Tennis wunderkind Francis Casey “Niño” Alcantara, who made history as the first Filipino to win a Grand Slam title, dedicated his victory in the Australian Open Saturday to his late father.
The power-hitting Alcantara, who arrived yesterday from Melbourne, teamed up with Chinese-Taipei’s Cheng Peng Hsieh for the Aussie Open junior boys doubles crown, beating Mikhal Biryukov of Russia and Yasutaka Uchiyama of Japan, 6-4, 6-2, in the finals.
The 5-foot-7 Filipino ace lost his father Francis when he was only 10 seven years ago. It was a painful blow. Alcantara, the oldest of three boys, learned the game at the age of five playing doubles with his father at the Nazareth Lawn Tennis Club across the street from their home in Cagayan de Oro.
Alcantara’s father was 37 when he succumbed to a heart attack. His mother Sarah, a Social Security System employee, took over as the family’s sole provider.
“I dedicate the victory to my dad who’s watching over me up there,” said Alcantara who turns 17 on Wednesday. “I’m really proud to be a Filipino. I’m also dedicating the championship to all our countrymen.”
The seventh-seeded Alcantara and Hsieh mowed down five pairs to bag the title. First to fall were Toni Androic of Croatia and Sudarwa Sitaram of India, 6-3, 6-4. Then came James Chaudry of England and John Morissey of Ireland, 6-0, 6-3. In the quarterfinals, Alcantara and Hsieh crushed Germany’s Kevin Krawietz and Dominik Schultz, 6-4, 7-6. They disposed of Austria’s Maximilian Neuchrist and Tristan Samuel Weissborn, 7-6, 6-4, before trouncing Biryukov and Uchiyama for the crown.
“I like playing with Hsieh,” said Alcantara who leaves today for Cagayan de Oro to catch up with his Xavier high school studies in time for graduation next month. “His serve, return and volley are exceptional. His defense is also very good. He gives me a lot of chances to poach.”
Alcantara said he felt Biryukov and Uchiyama were nervous in the finals. “We were relaxed but they were pressured,” he noted. “Our chemistry was perfect. It was our fourth doubles competition together and third championship after winning in China and Thailand.”
Alcantara admitted being awed by the presence of his heroes, particularly Argentina’s 6-6 Juan Martin del Potro, at the Australian Open. But he didn’t allow himself to be distracted when it came to winning time.
“I was really excited to see (Rafael) Nadal, del Potro and Serena (Williams),” he said. “I took pictures with all of them.”
Alcantara’s mother, former Xavier of Cagayan de Oro president Fr. Antonio Samson and tennis supporter Oscar Hilado watched the finals at courtside. Two other tennis benefactors Jean Henri Lhuillier and Rommie Chan were in Melbourne for Alcantara’s previous matches.
“It was a great feeling to see a Filipino win a Grand Slam title,” said Hilado, chairman of Philippine Investment Management Consultants, Inc. (Phinma). “Niño was very poised out there. The age range of 16 to 18 is critical in the development of junior players and while his education is important, we’re hoping to be a bit flexible in his schedule. Exposure is vital and we want Niño to play in more Grand Slam tournaments but he has to earn his spot in the main draw. He was the lightest player on the court (he weighs only about 130 pounds) so he needs to build his body strength. He makes up for his lack of bulk with skill and his mind. He has absolutely no sense of inferiority playing against bigger foreign stars.”
Chan said he will take up Alcantara’s school schedule with Xavier of Cagayan de Oro president Fr. Jose Ramon Villarin to discuss adjustments because of conflicts in the tournament calendar.
“There are at least three Grade 1 level junior tournaments before Manila hosts one and we hope Niño is able to complete the tour,” said Chan. “His graduation is in March but the first Grade 1 level competition is scheduled in late February. This is a turning point in Niño’s life and we realize he’s in a kind of dilemma.”
Chan said to prepare for the Australian Open, he sent coach Jun Toledo and national players Toto Joven and Rolito Litang to train Alcantara in Cagayan de Oro.
“Niño didn’t want to miss classes,” said Chan. “I don’t think he was warmed up enough for his first singles match and lost it to Sweden’s Daniel Berta. That’s because he arrived in Australia later than the others. He’s the only junior player in the world’s top 30 still in school. While Niño was in class, the other world-ranked junior players were playing in the US, Mexico and South America to warm up for Melbourne. As Niño played more games in doubles, he got better. He was aggressive in looking to volley, his returns were crisp and he was very composed. If he had more preparation, Niño would’ve gone far in the singles.”
Chan said the goal is for Alcantara, now the world’s No. 29 junior player, to make it to the top four this year. “If he falls below 50, it’ll be impossible to book a slot in the main draw for the next Grand Slam events,” explained Chan. “We want him to be actively competing so he can improve his ranking and move closer to the top. Niño’s the future of Philippine tennis. For Niño, the sky’s the limit.”
Hsieh, 17, invited Alcantara to team up via e-mail a month before because his former partner Liang Chi Huang decided to pair with India’s Yuki Bhambri. Alcantara used to play doubles with Bhambri and welcomed Hsieh’s offer. The top-seeded Huang and Bhambri were bundled out in the semis.
“Hsieh’s a showman and has a tendency to grandstand,” said Chan. “No doubt, he’s very talented but he sometimes loses focus to excite the crowd. In the semis, they nearly lost the first set and barely won, 7-6, because of Hsieh’s antics but he got serious after his sister (Shuai Peng), who plays on the women’s pro tour, showed up in the stands and told him to start playing hard. Hsieh doesn’t get along with a lot of players but he has a lot of respect for Niño.” - By Joaquin Henson (Philstar News Service, www.philstar.com)