Tennis: Philippine team misses playing, but COVID-19 threat tempers desire to return

Manolo Pedralvez

Posted at May 22 2020 04:00 PM | Updated as of May 23 2020 02:04 AM

Francis Casey Alcantara and Jeson Patrombon in action during the 2019 Southeast Asian Games in December. Fist bumps and other physical forms of celebration will be banned once local tennis action resumes for the safety of participants. Arvin Lim/file

A former child tennis prodigy, Alberto Lim Jr. virtually lived his life on the court to the point that he acknowledged to nearly giving up the sport that made the likes of Swiss master Roger Federer and Spanish maestro Rafael Nadal famous. 

But Lim’s tennis-playing days came to a screeching halt when the national government placed the entire Luzon on lockdown on March 15 to curb the spread of the lethal COVID-19 virus. 

“Dati-rati sawang-sawa na ako sa tennis gusto ko na mag-give up. Ngayon miss ko na, mahal ko pala. Sobrang hirap,” the tennis player, who celebrated his 21st birthday on Monday, May 18, said after more than two months of being sheltered with his parents inside their condominium in Manila.

With the metropolis still under modified enhanced community quarantine, Lim, who was once ranked as high as No. 12 in the world junior rankings, has been limited to working out and maintaining his physical conditioning given the current situation. 

One of the last times Lim, a 2018 UAAP MVP as the ace of the University of the East varsity squad, saw court action was during the 30th Southeast Asian Games, winning a bronze medal in the men’s singles event.

National coach Cris Cuarto added that Lim and the rest of the national team, such as Jeson Patrombon and Francis Casey Alcantara, the men’s 30th SEA Games men’s doubles champions, were also facing similar constraints, unable to practice because of the prevailing conditions.

“Everything (about their training) is makeshift now. Most of them are just maintaining their conditioning and walling (swatting the ball at the wall),” he said.

If it were up to him, national coach Cris Cuarto would rather not restart tennis activities any time soon. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News/file

Both Lim and Cuarto rued that one of the national squad’s regular practice facilities, the Rizal Memorial Tennis Center, inside the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex was now off-limits. The two arenas inside the RMSC -- the Ninoy Aquino Stadium and Rizal Coliseum -- were converted into quarantine facilities. 

He bared that local tennis, just like the other sports, has been struggling with the present measures being implemented by government in limiting people’s movement to contain the contagion. 

During this time of the year, when clubs and courts nationwide would be teeming with camps and clinics, providing income opportunities to coaches, referees, ball boys and other officials alike, “all of these are now gone,” according to Cuarto.

“We just have to make sure we have to survive the year; just survive, that’s it,” he said.

Philippine Tennis Association president Atty. Antonio Cablitas, the presidential adviser on investments, disclosed that a Chinese businessman had been interested in sponsoring a series of tournaments for 2020, but has now been scuttled due to the virus crisis.

PHILTA staff Ilynn Hupano said that no competitions were scheduled the rest of the year, adding that the hardest hit were those who were on a “no-work, no-pay” basis, among them ball boys and referees.

Cuarto said that PHILTA, the sport’s national governing body, has tried to financially help those who regularly work at the Rizal Tennis Center, while Hupano said that even Cablitas has dipped into his own pocket to help them. 

The coach was hopeful about the sport’s local future would survive under the “new normal,” especially after the Inter-Agency Task Force announced recently that lawn tennis was among the sports that were allowed to play.

Hupano, a licensed International Tennis Federation referee, said the ITF, the sport’s world governing body, has issued guidelines how the game ought to be played under the present abnormal circumstances.

Alberto Lim Jr. shakes hands with Stefanos Tsitsipas during their Davis Cup match at the PCA courts in Manila on March 5. Physical contact between players will be prohibited once local tennis action resumes for the safety of participants. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News/file

Among those changes are: modifying changeovers, with players going on opposites of the net; keeping on-court officials and players separate from each other, eliminating hand-shaking and all other forms of physical contact; players using separate balls with identifying marks for each one; implement the ITF “towel policy” by providing a bin for disposable items; and no sharing of equipment, with individual food containers and water bottles. Hand-washing and sanitizers of all match participants are also a must. 

In events where spectators are allowed, social distancing will be practiced, with individuals separated by at least two meters (around six feet), while ball boys should wear rubber gloves, and all match officials will be required to wear to protective masks off the court. Daily health checks will be required of all players, officials and staff, who will provide their contact details for tracing should onsite infection arise.

Once given the go-signal by authorities to play, Cuarto said they will discuss the new rules and guidelines with clubs all over the country on how to properly implement them. 

But if he is asked, Lim, who now kills time by playing video games, said returning to the court of his beloved sport won’t be any time soon. 

“For now, di pa, safety pa rin. Sobrang risky pa,” he noted. 

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