‘I fought with my heart,’ says Alex Eala, first PH ace to win Grand Slam
FLUSHING MEADOWS, New York — They came from almost everywhere to catch a glimpse of one of their own.
One fan, who flew in from Los Angeles, scurried to purchase tickets to the US Open Girls Singles final when she found out a fellow Filipino would battle for the crown.
For them, for her family, and for her country, Alex Eala put on a show.
And after dismissing girls world No. 3 Lucie Havlickova of the Czech Republic, 6-2, 6-4, on Saturday here, Eala apologetically sought the indulgence of the on-court emcee so she could speak in Filipino.
“This victory is not only mine but ours,” she tearfully told the crowd after thanking her family, coaches, and fans.
There were a few welling eyes in the crowd as well.
Eala flaunted a stronger game en route to becoming the first Filipino to win a Singles Grand Slam trophy. With steadier serves than the last time she was here, Eala also showed remarkable fitness as she battled both her opponent and the brutal New York summer heat.
“I think both of us were tired,” she later said during the press conference. “It’s normal in a final match. We’re not going to be fresh.”
Eala strung five masterful games to take the first set against the Czech, but she had quite a battle in her hands in the second set after Havlickova took a 4-3 lead.
“I think she did hold out really well, especially in the second set,” she said of her foe, who played a total of three matches on Friday.
But Eala went back a break up at 5-4 to get the chance to serve for the championship.
“I just tried to focus on every point and visualize what I was going to do,” said the scholar of the Rafael Nadal Academy in Spain who idolizes the 22-time Grand Slam Spanish champion and channeled him all week.
“The biggest thing I notice in Rafa is how he fights till the end, how his thoughts are so clear. He’s so calm, but at the same time so fired up. I think I really tried to channel that energy during this whole week,” Eala said.
“That’s also what I tried to show [to] people who look up to me, to think with a clear head and to not act irrationally.”
Having regained momentum, Eala backed Havlickova into a 40-15 hole and converted championship points after the tournament second seed slapped a backhand low into the net.
The Filipino crowd on the court whooped it up.
After the trophy presentation, the group came together and the Inquirer asked if anyone had a Philippine flag. Someone unfurled a huge one and Eala graciously posed with it and the crowd.
“It’s very overwhelming right now. But I think this is a huge step for me personally as well. I’m super happy to represent my country and do something with a big platform, being able to inspire other younger people,” she said.
Hearing Eala ask permission to speak in her native tongue certainly speaks of the patriotism in the 17-year-old, whose parents have sacrificed a lot to allow her to play the game at the highest level possible.
Her mother, the former Rizza Maniego, was also an ex-national athlete, doing track and field for the Philippines.
“I also said that I fought with my heart for this trophy,” Eala said. “I did this not just for myself, I did it so that I could help Philippine tennis.”
Pursuing her dream
No Filipino before her made it past the semifinals of a Grand Slam event.
Felix Barrientos, the enigmatic baseliner who was the mainstay of numerous Davis Cup squads, made the Final Four of Wimbledon in 1985, only to run into a methodical Mexican machine in Eduardo Velez to lose, 7-6, 6-0. Velez would go on to win the crown against his countryman Leonardo Lavalle, 6-4, 6-4.
Things were looking up for Philippine tennis after that, before politics reared its ugly head and put the local federation in turmoil with power struggle the main fare.
The country has never had anyone flaunt the talent worthy of the global stage since then.
Until Eala came into the picture and took the sacrifice to be away from family so that she could pursue her dream. This kind of dream.
“I would say the biggest obstacle is probably being away from my family,” she said. “And many other things a lot of other tennis players go through.”
“But the key was to be surrounded by good people and people that I look up to—[to] guide me the right way,” she added.
Eala’s victory follows a string of international successes for the country carved out with girl power.
Golfer Yuka Saso touched that off with a victory in the US Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco in June 2021 where she was also followed by a horde of her countrymen. Saso became the first Filipino to win a golfing major for the Philippines.
After representing the Philippines in the Tokyo Olympics a few months after, the convenience of holding a Japanese passport prompted Yuka to adopt her father Masakasi Saso’s land of birth.
Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz contributed to the streak next when she won the country’s first Olympics gold medal, defeating her Chinese opponent to end a wait that spanned almost a century. —CONTRIBUTED
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