MANILA – Facing a Wimbledon semifinalist, qualifying for a WTA main draw for the first time, and practicing with a US Open champion are just some of the Thailand Open highlights of teen sensation Alexandra “Alex” Eala of the Philippines.
“It was a great experience, overall. I had a lot of fun, actually, playing somewhere at least near home. I don’t get to do that a lot, so that made it all the more special,” the 17-year-old reigning US Open Juniors singles winner told ABS-CBN News in an exclusive post-match chat at the True Arena Hua Hin Sports Club.
“And there’s a lot of things that I tried to overcome here especially after the rough, I would say rough start of the year in Australia. So overall, I’m really happy with how the week went,” added Eala, who was ousted in the qualifying second round of the W60 Canberra ITF tilt and qualifying first round of the Australian Open last month.
In the Thai seaside town of Hua Hin, the two-time ITF women’s singles champion lost in the opening round, 2-6, 2-6, against 35-year-old German and 2022 Wimbledon semifinalist Tatjana Maria.
“I think it was a great experience for me. I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy seeing that she’s the Wimbledon semifinalist. But there are a lot of things that I know I need to work on and maybe next time if I ever get a chance to play her again, then it will be better,” said the World No. 217 Eala.
Maria, the No. 6 seed ranked 63rd in the world last week, ended her Thailand Open run as a quarterfinalist, with the two-time WTA singles champion losing in straight sets to eventual runner-up Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine.
Despite her early exit, Eala was thrilled to reach the main draw of a WTA tournament as a qualifier since her previous four WTA appearances were courtesy of wild cards.
She was a main draw wildcard in the 2021 Winners Open in Romania and 2022 Miami Open in the United States, and a qualifying wild card recipient in the 2021 Miami Open and 2022 Madrid Open in Spain.
“This is the first time I got into the main draw of a [WTA] 250 through the qualifying so it feels all the more rewarding because I had to fight for my spot there,” she said after overcoming Chinese World No. 898 Xinyun Han, 6-1, 7-6(6), and Belarusian World No. 234 Kristina Dmitruk, 6-2, 7-5.
Ahead of competing as the No. 4 qualifying seed in Thailand, Eala took part in a practice session with 2019 US Open titlist and former World No. 4 Bianca Andreescu of Canada, who finished as a semifinalist in Thailand.
It wasn’t the first time for Eala to trade shots with a grand slam champion as she got to practice with Iga Swiatek of Poland at the 2021 Miami Open.
“It’s always a great experience for me to practice against these grand slam champions. I try to make the most out of it whenever I have these opportunities because, of course, they’re very experienced and they’ve been on the tour for so long,” she shared.
“And I just take it as a good opportunity to learn and to see where my level is at, you know, assess myself. And of course, even though it’s challenging, just remember that they’re another player as well.”
Eala also praised the tournament’s “great organization,” adding that it was “very professional and a great environment to be in. It makes the tennis fun at the end of the day.”
Adding fun to her Thailand Open run was the presence of a few Filipinos who went to the True Arena Hua Hin Sports Club to show their support.
Among those who watched Eala’s qualifying second-round match on Centre Court were Antonio Dinoy, Jr. and Jeanette Pactolin.
“Galing po kami sa Bangkok. Nag-travel lang kami to cheer Alex,” said Dinoy, who took three hours by land to reach Hua Hin.
“So happy for her. Of course, super excited and super happy but I wasn’t too excited because I can see from the start, she’s very comfortable and she’s dominating the game,” commented Pactolin, who is also based in the Thai capital.
Two days later, a small group of Filipinos, who brought printouts of Philippine flags plus a “Go Alex Eala!!!” sign, watched the Eala versus Maria match on Court 1.
“I play tennis but I’m not as good as Alex. So I’ve been watching her since the US Open and I’m very proud and happy when she won the US Open Junior division. Good luck to her and I wish her well. She has a very bright future ahead,” said Hua Hin-based Marvi Rose Macalalad.
“Lots of Filipinos play tennis and we’re very, very proud that one of our countrymen is excelling in this sport,” she added of the former ITF Juniors World No. 2 Eala, who became the highest ranked Filipino in WTA history in October with a career-best World No. 214 ranking.
The Thailand Open, a WTA 250 event, was held from January 28 to February 5.