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Born to be a star


Alex Eala’s historic conquest of the US Open wasn’t because of sheer luck or miracle.

It was the fruit of long years of hard work, determination, perseverance, guidance from her parents, and faith in herself.

Eala’s paternal uncle — Philippine Sports Commission chairperson Jose Emmanuel “Noli” Eala — revealed that the 17-year-old prized netter patiently worked her way up and spent long hours in training just to make herself better.

In fact, she often arrives at their family reunions fresh from either a tournament or training session with her parents — Mike and Rizza — introducing her as the country’s future tennis sensation.

“I wasn’t surprised when she finally won the US Open. She was born to be a star,” Noli said in a lengthy interview with Daily Tribune on a bright Sunday morning — a few hours after Eala stole the limelight with a historic victory in the junior event of the US Open at Court 11 of USTA Billie Jean King Center in Flushing Meadows, New York.

“I can’t recall a family reunion where her parents didn’t introduce her as the country’s next tennis sensation. She was primed to become a tennis superstar through hard work, determination and guidance from Mike and Rizza.”

It didn’t take long for Eala to reap the fruit of her hard work.

Eala displayed a 68-minute masterclass to beat world No. 3 Lucie Havlikova of Czech Republic, 6-2, 6-4, in the final to emerge as the first Filipino to win a Grand Slam singles title.

The Rafael Nadal Tennis Academy scholar bucked a 1-2 start in the opening set, winning five straight games to draw the first blood against Havlickova that allowed her to dictate the momentum entering the second set.

Havlickova started hot and took a 4-3 lead but Eala displayed tremendous maturity and grace under pressure in the next three games where she led 40-15 in the last and 10th game before the Czech lost the championship match with a backhand unforced error.

Prior to the title duel, Eala had a flawless performance as she didn’t drop a single set in beating Annabelle Xu of Canada, Nina Vargova of Slovakia, and Taylah Preston of Australia in the first three rounds before eliminating her doubles partner Mirra Andreeva of Russia in the semifinals.

“Even at such a young age, we already predicted that Alex will someday become one of the world’s best tennis players,” Noli, who stayed up late to cheer for his niece, added.

“Now it’s coming to reality. Her hard work is finally paying off.”

Although hard work truly plays a key role to Eala’s success, Noli still refused to discount the possibility that it could also be part of the destiny of Philippine sports.

After all, the king-sized victory came exactly 11 days after his appointment as chairman of the government sports agency.

“Our fates must have been intertwined. She won the Grand Slam shortly after I became the PSC chairman,” Noli added.

“But whatever it is, this is truly an auspicious start for my chairmanship at the PSC. It opened our eyes to the fact that we can produce great athletes who can achieve great things if we encourage and support them.”

Noli reiterated that his niece’s success wasn’t an overnight process.

“She is a product of a grassroots program. She started competing at the age-group and club levels until she left for Spain for elite training and more serious competitions,” he said.

“Alex presents a perfect model: Start them young, get them interested, encourage and boost them with all-out support, elite training, coaching and competition. If only we can replicate this model, I’m sure we can produce more champions in the future.”

Noli said he was teary-eyed seeing Eala pick up the microphone to thank her family, friends and supporters who trooped all the way to New York to cheer for her.

Her speech was short and simple, but it definitely made a mark because she delivered it in Filipino.

“Buong puso ko itong pinaglaban hindi lamang para sa sarili ko kung hindi para makatulong din ako sa kinabukasan ng Philippine tennis,” Eala said.

“Hindi lang ito panalo ko — panalo natin ito.”

The PSC chief admitted that hearing his niece, who has been living, studying and training in Spain for the past five years, speak in Filipino while waving the national colors for the world to see is truly a proud moment.

“I got goosebumps watching her speak in Filipino. I was teary-eyed. She proudly showed the world that she is a Filipino,” said Noli, discounting the possibility of Eala changing his citizenship similar to what woodpusher Wesley So and golfer Yuka Saso did in the past.

“She grew up here and got accustomed to our culture, tradition and values. She will always be a Filipino.”

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