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Match Point

HERE in Cebu, majority of our tennis courts are clay courts. Unlike volleyball or golf or basketball where, anywhere you play around the world, the court surface hardly varies, in tennis, it’s different.

Grass. Hard court. Shell. Artificial turf. Clay. Tennis offers a variety of surfaces. But here in the Queen City of the South, our predominant surface is clay. The reason: clay (hardened “anapog”) is softer on our knees and you’re less prone to leg injuries.

On clay, there is one human being who is the undisputed heavyweight champion.

He turns 33 on June 3, hails from the resort island of Mallorca, and is scheduled to get married to his long-time girlfriend Xisca Perello this October.

Rafa. That simple nickname will evoke despair and anxiety among his ATP counterparts when the only Grand Slam event played on clay begins today.

The 6-foot-1, 187-pound Spaniard owns an unbelievable 86 wins out of 88 matches at the French Open. That’s a 97.72 percent winning clip.

On his first attempt to play on Paris’ red clay back in 2005, he hoisted the trophy. Same on his second try. And on the third and fourth. Of the multiple trips that he’s ventured inside Stade Roland Garros, he’s only lost twice: to Robin Soderling (2009) and Novak Djokovic (2016). Rafael Nadal owns 11 Roland Garros trophies.

Last week, after he won the Italian Open in Rome (Nadal’s first 2019 title), the overwhelming favorite in France is the Spaniard. But there are two others who I consider as strong contenders.

Novak Djokovic has won the last three majors (Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open). In that last slam in Melbourne, he humiliated Nadal in a quick 3-setter that lasted a mere 124 minutes. Djokovic has extra motivation in Paris: he’ll be aiming for the “Djoker Slam” — winning four straight majors.

Dominic Thiem is the third contender. At the French Open, he reached the finals last year (handily losing to Nadal) and the semis in 2016 and 2017. He has also beaten Nadal (on clay) four times.

My pick in Paris? The answer is obvious. I’ve always been a huge Rafa fan. His relentless all-out effort on court coupled with his smiling and good-natured attitude off the court makes him a global sports ambassador. Much like Roger Federer — who’ll be making a comeback after skipping the red clay for the last three years.

Rafa and Roger can meet in the semis. They’re both in the lower half of the draw together with another rising star, the Greek 6-foot-4 with the style and one-handed prowess of Federer. He’s Stefanos Tsitsipas.

At the upper half of the draw are Djokovic and Thiem plus a slew of strong (and tall, both 6-foot-6) players, Alexander Zverev and Juan Martin del Potro.

But the Spaniard aiming for his 12th title in Paris is the odds-on choice.

“I think Rafa Nadal is the huge favourite,” said Dominic Thiem, “and then after that, there are also five, six players who can win the tournament. So it’s gonna be a very interesting two weeks.”


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