai this April. 

What’s the secret of these all-time greats?

Tom Brady Sr., the father-in-law of Gisele Bundchen, explains it best: 

“If what you’re doing is something that you really love, then why stop? …  That’s kind of what his (Tom’s) secret is. It’s not the Super Bowl, it’s the process. He loves every day working out, he loves every day eating right, he loves every day doing the TB12 method. He’s never put in minimums. He puts in maximums. He lives football.”

Thanks, Bubble

By definition, a bubble is supposed to burst. Merriam-Webster defines the word as “a globule typically hollow and light” and “something that lacks firmness, solidity.”

Not the NBA bubble. Not the barricaded confines of Walt Disney World in Florida where, for the past 87 days, ballplayers have been shuttered, their movements restricted. 

This bubble has not burst — and if not for this sealed and plugged habitat, we wouldn’t be enjoying the NBA Finals. 

The players are shut and suppressed from the outside world. They can’t see all their family members. They’re locked inside the 5-star hotel rooms of the Gran Destino Tower. They are unable to high-five fans and absorb the sweet sound of an overcrowded Staples Center.

But it works. And it’s the only way possible for sports to fully thrive. Consider this: for three months, I haven’t read a single report on a person who’s tested positive inside the Disney bubble. Last Aug. 17, for example, when most teams were still playing, a total of 342 players were tested and not one was positive. 

“If we could do everywhere what the NBA is doing in its bubble,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert, “we would get rid of the virus.”

Since the NBA resumed last July 30, we’ve been enjoying uninterrupted games. Like Aladdin’s theme song, “A Whole New World,” the NBA has adopted a new ad campaign, “It’s a Whole New Game.”

Thanks to the bubble — this confined campus where 7-footer giants roam and meander — we have forgotten about COVID-19 everytime we watch Tyler Herro throw a three-pointer or Jimmy Butler sink a 23-footer or AD slam dunk off a rebound like he did yesterday.

Why has this bubble worked?

First, the strictness and obedience. The NBA guidelines were spelled out in a 113-page health-and-safety booklet. Everyone is tested. Nobody goes out. The lockdown is so strict that every morning, players have to log-in to NBA MyHealth, an app where questions on wellness are asked. 

Second, the shortened season and fewer players.

“The NBA was already toward the end of its season when they resumed, so they were only trying to play a certain number of games, not a whole season,” says Miami Heat’s team physician, Dr. Harlan Selesnick. Per team, only 17 players were allowed with a total of 35, including staff and coaches.

The NBA bubble did not come cheap. The league will spend $170 million. Aside from feeding the players and staff and putting them to bed, there’s entertainment. Fishing was a favorite of Paul George. There’s golf at a PGA Tour-level course, plenty of video games and a pool party with a DJ.

The success of the NBA bubble is a perfect blueprint for our PBA. Now on its 45th season, the PBA plans a restart next Sunday, Oct. 11, in Clark, Pampanga. There will be one venue (Angeles University) and one hotel (Quest in Mimosa).

I believe the PBA bubble will work. They just need to follow the rules, be strict, comply with the guidelines, be obedient.

Like the NBA. Unlike Donald Trump.

Online Gaming

POGO stands for Philippine Offshore Gaming Operator. This is the infamous acronym for those companies engaged in online gambling for clients abroad. But there’s another meaning of POGO. One that I’ve just coined: Players Operating Games Online.

Since March, the world of sports has stopped. The NBA was the first major league to halt their games. This was three months ago yesterday — March 11 — when, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the games were suspended. Since then, all contests have been cancelled, none larger than the Tokyo Olympics.

But quietly — and that’s meant literally and figuratively, minus the boisterous and rambunctious fans — several sports have returned during this pandemic. They’re labeled online tournaments.

“Last May, some members of Dancesport-Team Cebu City made history after winning a silver and bronze medal in the first ever 1World Dance Online Competition organized in Italy,” wrote sports editor Manny Villaruel in The Freeman yesterday. “Real-life couple Shardie Abellana and Marjorie Pasaje, competing under lockdown in Alaska, Mambaling, snatched silver in the 35-under Latin-rumba dance, while Trixie Dicdican of Barangay Ermita got bronze in the under-13 lady-solo five event.”

Caecent Noot-Magsumbol, another fellow sportswriter from The Freeman, added in her article last May 19: “Just like in a regular dancesport competition, the participants had to undergo eliminations up to the semis and the finals with a set of adjudicators rating them carefully via Zoom.”

Zoom! You know this videotelephony company that’s being used by everyone. This software platform is also being used in the sports platform; by the judges who watch and score via Zoom.

“Despite the limited space and not dancing on a standard dancefloor,” Ms. Magsumbol said, “Abellana and Pasaje were still able to get the judges’ nod for a silver finish.” 

Manny Villaruel also wrote about the Smart/MVP Sports Foundation Online National Taekwondo Poomsae Championships. Over 1,000 jins participated and Cebu’s Aidaine Laxa won a silver medal.

Chess is another sport. Here at home, the Cebu School of Chess (CSC) and the Cebu Executives and Professionals Chess Association (CEPCA) have organized online tournaments.

Wesley So, ranked world No. 8, won the first-ever Clutch Chess online tilt in a big event joined by World No. 2 GM Fabiano Caruana. The 26-year-old So, born in Bacoor, Cavite but who now competes for the U.S., won $40,000. 

Zwift is a familiar name to cyclists. It’s an online program where cyclists can train and compete against each other in a virtual world. Since the lockdown, thousands of online events have sprouted — including several won by world champ Rohan Dennis.

Esports, naturally, is the biggest winner. With everyone imprisoned in their homes, the go-to device is the computer. The video game market, propelled by the COVID-19 lockdown, is forecast to hit $159 billion in 2020.

2020 Cebu Marathon

The date is “January 12, 2020.” That’s 133 days from today — the first day of the ‘Ber months. That’s also seven days before the grand Sinulog festival on Jan. 19, 2020. And it’s the morning when over 4,000 runners will pound the streets of Cebu City.

42K. 21K. 5K. Take your kilometer pick. Those are the distances that spell Marathon, Half-Marathon and 5-km. Fun Run.

Next weekend, from September 6 to 8, the registration of the 2020 Cebu Marathon will begin. It’s called “Race to Register.” It’s on a first-come, first-serve basis and the first 500 registrants will receive limited edition “In Training” Cebu Marathon shirts. The next 500 registrants will receive free movie passes from Ayala Center Cebu. This is all happening next weekend at the Active Zone of Ayala Center Cebu.

Registration fees are P1,400 for the half-marathon and P1,800 for the marathon. More details can be viewed at the Facebook page of the Cebu Marathon.

Only those who line-up and register onsite (at the Active Zone) will be eligible to receive the free items. (To make sure that the correct sizes are distributed to the early-bird registrants, the shirts will be ready for pick-up next month, in October.)

What’s new for 2020? The route is both new and old. For those who joined the inaugural 2010 marathon dubbed “01-10-10,” you may recall that the route included the iconic sights of the Magellan’s Cross and Plaza Independencia. The marathoners also descended into the tunnel and ran along the South Road Properties. The SRP was the main route in 2010 and for a good number of years until a few years ago when it was disallowed.

For 2020, the SRP is back. The full details will be announced soon but the planned route will be exciting. Let me reserve the surprise of the “old and new” course when this is formally announced in the coming weeks.

The Sinulog-themed entertainment will once again motivate the runners. Dancers will dance. Loud music will pump the ears and hearts. Drinks will overflow.

Why run the marathon? I am blessed to have completed six of these 42K runs (Singapore, Quezon City, Jacksonville, Cebu, New York, and Hong Kong) and they are some of the most painful yet fulfilling experiences of my life. Ask a friend who has finished the 42.195-km. distance and they’ll share with you their own memorable experiences.

The 42K run is an outrageous goal to accomplish; one that you’ll be proud to tell your grandkids in the future.

But I also caution: it’s not for everyone. First, have yourself thoroughly examined; the best is an Executive Check with a treadmill stress test. Second, if you don’t have the mileage, don’t do it. Not yet. Unless you’ve completed multiple 21Ks, you might not be ready for January. But if you’ve been a regular runner, then make sure to register this Friday.

As the runner Susan Sidoriak aptly put it: “I dare you to train for a marathon and not have it change your life.”

FIBA World Cup

Like the Olympics, the FIBA Basketball World Cup is held every four years. This Saturday (Aug. 31), the 16-day tournament begins in eight cities around China.

A total of 32 countries will contest this event which started in Argentina in 1950. The qualified nations include 7 from the Americas, 5 from Africa, 12 from Europe, and 8 from Asia and Oceania, including our Philippines.

The FIBA World Cup is important to our nation not only because we’re participating but because we’ll be co-hosting in 2023. Together with Indonesia and Japan, the 19th edition will come to our shores in four venues: Philippine Arena, MOA Arena, Philsports Arena, and Araneta Coliseum. (Had Cebu started construction of the SM Seaside Arena a few years ago, we’d be one of the hosts. Sayang!)

For China 2019, this is the first time that the world’s most populous nation is hosting. There will be 92 games played and this event also serves as a qualifying tournament for the 2020 Tokyo Games, with seven nations gaining direct entry to next year’s Olympics.

With our own Gilas Pilipinas, who will be flying to China today, it’s our second straight trip to the World Cup (last time was in Spain). We are in Group D together with Serbia, Italy and Angola and we’re playing in the city of Foshan in Guangdong. The format is round-robin and the top two teams of each group will advance.

This Saturday when the FIBA World Cup commences, we play our first game against Italy. Game time is 7:30 p.m. (Phil. time) and Pres. Rodrigo Duterte is expected to watch.

“We feel that’s our most important game – the Italy game,” said Gilas head coach Yeng Guiao. “So all our resources in terms of scouting, in terms of time has been focused on that.”

To qualify for Round 2 — given that Serbia will be too difficult for us — Gilas needs to beat Italy, who’ll be led by Marco Belinelli, Danilo Gallinari and Luigi Datome.

USA. The biggest sporting news erupted last week when Team USA lost to Australia, 98-94. Although it was non-bearing, nobody wants to lose, and the Americans had not lost an official or exhibition game (involving NBA players) since Sept. 2006.

How dominant are (or were) the Americans in basketball? In the 2014 FIBA World Cup, they won their nine games by an average margin of 33 points. Of course, that squad included Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis.

This 2019, Team USA has.. Myles Turner, Joe Harris, and Derrick White. Who? This is obviously the most star-lacking US team in recent history.

Which will make China 2019 exciting and competitive. There’s Nikola Jokic of Serbia (whom the Philippines will be facing on Sept. 2). There are the Antetokounmpo brothers Giannis and Thanasis of Greece. Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio are representing Spain. More than 50 NBA players are competing.

“We’ve learned,” said the USA’s Donovan Mitchell, “that this is going to be a dogfight.”

Let the China games begin.

Roger, Rafa and Novak

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are their family names and no triumvirate in all of sports has been as dominant.

How commanding has been the Big Three’s supremacy?

Since the 2003 Wimbledon Championships, the trio has triumphed in 53 of the 64 majors. That’s a success rate of 83 percent. And aren’t there hundreds of millions of tennis players worldwide? All of whom can do the same: smash a forehand and slice a backhand? And only three have snatched almost every Grand Slam trophy in the past 16 years? Yes, yes, yes.

If we include Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray (who’ve both won three majors apiece), they have won 57 of the last 60 majors. And other than those five names, only three others (Marin Cilic, Gaston Gaudio and Juan Martin del Potro) have won a major title in the past 15 years.

“Rafa takes care of the clay there. Novak is in every Masters 1000 on hard court. I float around,” said Roger Federer in an interview last month. “You add Murray to it, Stan to it, guys that made their move later on, del Potro to it, you realise there’s not that much to get.”

Roger’s right. Whatever happened to Zverev, Thiem, Nishikori, Raonic, Kyrgios and the dozens of other Next-Gen players who were promoted to replace the oldies?

For the Big 3, their reign may be termed by various words: Dominance. Longevity. Excellence. Roger, 38 years old, Rafa (33) and Novak (32) are three of the greatest ever athletes who’ve wielded a tennis racket.

Federer owns 20 majors. Nadal has 18. Djokovic lurks with 16.

Which brings us to the Grand Slam event to be played in New York City starting tomorrow and for the next two weeks: the US Open.

I hope Roger collects his sixth crown in NYC. Given how he lost Wimbledon (by squandering those two match points to Novak), it would be a fitting redemption for him to win. But this may be unlikely. Because…

Rafa Nadal has the momentum. He won the last major (Roland Garros) and the Montreal Masters 1000 two weeks ago. He’s favored to add a fourth trophy to add to his wins in 2010, 2013 and 2017.

But among the three, it’s the Serbian world number one who’s the likeliest winner. The defending champ, the 32-year-old Djokovic has won four of the last five majors. And on hard-courts, it’s hard to bet against the man who’s accumulated over $135 million in prize money.

My choice? None of the above. I hope a Stefanos Tsitsipas or Daniil Medvedev or Karen Khachanov wins the US Open. As the saying goes: Give chance to others..

 

Trash Talk

Basketball is as American as cheeseburgers, Donald Trump, baseball and Apple’s iPhone, right? Not exactly. Basketball is Canadian-invented.

James Naimsmith, born in Ontario, Canada in 1861, was the P.E. teacher who invented the game of basketball. Thus, it’s fitting that the NBA champions this year come from…

Canada? Why not. Out of the NBA’s 30 teams, all but one is not U.S.-based. And that one might be No. 1.

Given how the Toronto Raptors dominated the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 and given how Drake and his 37-million strong fellow Canadians are praying that Kevin Durant’s injury doesn’t completely heal this June, what seemed an impossibility is now possible.

Canada might win its first NBA title. Game 2 tomorrow is the most crucial 48 minutes of this series. If Klay and Steph combine for 70 and Draymond seeks revenge from Drake’s hurtful words and records another triple-double and Igoudala is free of his calf injury and contributes tomorrow for a Golden State win, then the basketball planets will be aligned and will rotate back to its original axis. The Warriors will win, 4-2.

But if Toronto rouses Kyle Lowry from his sleep (he only had seven points in Game 1) and Kawhi scores 35 (compared to the measly 23) and Justin Trudeau is up 2-0 versus Donald Trump, then it’s advantage Raptors.

“I don’t think we played our ‘A’ game,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr of Game 1. “I think that’s obvious.”

What we witnessed was a rusty Warriors. Maybe it was the nine-days-off from their last game (three days of which were taken off completely). Maybe it was the quickness of the Raptors. (“They definitely have a lot of speed,” said Draymond Green.) The Warriors’ 17 turnovers didn’t help.

Most of all, Durant’s presence was sorely missed, despite them previously scoring a 5-0 record without him.

More on KD’s injury: I experienced the same pain while playing basketball five years ago. I was my fellow Brotherhood of Christian Businessmen and Professionals (BCBP) members in Bright Academy and, as I turned to sprint to the opposite court, I felt a sharp kick in my calf. Someone had kicked me! I looked around and nobody did. I hobbled. Good thing that I was able to see Dr. Tony San Juan, our top sports doctor, within hours after I writhed in pain. I had to stop running for months.

It’s been one month since Durant’s calf strain and the final outcome of this series might depend on KD’s return. (Sources have said that he’ll probably be back in time for Game 4.)

As for all this “trash talk,” the NBA and the Philippines have got something in common. While Canada’s trash — all 69 containers of garbage — were shipped back to Vancouver from Manila the other day, Drake and Draymond were having their own trash-talking. This verbal tussle did not start during the NBA Finals. It began last year when, as host of the NBA Finals, the Toronto-born Drake roasted Draymond Green’s attire when the latter won the Defensive Player of the Year award. Check out the YouTube video.

Rafael Nadal: King of Clay

(Photo by Thomas Samson/AFP)

 

Here in Cebu, majority of our tennis courts are clay courts. Unlike volleyball or golf or basketball where, anywhere you play around the world, the court surface hardly varies, in tennis, it’s different.

Grass. Hard court. Shell. Artificial turf. Clay. Tennis offers a variety of surfaces. But here in the Queen City of the South, our predominant surface is clay. The reason: clay (hardened “anapog”) is softer on our knees and you’re less prone to leg injuries.

On clay, there is one human being who is the undisputed heavyweight champion.

He turns 33 on June 3, hails from the resort island of Mallorca, and is scheduled to get married to his long-time girlfriend Xisca Perello this October.

Rafa. That simple nickname will evoke despair and anxiety among his ATP counterparts when the only Grand Slam event played on clay begins today.

The 6-foot-1, 187-lb. Spaniard owns an unbelievable 86 wins out of 88 matches at the French Open. That’s a 97.72 percent winning clip.

On his first attempt to play on Paris’ red clay back in 2005, he hoisted the trophy. Same on his second try. And on the third and fourth. Of the multiple trips that he’s ventured inside Stade Roland Garros, he’s only lost twice: to Robin Soderling (2009) and Novak Djokovic (2016). Rafael Nadal owns 11 Roland Garros trophies.

Last week, after he won the Italian Open in Rome (Nadal’s first 2019 title), the overwhelming favorite in France is the Spaniard. But there are two others that I consider as strong contenders.

Novak Djokovic has won the last three majors (Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open). In that last slam in Melbourne, he humiliated Nadal in a quick 3-setter that lasted a mere 124 minutes. Djokovic has extra motivation in Paris: he’ll be aiming for the “Djoker Slam” — winning four straight majors.

Dominic Thiem is the third contender. At the French Open, he reached the finals last year (handily losing to Nadal) and the semis in 2016 and 2017. He has also beaten Nadal (on clay) four times.

My pick in Paris? The answer is obvious. I’ve always been a huge Rafa fan. His relentless all-out effort on court coupled with his smiling and good-natured attitude off the court makes him a global sports ambassador. Much like Roger Federer — who’ll be making a comeback after skipping the red clay for the last three years.

Rafa and Roger can meet in the semis. They’re both in the lower half of the draw together with another rising star, the Greek 6-foot-4 with the style and one-handed prowess of Federer. He’s Stefanos Tsitsipas.

At the upper half of the draw are Djokovic and Thiem plus a slew of strong (and tall, both 6-foot-6) players, Alexander Zverev and Juan Martin del Potro.

But the Spaniard aiming for his 12th title in Paris is the odds-on choice.

“I think Rafa Nadal is the huge favourite,” said Dominic Thiem, “and then after that, there are also five, six players who can win the tournament. So it’s gonna be very interesting two weeks.”