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Eala makes history

Alex Eala made history on Saturday, becoming the first Filipino to win a Grand Slam singles event in tennis following a 6-2, 6-4 win over last year’s double champion Czech Lucie Havlickova in the US Open girls’ championship at Flushing Meadows in New York City.

While most Filipinos were fast asleep back home, the 17-year-old Filipina was up on her feet, pounding away returns with authority as she outplayed the No. 2 seed in 68 minutes without dropping a serve.

Havlickova had no answer to Eala’s effective game plan as she was broken thrice in the match.

Facing double match points, the Czech netted her backhand return as Eala screamed in jubilation, dropped her racket, and shook hands with her opponent.

Fighting off tears, she rushed to the stands to celebrate with her parents Michael and Rizza, brother Miko and Adrien Vaseux, her coach at the Rafa Nadal Academy.

During the tearful trophy presentation, Eala spoke in Filipino and shared the victory with the nation.

Buong puso ko itong ipinaglaban hindi lang para sa sarili ko kundi para makatulong din ako sa kinabukasan ng Philippine tennis. So hindi lang ‘to panalo ko, panalo natin lahat,” Eala said.

The young prodigy thanked her parents without their support she would have not reached this far.

Maraming salamat din sa lahat ng nagdasal at nagsuporta sa akin,” she said, citing Globe, Babolat and her team at the Rafa Nadal Academy.

Huge shot in the arm

The victory is seen as a big boost to tennis whose popularity at home has waned over the years, largely due to ineffective leadership and the absence of stars to inspire the young.

Enter Alex Eala.

Not since Felix Barrientos reached the semifinals of the boys’ singles in 1985 has a Filipino tennis player captivated a nation with her skills and youthful exuberance.

Her arrival comes at a time Philippine tennis is at a standstill after being served a two-year ban by the International Tennis Federation in 2020 over an unresolved leadership tug-of-war.

The sanction effectively barred the Filipinos from Davis Cup, Federation Cup, and other team competitions sanctioned by the ITF.

Add the waning interest of Filipinos and the lack of tournaments back home, Philippine tennis is at its lowest ebb.

Eala’s victory statement is seen as a reflection of the frustration of Filipino players over the prolonged crisis.

Last-minute decision

After focusing on pro tournaments this season, Eala made a last-minute decision to join the Grand Slam event for sentimental reasons.

New York holds a special place for her and her family.

Eala’s grandparents, Frankie and Melinda, met and fell in love in the Big Apple. They lived in NY for 15 years before they moved back to Manila, according to Eala’s father.

“This city means a lot to my family, and we do have a lot of family here,” Alex said after her 6-3, 6-0 win over Canada’s Annabelle Xu in the first round. “But I was pretty surprised today how many Filipinos were out here cheering for me. It was so great.”

The rise of Eala

Eala’s success is part of her journey to become one of the sport’s elite stars, a dream she nurtured when she joined the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, Spain as a scholar four years ago.

“She’s played very well and has been very open-minded about being coached,” said Vaseux, one of Eala’s two coaches. “The experience she’s had with pro tournaments has helped her so much.”

Karl Santamaria, her Filipino mentor, said Eala has already displayed a great attitude, focus, and competitive spirit at an early age.

“The discipline and work ethic were nurtured by their lolo Bob who had trained Eala’s mother as a young swimmer who saw action in the Southeast Asian Games,” said Santamaria who is now based in Melbourne.

A cut above the rest

Seasoned by months of campaigning in the professional tour, Eala did not drop a single set in the tournament.

After disposing of Xu, Eala ousted Nina Vargova, 6-2, 6-3, and Taylah Preston, 6-2, 70-6, to reach the quarterfinals.

She made short work of doubles partner Mirra Andreeva, 6-4, 6-0, and advanced into the final after a 6-1, 7-6 triumph over Victorio Mboko.

Eala came into the final as an underdog against Havlickova who won the singles and doubles titles last year.

She was challenged early and had to save a break point to hold serve in the fourth game of the first set.

Eala started to assert herself in the fifth game and broke the Czech’s serve.

She held serve at love in the next game and got a chance to serve out the set when she again broke Havlickova in the seventh to take a 5-2 lead.

Eala wrapped up the set following a backhand service return error.

Eala and Havlickova traded service breaks in the first two games of the second set.

Following lengthy rallies, the next four games went according to serve until Eala converted the first of two break points.

Havlickova continued to be hounded by unforced errors, handing Eala the historic victory by sending her backhand return into the net.

Bright future ahead

The latest success gave Eala her third Grand Slam trophy, having won the doubles titles in the 2020 Australian Open with Priska Madelyn Nugroho and the 2021 French Open with Oksana Selekhmeteva.

Santamaria believes Eala has more to offer in the future.

“Her forehand and serve have improved a lot. She has learned how to be professional at the highest level and experienced playing day in and day out with world-class players in Europe in practices and tournaments,” he said.

“Just being in a world-class environment and having amazing people around her has allowed her to keep improving and hopefully fulfill her dreams.”

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