A set shy of history

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

Oh, so close.

Alex Eala came within a set of making history, losing to Argentina’s Julia Riera, 6-4, 6 (3)-7, 4-6 in the final round of the French Open qualifying tournament.

In the previous round, the 18-year-old dropped the first set against Taylah Preston of Australia before completing a stunning comeback after being down 2-4 in the last set, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5. This set up the match with world No. 93 Riera. Had Eala prevailed, she would have been the first homegrown player to qualify for the main draw of a Grand Slam event.

So far, the main draw of any of the majors has eluded local talent: the Australian Open in January; the French Open in May; Wimbledon in June and the US Open in August. The Slams offer the toughest competition, the most rankings points, and the biggest prize money. Winning all four in one year is considered the highest accomplishment for a tennis player. In 1988,  after tennis was declared an open sport, Steffi Graf won all four events and an Olympic gold medal for what was called a Golden Slam.

Why has it been so challenging for Filipino athletes to get within a whiff of a Grand Slam main draw? There are a few factors.

Travel is the first constant, and greatest expense. In season, you hop from one tournament to another almost weekly, depending on which tournaments offer the most strategic advantage. However, flights, hotel rooms and supplies also pile up. This limits those who can do it to the economically capable. This is the single biggest limiting factor.

Training is another tough hurdle. Connected to travel, even if you have the best training available locally, if you are unable to consistently play against an international field, you won’t be able to grow as a player, get tougher or familiarize yourself with your inevitable competition. Also, your doubles game will suffer from playing against a limited selection of opponents.

Environment is also a key factor. Aside from being benefited by family and a support team, you have to contend with the constant changes around you. A pro tennis player needs to adapt to the time zones, food, water,  playing surfaces, practice schedules, and other ournament requirements. It can be draining, and takes time to get used to.

The Rafa Nadal academy student is on the right track, and her constant improvement is encouraging. We have no doubt that Alex will break through to one of the Grand Slams sooner rather than later.

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