Tennis: After tough SEAG gold win, Gonzales and Alcantara are hungry for more

Rosy Mina

Posted at May 29 2023 04:00 AM

Tennis aces Francis Casey Alcantara and Ruben Gonzales won the gold for men’s doubles at the 32nd Southeast Asian Games in Cambodia. Ruben Gonzales on Instagram
Tennis aces Francis Casey Alcantara and Ruben Gonzales won the gold for men’s doubles at the 32nd Southeast Asian Games in Cambodia. Ruben Gonzales on Instagram

MANILA – Ruben Gonzales and Francis Casey Alcantara's Southeast Asian (SEA) Games gold medal finish in Cambodia for men’s tennis doubles – their first as a team and second overall – is an arduous accomplishment that has further inspired them to win more medals and titles for the Philippines.

“It was amazing. Francis is like a little brother so to accomplish something like that with him was really special. Winning stuff is cool but to do it with people that you care about makes it even more special,” Gonzales told ABS-CBN News.

The doubles specialists scored a comeback victory in the 32nd SEA Games final this month against Indonesians Christopher Rungkat and Nathan Anthony Barki, 2-6, 7-5, 10-5, at the Morodok Techo National Stadium Tennis Arena in Phnom Penh. 

“We got the silver medal in 2017, which is kinda cool. But we lost in a really close match then, so to have a little redemption six years later is pretty awesome,” added Gonzales, an eight-time doubles champion on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Challenger Tour.

Both nicknamed Niño, Gonzales and Alcantara fell to the Ratiwatana twins Sanchai and Sonchat of Thailand, 4-6, 6-2, 7-10, in the 2017 SEA Games final in Malaysia.

Two years later in Manila, Alcantara and Jeson Patrombon prevailed in the all-Filipino final over Gonzales and Treat Huey, 7-6 (2), 7-5.

In 2022, Gonzales and Huey clinched the gold in their rematch with Alcantara and Patrombon, 6-1, 6-4, in Vietnam.

Gonzales, 37, and Alcantara, 31, retained the men’s doubles gold for the Philippines a year later in Cambodia, notching the country's 36th of 58 golds as the No. 1 seeds.

“I felt very happy and relieved because we were down in the first set really bad. They were playing so good. They made us look bad in the first set,” Alcantara shared.

They had a listless 0-5 start in the final, and could only win two games before yielding the opening set, 2-6.

“In the second set, we started to play better but they were still playing so good. We just kept holding our serves,” continued Alcantara, who has won 18 men's doubles titles on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Tour.

At 5-5, they held serve by saving three break points, then broke for 7-5 to force a decider against the Indonesian tandem that won a three-setter quarterfinal over Filipinos Jed Olivarez of Ateneo de Manila University and Miko Eala of Pennsylvania State University.

“And then the super tiebreak, it’s anybody’s game. So we’re just one point at a time talaga. Luckily, we were the better team in the super tiebreak. The experience in the tournaments that Ruben and I played before really helped us.” 

Gonzales, who admitted to “getting killed” in the first set, mentioned that they also struggled with the lights because of the heat delay. 

Throughout their week in Cambodia, they battled with temperatures that breached 40 degrees Celsius, and this was complicated by rain delays.

To make things worse, Gonzales felt chest pains right after their semifinal.

“It’s literally the hottest conditions I’ve ever played in,” shared Gonzales. “And I think my body was just a little bit overexerted.”

He went straight to the clinic with their physiotherapist and hoped for the doctors to clear him to play in the final the next day.

“There’s no chance I wasn’t gonna play. But I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t gonna die or something," he explained.

According to Gonzales, everything has been fine since the final. “I think it was just the accumulation of all the work in the week, and really, really tough conditions.”

-- Second SEAG gold among most treasured championships -- 

As the top seeds in Phnom Penh, Gonzales and Alcantara received a bye in the first round.

Soon after, they had to dig deep to eke out difficult victories.

“I’m very proud of how we played and how we fought,” remarked Alcantara, who mentioned that they saved set points in the quarterfinals against the Susanto brothers David Agung and Ignatius Anthony of Indonesia, 6-3, 7-5, and in the semifinals versus Vietnamese Dac Tien Nguyen and Van Phuong Nguyen, 7-6, 6-3.

With the struggles that they overcame to claim their second SEA Games gold, the national athletes consider such triumph as among their most special achievements.

“These two SEA Games with Treat and Francis are two of my favorite memories in tennis so far mostly because I’m really close to Treat, too,” Gonzales said of Huey, whom he has known since they were 12.

Born in Chicago, Illinois and raised in Terra Haute, Indiana, Gonzales regards his Savannah Challenger doubles title with Huey as another remarkable feat, especially since they won it before prevailing in the 2022 Hanoi Games.

As for Cagayan de Oro native Alcantara, he revealed that winning the SEA Games gold is a dream come true.

“Ever since I was a kid, gusto ko talagang mag-play especially sa SEA Games because during the SEA Games in Manila, I was there. I was watching and I was like ‘Wow sobrang daming tao,’” he recounted of the 2005 edition where Cecil Mamiit bagged three golds for the Philippines in men’s singles, mixed doubles with Riza Zalameda, and men’s team competition with Eric Taino, Johnny Arcilla, and Patrick-John Tierro.

“Watching them, it was like ‘I wanna be there.’ I wanna win it like they did. So it’s always a special feeling talaga playing at the SEA Games, especially winning my second gold. I think it felt so much better coming from a set down and parang natatalo na kami the whole match and then we got back,” added Alcantara, the first Filipino grand slam champion who certainly still cherishes his 2009 Australian Open boys’ doubles title.

When asked to differentiate their gold medal wins, the Philippine Davis Cuppers gave varying responses.

Gonzales, who played as an athletic scholar for University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, was coming from three silver finishes before winning his maiden gold.

His first silver result was with Patrombon at the 2015 Singapore Games.

“When things like that happen, there’s definitely doubt. I was like, ‘Man, maybe I’ll never win a gold.’ So I definitely feel like there was way more nerves in the finals of last year’s event because I’d never accomplished that. And after I won, I was so happy and relieved,” he recalled.

“This year, I felt I was more prepared for the things to come. I wasn’t as nervous to play the finals match because I know it’s something that I accomplished and I had that experience to fall back on. So that was a little bit different. But obviously, the joy of winning is very similar.”

Alcantara, who suited up for Pepperdine University as an athletic scholar, talked about being underdogs in 2019 and frontrunners in 2023. 

“It’s a different feeling in Manila. It was home court and it was against Pinoys (Huey and Gonzales) and we were just having fun there. We didn’t expect us, I mean nobody expected us to win, to beat Treat and Ruben. And we just got lucky, we played really well. We stuck with our game plans,” he reasoned.

“Cambodia was different because we were No. 1 seeds. So going into the tournament, we had a goal like we’re gonna win. We have to win,” he continued. “They all wanted to beat us because we were No. 1 seeds."

Proudly representing the Philippines on the global tennis scene

With the next SEA Games in Thailand still over two years away, Gonzales and Alcantara are focused on carrying on with their professional careers to boost their respective world rankings.

ATP Doubles No. 128 Gonzales, who peaked at 116th in March, is slated to join American and European Challenger events in the next few months.

Alcantara, the ATP Doubles No. 311 with a career-high of 257th in 2018, will play in two M25 Jakarta events on the ITF Men’s World Tennis Tour starting next week. He hopes to join some Challenger events this season in Europe and China.

Sustaining their participation in professional tilts is crucial, and they are grateful for their sponsors, including long-time tennis patron and Unified Tennis Philippines president Jean Henri Lhuillier.

“I am so happy and proud of Ruben and Niño as they continue to reap honors for our country. This SEA Games gold is something they have worked out for many, many months competing in different international competitions. I vow to continue supporting them the best way I can,” the Cebuana Lhuillier president and CEO said in a statement.

Whether in regional meets or overseas tournaments, Gonzales and Alcantara are beyond proud to play for their country.

“It’s always nice to represent the Philippines,” said Alcantara, who posted a mixed doubles quarterfinal result in Cambodia with seven-time PCA Open champion Marian Capadocia. 

“Representing the Philippines is the biggest honor I’ve ever had. Carrying the flag, representing in all the tournaments, and playing Davis Cup, SEA Games, and Asian Games… I feel blessed that I got to do it and I plan on doing it for many more years to come,” stated Gonzales, who shared that his father hails from Umingan, Pangasinan and his mother is from Tuguegarao and Alcala in Cagayan. 

Although 2025 is still far out, they are already eyeing their chances in the 33rd edition of the biennial Southeast Asian sporting event.

“We have the gold so I think we have to defend it again in 2025,” Alcantara said with a cool ease.

"We’ve been dominating the doubles event in the last three SEA Games so I think it’s a good motivation for the other teams to step up their game.”

Gonzales, for his part, declared with determination, “I’m planning to be there. Hopefully, win another gold medal. That’s definitely a goal of mine.”

In addition, they are hoping for a better result in the men’s team event after the Philippines lost to Thailand in the opening round. 

“It was tough to play the second seed in the first round but I think that’s something we need to strive to do better, and keep developing younger players,” commented Gonzales, who also has 18 ITF men's doubles titles under his belt.

Alcantara echoed what his partner said, pointing out that a strong singles performance by young guns will give them a better shot in the team event.

“Our doubles is pretty solid. Treat is there, Ruben is there. I don’t even know if I’ll play if they’re both there because they’re higher ranked than me... And we just need to win one singles in the team event and then I think they or we will take care of the doubles,” he assured with confidence.


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