Alex Eala: I grew up watching Pacquiao fights, now I want to inspire young Filipinas

Rising Philippines teenage tennis star says the love she receives from her people motivates her to achieve more

Alex Eala, the new pride of the Philippines

Alex Eala, the new pride of the Philippines
Powered by automated translation

Alex Eala grew up watching Manny Pacquiao fights, huddled around the TV with family and friends, cheering on the Filipino boxing legend.

Now, at 18, Eala is emerging as a role model herself, having become the highest-ranked Filipina in tennis history, and the first player from her country to win a Grand Slam junior singles title.

The talented teen started building a following back home from an early age as she hit No 2 in the world junior rankings when she was only 15. She won the US Open girls’ singles crown in 2022, to go with her two doubles titles at the 2020 Australian Open and 2021 French Open.

When she triumphed at the US Open, her face was projected on massive billboards on the side of buildings in Manila. Shortly after, she landed on the cover of Vogue Philippines.

Now competing on the professional circuit, where she is up to a career-high 156 in the live rankings, Eala is grateful for the support she has received from her compatriots at home and across the globe.

“It’s a privilege to have all this love and this fanbase,” Eala told The National on the sidelines of the ongoing Madrid Open.

“I think the Filipinos they’re very hungry to see other Filipinos excel, and I’m also like that. When other athletes and other Filipinos excel, we get very excited, because you don’t see it very often. And I’m really happy to bring that pride and to be able to be a part of that.”

When asked about some of the Filipino athletes she drew inspiration from over the years, Eala does not hesitate to name "Pac-Man".

“Of course the biggest one is Manny Pacquiao. Ever since I was a little girl, when he would have fights, it’s like a holiday in the Philippines. The families they get together, they watch the fights,” she recalls.

“And of course, Hidilyn Diaz; she was an Olympic gold medallist. So we have so many people to look up to in the Philippines, and a really great community. Last time I was in the Asian Games, I met all of these Filipino athletes that have very special stories and very unique to each one, so I think it’s really inspiring.”

At the Asian Games, Eala won two bronze medals, in singles and doubles, further cementing her status as a rising star on the continent.

This week in Madrid, Eala justified the wildcard she was given by claiming the first WTA 1000 main draw victory of her career – a comeback three-set win over Lesia Tsurenko – to earn a clash against Sorana Cirstea.

She’s been slowly stepping up to the bigger tournaments on the WTA circuit, soaking up many lessons learnt along the way.

“I think one of the biggest takeaways is to have the correct mentality always and how body language and posture can influence your mood and how you play,” she says of her experience as a pro so far.

Eala got into tennis at the age of four as a way to bond with her brother and grandfather, who was her coach during her first 10 years in the sport.

“Spending every day with him and my brother really ingrained tennis in my DNA,” she said.

“In my mind, even when I was younger, I always thought my grandfather was doing it to make me a professional. I learnt later on that was not the original goal. It’s always been a dream of mine.”

At age 12, Eala won the prestigious under-14 tournament Les Petits As [as a wildcard], where she was noticed by representatives from the Rafael Nadal Academy. She moved to Mallorca, Spain, the following year to join the academy and has been based there since.

“We jumped at the opportunity to be able to move to Spain and to expose myself to another level of tennis,” she said.

“The one catch was that I had to be with my brother, so my brother moved with me and I think that made it a lot easier, because we were going through it together. And of course the staff and the people that I’ve met in the academy really made it my second home.”

Eala’s time at the academy didn’t just give her an education and access to elite tennis training, she also got to interact with 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, who is always practising there between tournaments.

“Just to be able to see him practise as often as I do, in person, and really see his work ethic, I think that’s something that I won’t get anywhere else,” she said.

Eala admired Maria Sharapova growing up and said she loved “everything” about the five-time major winner.

“I had a poster of her in my room, she was my fifth-grade project. I like her style, I like how she fought and ran after every ball,” gushed Eala.

Like Sharapova, Eala is ambitious, hard-working, and adopts a level-headed approach towards her career.

“I think I rose in the junior ranks quite quickly but I tried really not to think of the big picture and I always knew, by the time I was playing juniors, I already knew my goal was the professional level. I tried not to let it get to my head,” said Eala.

She’s been trying to make the most out of her experience in a big tournament like Madrid, practising with top players and enjoying the perks that come with competing at a WTA 1000 event.

“Yesterday I practised with Bia [Beatriz] Haddad Maia. It’s great the system here, when someone is looking for a practice partner, you can just put your name [forward],” she added.

“She plays obviously very well; especially practices like those I try to take to heart and soak in everything that I can learn.”

Eala wasn’t the only Rafa Nadal Academy player battling on court in Madrid on Tuesday. Fellow lefty, Abdullah Shelbayh of Jordan [nicknamed Abboud], won his opening qualifying round before falling to Corentin Moutet at the next hurdle.

“I’ve known Abboud since maybe 10 or 11 years old. He’s a really funny guy and if you get to know him, you’ll never stop laughing,” she said.

“He’s doing really well, I think he just lost his match but he played really well the past two matches and I’m really excited to see more from him.”

Eala has many eyes on her with every move she makes, both on and off court, especially from young girls back home dreaming of following in her footsteps. It is a position that could seem daunting to some but Eala seems to be thriving.

“It's definitely not a burden. I would say the support from the Filipinas is really a strength. To be able to receive so much love and support from this demographic, it gives me a lot of motivation and fuels me to do more,” she added.

Updated: April 25, 2024, 7:37 AM