MANILA—“Tennis for all.”
This is the aim of Unified Tennis Philippines (UTP), as it continues to boost the tennis community in the country 4 years after its founding.
“Our goal is to get as many people to play tennis in the Philippines,” UTP co-founder and president Jean Henri Lhuillier told ABS-CBN News. “We are trying to make tennis as inclusive as possible here in the Philippines.”
UTP has been supporting not just the country’s top athletes but also its promising talents. It has welcomed more players from various age groups by mounting open tournaments and competitions for juniors, seniors, and the club players whom Lhuillier refers to as the “weekend warriors.”
Founded and supported by the biggest tennis patrons and aficionados in the Philippines, UTP is a non-stock, non-profit organization that seeks to develop Filipino tennis players in their quest to be competitive on the global stage.
Joining Lhuillier in the UTP Board are co-founder and vice-president Bobby Castro, co-founder and board director Lito Villanueva, co-founder and board director Gerard Maronilla, and general manager and board director Jackie Tomacruz. The late Randy Villanueva was a co-founder and board director.
Transforming tennis globally
A big boost to UTP’s mission is its partnership with Universal Tennis, which aims to make tennis more affordable, accessible, and fun for all players regardless of gender, age, socioeconomic status, and level.
Universal Tennis is behind the algorithm-based global system Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) that provides real-time ratings based purely on results. Among the first Asian organizations to partner with Universal Tennis are UTP and the Vietnam tennis federation.
“With UTP being called a start-up, I felt we are privileged to be a part of this huge organization. For them to recognize us, they realized that we had the capabilities to roll out the program, so that was a plus. And like anything, once you get a stamp of approval from a governing body or a leveling body, it is fantastic for the organization. So, UTP is very proud to be a Universal Tennis partner,” said Lhuillier.
The partnership granted players in UTP tournaments their own global UTR Rating, which can be used to evaluate skill level and ability, and create competitive events and opportunities for players of all levels. U.S. athletic scholarship hopefuls also seek to improve their UTR Rating for consideration.
The UTR allows anyone to identify, measure, track, and develop the level of a player on a scale of 1.00 to 16.50. WTA World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty of Australia has a UTR of 13.36 while ATP World No. 1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia has a UTR of 16.26.
“What it has done is it has created a level playing field in terms of criteria and what’s good about it is that once you get your UTR Rating, you can actually play amongst guys that are on your level, guys that are above your level, and even below your level if you want to help out,” explained Lhuillier.
Aside from adopting the UTR system, Lhuillier shared that UTP is looking into implementing other UTR programs, events, and professional tournaments once COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have eased.
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UTP keeps up amid the pandemic
As tournaments have been put on hold since March 2020, UTP has taken its advocacy online by producing videos that are posted on the UTP Facebook page and Instagram account.
“Tennis Walks” with former Davis Cup captain and ITF Level 3 coach Roland Kraut highlights tips and exercises that can be done at home while “Tennis Talks” features athletes to inspire Filipino netters and enthusiasts.
“In terms of trying to keep people engaged, it has really been digital,” shared Lhuillier. “And we have just been doing a lot of physical conditioning programs, we’ve done coaching programs, we’ve done some motivational programs, and some clinics that are shown, showing a stroke performance.”
The “Tennis Talks” pilot episode featured the country’s only grand slam champions, 16-year-old Alex Eala and 29-year-old Francis Casey “Niño” Alcantara.
Eala won the 2020 Australian Open junior girls’ doubles crown with Indonesian Priska Madelyn Nugroho and the 2021 Roland Garros junior girls’ doubles title with Russian Oksana Selekhmeteva. Alcantara clinched the 2009 Australian Open junior boys’ doubles championship with Cheng-Peng Hsieh of Chinese Taipei.
“Tennis has been such a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. Even when I was younger, tennis was the priority over school, everything. It’s natural that I always dreamed of becoming a professional. And I love the sport. It’s not like I’m being forced to do anything. I love it, that’s why I keep doing it,” Eala said in the video.
The juniors World No. 4 and Rafa Nadal Academy scholar, whose juniors career high ranking was No. 2, is the WTA World No. 524 with a UTR of 11.43. This year, the 2021 W15 Manacor titlist won the singles and doubles titles at the JA Milan, and was a singles quarterfinalist and doubles semifinalist at the US Open Junior Tennis Championships. She earned her first WTA main draw victory at the Winners Open in Romania.
Alcantara, who served as the episode’s host, congratulated Eala on her successes and mentioned that she is currently the “Face of Philippine Tennis.” The Fresno State and Pepperdine University scholar is the ATP Doubles World No. 661 with a UTR of 12.94. His doubles career high was No. 257 in 2018.
He has been competing in the United States, notching doubles titles this year with Jean Henri’s son, Sebastien Lhuillier, at the UTR Newport Beach Open, with Filipino-American Raymond Sarmiento at the ITF M25 Calabasas, and with Mark Whitehouse of Great Britain at the ITF M25 Harlingen.
The doubles specialist, who bagged the 2019 Southeast Asian Games doubles gold with Jeson Patrombon, was the singles champion at this year’s UTR $10,000 Rollingwood Athletic Club Open, UTR $8,000 Rollingwood Athletic Club Open, and USTA San Francisco Labor Day Open Tournament.
Search for shining stars, volunteers
Lhuillier noted that there are other facets in nurturing Philippine tennis, highlighting the importance of developing poster childs to inspire an uptake of netters.
“One thing first is access to courts, right? Aside from that, people aspire to become athletes once they see shining stars. And fortunately, we’ve had the likes of Felix Barrientos in the past. Now, we have Alex Eala, and you have the likes of Treat Huey, Ruben Gonzales, Niño Alcantara, and Johnny Arcilla,” he said.
“So, Alex has definitely helped a lot. A lot of juniors are starting to play tennis because of her success. And I guess, it’s really seeing good quality players, you know? Unfortunately, we haven’t had any major international tournaments here. The last one that we really brought in was the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), which I did in 2015,” he continued.
Lhuillier is the co-owner and team manager of Philippine Mavericks, headlined by Serena Williams, team captain Mark Philippoussis, player-coach Huey, Milos Raonic, James Blake, and Richard Gasquet. Other stars who played in the Manila leg of IPTL 2015 were Rafael Nadal, Marat Safin, Ana Ivanovic, Goran Ivanisevic, Tomas Berdych, Nick Kyrgios, and Sania Mirza.
By building local talents who may gain inspiration and motivation from homegrown and international tennis heroes, Lhuillier hopes that more Filipinos will strive to be athletic scholars and hopefully, professional players.
“It’s really seeing people play, seeing people that you can affiliate yourself with. And seeing that things can be done is really one way of bringing more people to the game,” said Lhuillier.
Moreover, the UTP president hopes to draw more fans and volunteers to the Philippine tennis community.
“Our goal here really is to get as many people engaged in wanting to help Philippine tennis, right? We want to be an inclusive organization and we want help from people. It’s important that there are volunteers also because once you have people helping from all angles, there’s a buy-in,” he said.
The call for volunteers and supporters together with the many efforts to hone more local players make the “Tennis for All” mission all the more welcoming — a great boost to UTP’s goal of building on the Philippine tennis community and making it more inclusive.
And with the government’s recent lowering of pandemic alert level classifications and reopening of more sectors, Filipino tennis community members have a lot to look forward to, for as long as COVID-19 cases will continue on the downtrend.
“We are planning to restart our tennis activities soon, hopefully early next year,” Lhuillier shared, beaming with excitement and optimism as UTP is raring to bring back the tennis action throughout the country.
Note: World rankings and UTR ratings are as of November 27, 2021.
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