MANILA – The US Open Juniors singles title of Alexandra “Alex” Eala is groundbreaking, but for those who know her from way back, her history-defining victory for the Philippines comes as no surprise.
Eala, 17, became the first Filipino to win a grand slam singles title at the US Open Junior Tennis Championships in New York City in September.
The US Open hailed her achievement as “one of the biggest Asian success stories” and “arguably the most enchanting junior story” of its 2022 edition, as written by Dan Levinsohn.
Her impressive run as the No. 10 seed entailed winning six matches without dropping a set on the hard courts of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows.
“Her US Open win is a result of passion, dedication, hard work, and sacrifice,” Ateneo tennis coach and Eala’s fellow Valle Verde Country Club member Gee Abacan told ABS-CBN News.
“We play in the same club and practice at the same time when I teach my students, so I have witnessed her daily grind and routine. The family’s commitment to tennis is really admirable.”
The US Open is her third junior grand slam title, following her girls’ doubles championships at the 2020 Australian Open with Indonesian Priska Madelyn Nugroho and 2021 Roland Garros with Russian Oksana Selekhmeteva.
“It is a great milestone. It only goes to show that Alex Eala is an all-around player as she excels in doubles and singles,” Unified Tennis Philippines (UTP) general manager and board member Jackie Tomacruz commented.
-- Evident passion, vigor for tennis --
Just how good and dedicated is the Filipino tennis sensation? Her continuous improvement is a product of her constant strive for excellence ever since the left-hander started training at age 4.
She and her older brother Miko were coached by their maternal grandfather, the late Roberto “Bobby” Maniego, for around 9 years.
Another coach of theirs was Karl Santamaria, who described the children of Michael and 1985 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games 100-meter backstroke bronze medalist Rizza as “amazing, hardworking, passionate, and driven,” as stated in a Facebook post.
“At such a young age, she works really hard. She wakes up early for tennis and plays with vigor at any time of the day. Tennis is her passion and you can see that she enjoys the grind. With all her accomplishments, she is extremely humble as well,” related Abacan, a family friend of the Ealas.
“Alex went to a demanding school as well. With her schedule, it was never easy,” he said of the former student of Immaculate Conception Academy and Colegio San Agustin Makati.
Among her breakthroughs as an 8-year-old were the 10-Under Truflex championship in Cebu and the 8-and-Under titles from the Little Mo tilts in Colorado, New York, and Florida.
Abacan said that Alex was already exceptional since her local age group days. At 11, she was able to beat players in the 16-Under and even 18-Under categories.
“For me, what really stands out is her mental toughness. Ever since she was playing 10 and Under, you know that she is the ultimate fighter where each point matters. Hahabulin talaga lahat ng bola (She will really chase all the balls).”
-- Exceptional display of discipline, determination --
At 13, Eala received a qualifying wild card from the 2018 Roland Garros Junior Championships, thanks to her title victory at the Les Petits As - Le Mondial in France months before.
After going out in the second round of qualifying in Paris, Eala participated as a wildcard in the AGS Junior Tennis Championships, an International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournament in Indonesia.
Alex and Miko were part of the UTP team sent to Jakarta, where Tomacruz witnessed their distinct champion behavior.
The Eala siblings, who emerged as singles runners-up to the top seeds in three sets, hit the practice courts an hour earlier than the other players in order to get more practice time.
During a rain delay, Alex chose to go to the gym instead of her hotel room. When she won her singles and doubles matches late in the afternoon, she asked for another hour of practice because she felt that there was still something wrong with her game.
“She showed exceptional discipline and dedication when it comes to practicing and training,” remarked Tomacruz.
Also in 2018, Alex and Miko made the big move to the Rafa Nadal Academy (RNA) in Spain after being awarded scholarships.
Miko, 20, now plays for Pennsylvania State University in the United States NCAA Division 1. The two-time ITF juniors singles champion began competing on the ITF Men’s Tennis Tour in May.
-- More successes in junior and pro tours --
Eala, with her champion mentality and persistent work ethic, further blossomed into a world-class player under the tutelage of the RNA and her coaches, Daniel Rocha Gomez and Adrien Vaseux.
Apart from bagging three junior slams, she clinched two professional singles titles on the ITF Women’s World Tennis Tour: the 2021 W15 Manacor in Spain and 2022 W25 Chiang Rai in Thailand.
As the former ITF Juniors World No. 2 has been playing in pro tournaments since January, she mentioned to the ITF that her 2022 US Open Juniors stint was a “last-minute decision.”
Achieving a junior singles slam remained a dream for Eala, who became the second Filipino to win a grand slam after Francis Casey Alcantara bagged the Australian Open boys’ doubles title in 2009.
Her best junior slam singles finish then was as a semifinalist in the 2020 Roland Garros, which matched the 1985 Wimbledon result of Felix Barrientos.
Back in New York as a 17-year-old in September, Eala moved past top-ranked juniors, including Australian No. 8 seed Taylah Preston in the third round, Russian No. 14 seed Mirra Andreeva in the quarterfinals, Canadian No. 9 seed Victoria Mboko in the semifinals, and Czech No. 2 seed Lucie Havlickova in the final.
In the doubles tournament, Eala and Andreeva handed a walkover in the second round after the Russian suffered a wrist injury.
“There were less double faults and a higher first serve percentage. She significantly improved the serve, and the groundstrokes have always been there,” noted Tomacruz, who also praised her ability to finish points at the net.
Based on the IBM SlamTracker, Eala’s winning performance averaged 59% on first serve in, and she served 8 aces and 21 doubles faults throughout the week.
She stepped up her win percentage on the first serve from 60% in the semis to 79% in the final, and capitalized on all her break points in the final, 4 out of 4, for her only 100% stat in the tournament.
For the whole week, she won an average of 67% of net points, and let out a total of 106 winners versus 138 unforced errors.
Her championship earned congratulatory greetings from various athletes, including 22-time grand slam champion and former Association of Tennis Professionals World No. 1 Rafael Nadal of Spain, former 8-division world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, and former Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Doubles No. 1, current WTA Singles World No. 7, and 2022 Roland Garros finalist Coco Gauff of the U.S.
-- Just getting started --
A couple of weeks after her historic triumph, Eala buckled down to business on the professional circuit in California.
She reached the second round of W60 Templeton while at the W80 Rancho Santa Fe, she qualified and made it to the quarterfinals, helping propel her WTA ranking to a new career-high of World No. 248 as of the week of October 17.
Amid her many feats, the highest-ranked Filipino singles player in WTA history admitted on her ITF blog that there is more to achieve in her tennis journey.
“While my victory at the US Open is one of the most special moments of my career, I must recognize that it is in the past and I now need to continue working towards my bigger goals,” said the ITF Grand Slam Player Development Programme recipient.
She seeks more successes, and not just in the form of titles and records.
“To me, success means continuously improving. Mentally, my fitness, my forehand, even the smallest things. Results are just the consequence of improving,” she said in a Nike app story earlier this year.
As for her grand goals, she is unabashed to declare that she is aiming high without resting on her laurels.
“I think if I do all the right things, then World No. 1 and the four grand slams should all be achievable goals,” she said in a Babolat article. “But my main goal is simply to be the best version of myself.”
Eala, who won three bronze medals in her SEA Games debut in May, also dreams to clinch the biggest sporting prize.
“The Olympics is a very unique experience. It’s different than all the other tennis tournaments that you get,” she said in an Olympics.com feature by Ken Browne.
“I think that it’s more for your country than for yourself,” added Eala, who is proud to represent the Philippines, even speaking in Filipino in a portion of her US Open Juniors victory speech.
With her junior slams in place, ITF pro titles in tow, and WTA world ranking that is expected to reach greater heights, Filipinos and tennis aficionados are eagerly awaiting what else is up the sleeve of the talented and tenacious Eala.
Relive the moment of Alex Eala’s US Open Juniors victory by watching the full on-demand videos of her final and semifinal matches for free on the SPOTV NOW app available on the App Store and Google Play Store.