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Advantage, Alcantara

The country’s first and only tennis Grand Slam champ blazes a US trail for young tennis aces
/ 01:12 AM December 18, 2016
Francis Casey ALCANTARA. Photo from ITFTennis.com

Francis Casey ALCANTARA. Photo from ITFTennis.com

Francis Casey Alcantara knew he had stumbled into something big when he won the Australian Open juniors championships in 2009.

He was aware that college coaches in the United States usually go to Grand Slam events to scout for young talents. And spot on, his stunning march to victory in the Grand Slam doubles—in partnership with Chinese Taipei’s Cheng Peng-hsieh —got their attention.

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“I knew right away that I would have a school to go to in America,” says Alcantara, “and my dreams were about to take shape.”

The power-hitting Davis Cupper and former protégé of Philippine Tennis Academy snagged a scholarship at Fresno University in Division 1 of the US NCAA. After a few semesters, he transferred and eventually finished a communications degree last year at Pepperdine University.

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Topnotch tennis brought forth better education and Alcantara can only thank his dad for that. “Before my dad passed away—I was 10 then—he introduced me to the sport,” he says. “All he wanted was for me to get a tennis scholarship in Manila so that the family wouldn’t have to pay for my education.”

Now 24 and campaigning in the international pro circuit, where he is ranked 924th, he blazed a trail for young Filipinos seeking US scholarships while playing the sport they love. He mentions Bryan Otico and Khim Iglupas, both 18, as among the local aces who could follow in his footsteps.

“Bryan and Khim are perfect candidates,” says Alcantara, who comes from an underprivileged family in Cagayan de Oro City. “We all came from Mindanao and have almost the same family background.”

Iglupas hails from Iligan City and is the country’s top junior player with several International Tennis Federation (ITF) titles under her belt—an achievement not lost on several US schools. “She’s still in high school but she can choose from at least six [US] schools next year,” says PTA program director Andy Maglipon. “As much as possible we’ll help her choose a good university.”

The ranked No. 104 among the world’s junior girls, Iglupas won the recent Phinma-PSC international crown.

But Alcantara says that unlike Iglupas, Otico has tougher road ahead. “It’s harder for the boys to get a US scholarship,” he says. “Bryan needs to do well in tournaments next year to get offers.”

Another prime candidate is Arthur Craig Pantino, a 16-year-old, Leyte-born player from Cebu City who will be part of the the country’s ITF team in India from Dec. 30 to Jan. 21. The 5-foot-8 ace campaigned in the 14-under ITF division two years ago and went on to play in several European tournaments.

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Still others are fortunate enough to be able to afford school and play internationally at the same time.

Alberto Lim Jr. comes to mind. A winner of several ITF titles overseas who now sees action in higher-rated ITF Futures tournaments, Lim boasts of a set of sponsors. The 17-year-old Tarlaqueño left school last year to concentrate on tennis where he is now ranked No. 45 among the world’s juniors from a spot as high as No. 12.

Then there is 11-year-old Alexandra Eala, who is slowly making a name for herself in the international circuit, having reached the quarterfinals of the Eddie Herr International in Florida recently. “We are lucky that the school supports her schedule [of tournaments],” says Alexandra’s father, Mike Eala. “Right now she’s preparing for the Junior Orange Bowl on Dec. 14.”

The country’s top 12- and 14-under girl, Alexandra started in tennis at age five, inspired by his brother Michael Francis, himself the top Filipino 14-under player. The sixth grader from Colegio San Agustin is coached by her grandfather Bob Maniego.

“What we notice about her is her attitude to excel; she gives her all when she chooses to do something,” says the elder Eala, himself a former player.

Says Alcantara: “We have so many good players in the country right now but we need to support, trust and invest in them. It’s not going to come easy; it’s going to be a long and bumpy ride for the players.”

Well said from someone who had gone through it all.

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