It took just three years, and it was sweet. This time, no one will be in any position to ask the Filipino tennis sensation Alexandra “Alex” Eala whether she’d ever win a Grand Slam singles title.
Last Sept. 4, the 17-year-old lefty claimed her first junior Grand Slam singles title at the 2022 US Open, becoming the first player from the Philippines to pull it off.
Eala burst into the Grand Slam scene in 2019. Then 14, the Rafa Nadal Tennis Academy protégé was able to advance to the second round of the US Open. She returned in 2021, and managed to reach the quarterfinals.
A singles title kept eluding her. Yet success came easily in the doubles competition. Eala and her Indonesian partner Priska Nugroho raised the junior Australian Open trophy in January 2020. The following year, she and her Russian partner Oksana Selekhmeteva claimed the 2021 French Open juniors doubles title.
And now, she has achieved what no other Filipino has done in singles.
The only other Filipino who comes close to Eala’s feat is tennis great Felix Barrientos who, in 1985, made the semifinals of the boys’ singles at Wimbledon. His feat was equalled only in 2021 by no other than Eala when she reached the semis of the US Open girls’ singles.
‘With all my heart’
At Court 11 of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City, Eala acknowledged the weight of her victory, which marks a major tennis milestone for her country. She spoke in Filipino, thanking first her family who, she said, made her triumph possible, and then her sponsors, as well as the Rafa Nadal Tennis Academy where she has been a scholar since 2018.
She said she fought for the title “with all my heart,” not just for her own self but also to allow her to help mold the future of Philippine tennis. She added that her victory was not hers alone, but also a victory “for all of us.”
Her family, fans and supporters in New York and elsewhere took pride in hearing Filipino spoken by the victor at the US Open: “Unang-una gusto ko lang magpasalamat sa pamilya ko kasi kung hindi dahil sa kanila, hindi ko talaga kakayanin. Buong puso ko ‘tong ipinaglaban, hindi lang para sa sarili ko kundi para makatulong din ako sa kinabukasan ng Philippine tennis. Hindi lang ‘to panalo ko, panalo natin lahat.”
The path to victory has not been easy for Eala, who continuously trains at the Rafa Nadal Tennis Academy on the island of Mallorca in Spain. Born in Quezon City in the Philippines, she had to move to Spain, away from her family, to focus on improving her game under the tutelage of academy coach Daniel Gómez.
She took up the sport when she was only 4 years old. In tournaments where she competed, her talent and skill drew the attention of the scouts of the academy where, in 2021, she received an international junior player grant from the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
She was one of 15 players who received support from the ITF’s grants program in that year. The grant enables eligible players to receive up to $25,000 per season to help defray their training costs.
“It’s a huge, huge help … for me, and I’m sure for other players as well,” Eala said of the grant.
Indeed, these grants are heaven-sent for players who have only their family and few sponsors to support them. Tennis is not a “cheap” sport; it requires, among other things, constant travel to other countries to gain experience and hone skills in competitions.
In 2020, the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) had to publicly apologize for its erroneous claim that it gave Eala a P3-million travel fund plus another P1.5 million to supposedly cover six tournaments. The claim, which the PSC had posted online, caused a stir and was vehemently denied by Eala’s parents, Michael and Rizza Eala, in separate posts on Facebook.
The commission retracted its claim, saying it was “unintended misinformation.”
But with or without additional financial support, expect the young tennis champion to continue her professional tours in the coming months. By next year, she no longer has the option to compete in junior tournaments. It won’t matter as she is now ready for bigger achievements.
With her steely nerves and crisp backhands, Alex Eala appears set to lift her first women’s Grand Slam singles trophy.