Vogue Philippines visits Alex Eala at her training grounds in Mallorca, mere weeks after her historic win at the US Open. Jacs T. Sampayan talks to the young champion about her early beginnings, her supportive family, and what she thinks of carrying the torch for Philippine tennis.
Four years ago, Alex Eala was playing the finals of Les Petit As (or “Little Champions” in French). Held annually, it is a 14-and-under tournament that attracts promising juniors looking to see how they stack up against the rest of the world. Countless champions have been born on these Green Set courts, among them Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, Michael Chang, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and the Bull from Mallorca himself, Rafael Nadal.
In 2018, Eala was in a dog fight against seventh-seeded Czech player Linda Noskova for the title. After splitting the first two sets, the pair found themselves in a tense decider. The European player got her nose out front at 5-3 and was two points away from the win at 30-30 on Alex’s serve.
The young Filipina dug deep. Her opponent was swinging freely, blasting shots to the corners, but Eala was similarly relentless, getting to every ball. She held serve and broke back, and stayed with Noskova until the tiebreak. There, Alex flinched only near the end, surrendering a couple of match points. But she eventually sealed the victory when Noskova sprayed a forehand wide, and she was finally able to break into a smile and raise her arms in triumph.
Moment conquered. A Filipino champion for the world was born.
Champions are revealed in these big moments. Many spend their whole life, sacrificing their energy for what the great Billie Jean King describes as “the privilege of pressure.” For Alex Eala, that test of mettle set her on a path of a historic ranking and major wins, the most recent one, being her triumph at this year’s US Open.
At the US Open in Flushing Meadows last September, four years and a pandemic after her triumph in France, Alex was golden once again. She landed atop a 64-person draw, beating four seeded players, and doing so without dropping a single set along the way. The teen is the first Filipino to win a junior singles grand slam and the first Southeast Asian player to do so in 20 years. She adds this to her Australian Open and Roland Garros junior doubles grand slam wins and trophies on the ITF circuit.
Her win in New York and the way she so methodically sliced through the field showed how much she has become stronger, physically and mentally, over the years. “I tried not to think about it a lot. And I tried not to think that I needed to win. I didn’t really have any expectations coming into it. That was what was different from the other years, I played match by match instead of [thinking of] winning the whole thing,” Alex, who turned 17 in May, tells Vogue Philippines.
“I think it really helped that my brother was there and my family was there,” she adds, referring to dad Mike, mom Rizza, and older brother Miko. “It helped me relax, and, you know, have fun, like, before the match and not really think about, you know, what’s actually happening.”
Alex shares that her family constantly tells her to never doubt herself, to just be confident. It’s an important lesson for someone who is away from home and for whom winning and losing is just part of everyday life. “It can be hard sometimes to get myself motivated especially when I’m having a hard time,” she says. “That’s the best advice I’ve probably gotten from them.”
As with many athletes, family helps ground her. They too provided the first spark that ignited her passion for the sport. For Alex and Miko, it started out as a way for them to bond with their Lolo, the late Bobby Maniego.
“Kasi Kuya, siya yung nauna. He’s a few years older and I would watch all the time, you know, as a baby. One day, I decided to join in,” Alex says. “Eventually I grew fond of it, and, you know, I took it more seriously. And the training increased and so on. And until now, I’m still very fond of it thanks to him.”
Whatever the routine of Miko, Mike adds, Alex would join in. “So she was at the tennis court at a very young age. When Kuya was playing with Lolo so nakikita na niya. So she’s exposed to tennis at a very young age,” Mike says. “But yeah, it was really more of a bonding thing with Lolo. He wanted to see his grandkids more often so parang yung strategy niya, turuan mo nga mag-tennis yan. So once a week, naging twice a week.”
As the children got into tennis more, it was also Lolo who helped frame the family’s mindset. “At an early age, nagtanong siya, ‘ano ba gusto natin sa tennis? Club player lang ba? Intramurals? Varsity? Gusto mo ba mag-college tennis sa US? Or gusto mo mag-professional? Kasi that would dictate how hard we will push,” Mike, a club player himself, shares. “So we sort of decided [on] college, but as much as possible we tried to train for pro. And if you get a college scholarship, good. And if it’s possible to become pro, then mas maganda. Parang bonus.”
While that’s true, Alex says that the pros have always been on her mind. “I spent so much time on the court, I dedicated so much of my life to tennis, I wanted it to be bigger than just a college thing. And I didn’t want to work so, so, so hard for me just to stop [playing] tennis after college. So that’s what I’m trying to do, pursue a career as an athlete,” she says.
At home in Mallorca
As she excelled and grew more passionate about the game, Alex joined more tournaments, locally and regionally. The Ealas went all in toward the dream.
“The whole journey of going for a single purpose of winning grand slams, the majors, the pursuit of this in itself is like a huge bonding activity for us,” Mike says. “For example, the milestone win, the US Open. It’s so emotionally charged because it’s not just the moment, it’s that whole journey.”
Alex’s triumph at Tarbes in 2018 opened more doors for the teen. Not only did it win her a wildcard at that year’s Roland Garros, she received a full scholarship to the Rafael Nadal Academy, in the Spaniard’s hometown of Mallorca. Within that same year, she and Miko moved to Spain to train.
“I’ve met so many people who have come and gone… I’ve grown up here,” Alex says of Mallorca. “My brother’s graduation was here. I started high school here. I met all of my friends here. It definitely holds a special place in my heart.” (Today, Miko plays tennis for Penn State.)
The climate in the Balearic Island, and the fact that it has so many beaches, is something that feels familiar. “I think growing up here and growing up in the Philippines, it was good for me to see both cultures and keep an open mind, and meet so many new people,” Alex explains. “The good thing about being in the academy for me, I’ve met so many people from different countries. I know at least a little about their culture, about cultures around the world. I think I grew up very well educated.”
Does she get to see Nadal often? Not really, Mike shares. But when Alex won a tournament in Spain before, Nadal congratulated her in person. She also participated in the Amazon Prime mini series, Rafael Nadal Academy.
“I think there’s no greater example of the kids than Rafa di ba. Kasi when he plays here for example,” Mike says, adding that the Academy places an emphasis on values formation. “After he plays, he’ll sweep the court eh. Hindi pupuwede dito yung, especially mga teenager athletes, they become cocky. But no, [their] feet [are] on the ground. You work hard, you show your pagka-astig playing—working hard and doing the right things.”
A hard worker is just among the things that Alex’s coaches describe her. Adrien Vaseux, who has been working with Alex since September of last year, thinks she is a “tiger on court.”
“The mindset is huge. She [doesn’t] give up. Sometimes there is a tough moment, she knows how to go [hard] with the mindset, and to put more intensity. I love to train her because she’s intense,” he says. “She’s asking a lot of questions when some stuff doesn’t work. She is always learning. She is always open-minded.” For Vaseux, the best thing about his young ward is her capacity for daily work.
“I don’t think tennis is the perfect game,” Alex admits. “I don’t think there’s any. You’re never always going to win. There’s winning, there’s losing. It depends on how you come back from that loss. And how you take the loss, if you decide to learn from it, to keep it in you, or to let the loss burden you.”
What Alex likes about the sport is that she is constantly being challenged. “I constantly have to find ways to push myself to overcome the obstacles that are presented to me. I think I have a sense of pride when I improve, or when I’ve accomplished something that I have set my mind on.”
Flag and country
The Northeastern coastal town of Son Serra de Marina, a 20-minute drive from Rafael Nadal Academy, is where the Vogue Philippines team settled on shooting Alex. Wearing Loewe, JW Anderson, and Danish-brand Ganni, the young Nike endorser doesn’t show any of the “tiger” qualities that her coach confidently ascribed to her.
While having proclivities not unusual of any person her age—she likes to go shopping with friends, take trips to the beach, gravitates toward beige and pink athleisure clothing, binge watches Modern Family when she has the time—she comes off as relaxed and introspective, someone who considers her thoughts and
She is particularly succinct when talking about playing for the flag, and is aware of the impact she might have on young Filipinos who might have similar aspirations of not just tennis, but of performing on a world stage.
After winning against another Czech, Lucie Havlíčková, at the US Open girls final, she asked if she could speak to the crowd in Tagalog. “Buong puso ko itong pinaglaban, hindi lang para sa sarili ko, kung hindi para sa kinabukasan ng Pilipinas. So hindi ko lang panalo ito, panalo nating lahat,” Alex says, her voice breaking slightly.
The athlete says that she just wanted to thank the crowd, which she says was about 95 percent Pinoy, for taking the time to come out and support her. “Some of them have been following me for a while. It wasn’t just a message for the people there, but also for the people back home,” she says.
“I think it’s nice na may representation yung Pilipinas sa world tennis stage,” she continues. “I think yung importante sa akin na makaka-relate sila. And whether that’s through a language or whether that’s through hitsura, whatever, pagkain, I think a big part of representation is makaka-relate sila. And that was just a little way that I can give back to them for all the support they have been giving me.”
The teen also felt this sense of oneness when she represented the Philippines at the Southeast Asian Games for the first time this year. “It was good to see the atmosphere, and how everyone is trying to help everyone. And you know, like the small things like the cheering, or the games that we play,” she says. “It’s very different from my usual setup because usually I just travel with my dad and with a coach. So to have a team around you to share the experience, the wins and the losses with your teammates, it’s unique and very special.”
Alex’s achievements come at a time when more than a handful of Filipinos have been excelling in global sports, from Hidilyn Diaz’s golden performance in Tokyo to EJ Obiena to the Philippine Women’s National Football Team.
“Of course, it’s so nice to share these different experiences. And you know, we’re all doing it with pride,” she says. “It’s nice to see that other people are also working hard. It makes you want to work just as hard as them. I think it builds this kind of atmosphere that makes you want to work and be proud to do what you do.”
This year saw the retirement of Roger Federer and Serena Williams, two names that have transcended generations and whose recognition goes beyond the confines of the sport.
“These people have blazed a trail for so many other young tennis players and young athletes. And it seems like they’ve been around forever, and parang you feel like they can keep going and going,” Alex says. “But it’s just a reminder that they’re also people, you know. No matter how much they’ve done for the sport, they have to move on with their lives. I think it allows room for the next generation to naturally climb up the rankings. And be [an inspiration] to the following generations.”
Alex continues to climb herself. As of October 10, 2022, the Women’s Tennis Association ranks her at 252, which is the highest ever ranking for a Filipina singles player in history. She is within arms reach of the big leagues.
How does she feel when people place the future of Philippine tennis on her young shoulders? “I’m happy that they have faith in me. I’m happy that I have such a strong group of supporters. And I don’t like to think of it as pressure. I’m happy that I can give them hope. I’m happy that I can give them something to follow. It makes me more motivated to work.”
But her family firmly wants her to be unburdened. “I always lang tell her na parang na whatever the expectations of others are, in the end, it really doesn’t matter. It’s more about how you feel about it yourself,” Mike says. “If you find joy in your everyday work and you continue to improve because that’s the only thing that matters. How successful you are, or how unsuccessful you are, at the end of the day, ikaw lang naman eh. That’s the only thing that matters, how you feel about yourself, how you feel about your journey.”
As for developing the sport itself in the country, Mike believes that the “best way to help Philippine tennis is to excel. And just show, be an example that the Filipino can do it. Na kayang gawin.”
“I think to have someone to look up to is a good first step,” Alex adds. “Yan lang talaga gusto ko, na makaka-inspire ako sa ibang tao.”
Inspiration truly is bounty shared by all. Alex serves us stories of hope, honesty, and hard work, and the reminder that champions are not limited by geography. When they conquer the big moments, in that sense, not just one Filipino wins, we all do.
This story was originally published in Vogue Philippines’ November 2022 Issue. The 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.