MANILA—Filipinos are not the only ones who take pride in the blossoming career of tennis ace Alex Eala.
Southeast Asian neighbors are also proud of Eala’s achievements as a teenager competing in professional tournaments and junior Grand Slams. One of those impressed by Eala is former World No. 19 Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand.
“I saw her play and she won the Aussie Open doubles juniors, as well. It’s kind of nice to see Southeast Asian players doing well,” Tanasugarn told ABS-CBN News in an interview on May 25, pertaining to the championship victory of Eala and Indonesian Priska Madelyn Nugroho in the 2020 Australian Open junior girls’ doubles.
“It just sparked up, and to see a good, young talent and for her to do well for the Philippines, ‘Whoa, a Southeast Asian player’s doing well in the Grand Slam?” she added of World No. 624 and juniors No. 3 Eala, who won her first professional title in January at the W15 Manacor tournament in Spain.
When informed about the attention that Eala, 16, has been gaining from the media and tennis fans in the Philippines, Tanasugarn let out a wide smile and remarked: “Actually, I’m happy for Philippine tennis because to see a young talent who wants to do well in the Grand Slam, it sparks the spirit of the tennis community in the Philippines.”
She said that it’s similar to what happens in Thailand when young players are doing well, such as Luksika Kumkhum, who reached a career-high ranking of World No. 66 in 2018.
Tanasugarn remains the highest-ranked Thai in the WTA at No. 19, achieved in 2002, while former World No. 9 Paradorn Srichaphan is the highest-ranked Thai in the ATP and first Asian-born player to enter the ATP Top 10 in 2003.
The only Filipino in the French Open
Tanasugarn, 44, a Fox Sports Asia pundit, then offered Eala advice, and other promising Asian players who wish to achieve success in big tennis tournaments, such as the ongoing Roland Garros.
“I always give tips for the young players to believe in themselves and don’t forget your dream. The important thing is tennis is not easy, so you have to work hard. Be disciplined. And the most important thing is love and have fun with the things you are doing,” she said.
Eala, the No. 2 seed in the junior girls' singles, will face fellow 16-year-old Matilda Mutavdzic of Great Britain in the first round. Last year, she made history by reaching the Roland Garros junior girls semifinals, 35 years since a Filipino made it to a junior Grand Slam semis — Felix Barrientos at the 1985 Wimbledon Championships.
Eala acknowledged in her ITF blog that despite being the No. 2 seed, she will “not attach too much importance” to seedings and will approach each encounter as “just another match.”
She also mentioned how proud she is to represent the Philippines: “This is one of the major reasons why I want to do well this week. Being the only Filipina in the girls’ draw, in the entire tournament in fact, is massive.”
She continued: “If I was younger and I saw a Filipina tennis player competing at Roland Garros, I know that it would be a big inspiration and I am trying to be that for young kids in the Philippines. That’s really important to me.”
Asian tennis on the global stage
Apart from representing Philippine tennis, Eala is also one of the current frontrunners in Asian tennis.
As the juniors No. 3, she is the only Asian in the girls Top 10, making her No. 1 in the continent. The second highest-ranked Asian in the same category is Eala’s Australian Open partner, Nugroho, at No. 17.
Pushing for more success for Asian tennis has been around for years, with Scrichaphan citing some progress more than a decade ago.
In the 2010 Hong Kong Tennis Classic press conference, he answered a question from ABS-CBN News about the chances of Asian tennis making it big.
“It’s getting a lot better now,” he said, noting that the women’s side has been doing a lot better than the men’s side. Two-time grand slam champion Li Na of China was leading the pack then. He also hoped for more Asian breakthroughs in the sport.
Over 11 years later, ABS-CBN News asked the same question to his compatriot Tanasugarn, who emphasized that a successful tennis career does not rely on the player alone. “For me, tennis is a team work. It’s a whole system,” said the Thai veteran.
She said that while players go out and work for themselves on the court, there are a lot of factors that are crucial, including the sacrifices and efforts of the parents, tennis coaches, and fitness coaches.
She also mentioned the need for adequate finances for a budding tennis player to travel around the world to participate in warm-up tournaments in hopes of improving one’s ranking for better grand slam chances.
“The team is really, really important for players to do well and to achieve their goal quickly,” she stated.
As Eala and other promising Asians seek to excel at Roland Garros this year, the Philippines as well as the rest of Asia will be rooting for their top female junior player, whom the Asian Tennis Federation described as a netter with “rich potential and becoming the one to watch in the upcoming years.”
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