On the day Vogue Philippines arrived in Mallorca, Spain, Rafa Nadal and his wife Xisca welcomed their first child into the world. A good portent, perhaps, for what the Vogue team had set out to do—photograph Alex Eala, tennis’ rising star and one more athlete on the global stage whom the Philippines can rally behind.
The 17-year-old Eala was just weeks off winning the US Open, making her the first Filipino to win a junior Grand Slam. She went on to enter the quarterfinals in the W80 California before returning to her present home in Mallorca for a quick regroup before launching back into the pro circuit where she’s been competing against opponents ten years her senior.
Her years at the Rafa Nadal Academy prepared her for the life of a champion—performing under pressure, winning with humility, and losing with grace. Plucked from the Philippines at the age of 13, Eala moved to the RNA in Manacor, Nadal’s hometown in Mallorca, and has spent these formative years under close coaching from the best in the field. The academy is more than just a tennis camp, it’s a state-of-the-art integrated training center for talented youth who want to further their tennis careers without sacrificing their academics.
Since the RNA opened in 2016, Eala has become its most successful product. In an Amazon Prime miniseries about the academy, she was featured as one of their most promising players. “She’s a very smart girl, she understands the game very well she knows how to use her weapon at all times,” said Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and former coach. Early in the documentary, we see Eala at a practice session, a bit down and hard on herself for making a mistake, displaying uncharacteristic self-doubt. Later, we see her winning her first professional title, showing utmost maturity in the face of a wrong call in her opponent’s favor. She was 15.
On Tuesday, October 11, the Vogue team gathered at RNA to meet its “most precocious player” while hoping to catch a glimpse of its legendary founder (Nadal was training there in the morning, apparently). The team members had just met each other the previous night over a very late Spanish dinner; I had traveled from Manila, the Filipino-German photographer Edgar Berg flew in from Paris with his assistant Jon Aich, while producer and stylist Blake Samson-Reiβky and videographer Mette Nordvig came over from Munich. None of us knew much about tennis (unless you count watching King Richard on the flight), but we knew we had something special on our hands—like once-in-a-lifetime special.
This was Eala’s first fashion shoot and if she was feeling apprehensive, her calm, steady demeanor didn’t betray it as she gamely tried on different outfit combinations—a burgundy suit and knit dress from Toga Archives, a bright yellow JW Anderson dress paired with Nike Shox x Martine Rose mules, or a custom Kelvin Morales barong over a neon Ganni slip dress and an Issey Miyake sweater—a far cry from the usual beige athleisure she says she wears off court.
The team decided to photograph Eala along the rugged coastline of Son Serra de Marina, a tourist-free spot Berg had found while driving around. The eastern coast of Mallorca is a dream destination, with pink and white sand beaches, hidden coves, and stunning cliff views just 10 to 20 minutes from RNA. And in October, the weather was perfect.
Once in front of the camera, Eala admitted to her nerves. “I’ve never done this before,” she said.
“Just be yourself, you’re doing great,” Berg encouraged, instructing her to run through grass or wave her arms.
“I’m better at tennis,” she replied.
Mike and Rizza, Eala’s ever-supportive parents, were also at the shoot to accompany her, share stories, and throw tennis balls as needed. While RNA provided the tools for Eala to hone her talent and develop her sporting character, it was her parents who gave the emotional grounding that allowed Eala to thrive in high-pressure situations. From all the interviews that Eala has given, it’s very clear that her family has been integral to her becoming the tennis player she is today. Her parents have instilled in her that what matters is not the weight of expectations, but “how you feel about yourself and whether you find joy in your everyday work,” as Mike said. “All the rest will follow.”
Just as we were about to shoot one last look, the rain started to come down heavily. We tried waiting it out, but the sun had long disappeared and everyone was starting to shiver (at least those of us from the tropics). It was a wrap—we said our goodbyes and drifted back to our own corners of the world.
Berg, who has shot for Vogue Arabia and Vogue Mexico, is known for photographs that convey the joy of movement, all suffused with beautiful light. After the shoot, he messaged Vogue Philippines: “I felt humbled and honored to collaborate on this issue,” he said. “It is always a nice change to work with talents who usually are not in front of the camera every day. No doubt Alex Eala is someone who we will be seeing more often in the future, so I am happy to be part of this journey.”
Alex Eala started this journey on the tennis courts of Pasig City when her grandfather first lobbed a ball at her and her brother Miko. From Manila to Mallorca and to wherever life takes her next, Filipinos the world over will be cheering her on all the way.
Vogue Philippines’ November 2022 issue is available now.
Photographer: Edgar Berg, Fashion Director: Pam Quiñones, Stylist: Blake Samson-Reißky, Sittings Editor: Audrey Carpio, Hair and Makeup: Xisca Covas, Producers: Anz Hizon, Blake Samson-Reißky, Photographer’s Assistant: Jon Aich, Retoucher: Grace Sioson.
Special thanks to Núria Llabrés and Rafa Nadal Academy.