This month, the WTA Editorial team is profiling a selection of up-and-coming names to look out for in 2023.
At the age of 17, Alexandra Eala is already in the history-making business. She was the first player from the Philippines to win a Hologic WTA Tour match (at Cluj-Napoca 2021), and the first to win a junior Grand Slam crown (she has three, adding this year's US Open to two previous in doubles).
Eala's 2022 year-end ranking was No.219, an improvement of over 300 places from the previous season and the highest position ever attained by a Filipina.
Eala's every move as she has transitioned from juniors to pros has been covered by the Filipino media. She has gathered nearly 100,000 Instagram followers and this month she graced the cover of Vogue Philippines.
"I try not to think about all of it," Eala said from the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, where she has trained since the age of 13. "If I think about it, it will get to my head. I try not to make it a big deal. There's always going to be someone more famous. I'm still not where I want to be, and that, most of all, is what keeps me grounded -- the motivation to improve and the motivation to achieve my bigger goals."
Tennis started as a family affair -- and then escalated
The Philippines' most accomplished representatives on the global tennis stage so far have been a pair of U.S.-born ATP players -- former No.72 Cecil Mamiit and doubles specialist Treat Huey. But Eala rejects the idea that she had a lack of role models in the sport.
"I grew up looking up to so many people. They don't have to be really famous for you to look up to them, in my opinion. They can be family members -- my grandfather, my brother. They weren't worldwide famous but it's not just the playing I look up to -- it's how hard they work, their mentality. And there's a lot of talent and a lot of passion in the Philippines for tennis."
Eala's grandfather, Bobby Maniego, was the man who introduced her to tennis. It could have been different in a family full of high sporting achievements. Her mother, Rizza Maniego-Eala, is a former Southeast Asian Games bronze medalist in the 100m backstroke, and her uncle, Noli Eala, is the former commissioner of the Philippine Basketball Association. But Alex was drawn to tennis as a means of bonding with her grandfather and older brother Michael, who now plays for Pennsylvania State University.
"And then it escalated," she said. "I like the challenges it brings me, and I like the feeling of overcoming those challenges. It's very rewarding. Tennis has brought me closer to so many people and taught me so many things even in my short career already. Not specifically just for an athlete, but as a person. How to be organised and disciplined; how to compartmentalise. Things that I know will help me even after my career."
Eala believes the increasing diversity on tour makes for "a really great atmosphere" at tournaments, pointing toward fellow trailblazers Ons Jabeur, Mayar Sherif and junior peer Victoria Jimenez Kasintseva as examples. She's keen to show off Filipino culture where she can. After winning the US Open junior final, she addressed fans in Tagalog.
"Yeah, that speech got a lot of attention, I heard," she said. "It's important to me because I don't see a lot of Filipinos on the worldwide tennis stage. I think we're very patriotic and we love our culture, and that's how I grew up too -- being proud of our traditions and whatnot. So I'm just carrying that part of my personality on to the court and into my career."
On an upwards curve, Eala looks ahead to 2023
Eala has one eye on making her Grand Slam qualifying debut at the Australian Open in January, though will need to wait a few more weeks to confirm that she has made the cut. Even if she hasn't, that milestone will come soon enough after a 2022 season in which she overcame early disappointments to finish with a 45-20 pro record, including her first ITF W25 title in Chiang Rai.
"In the beginning of the year I was struggling a lot," she said. "A couple of things built up over the holidays -- I got Covid, I got a lot of sicknesses and a few injuries. So the beginning of the year was a little shaky. But I stuck it out and the next half of the year was amazing."
Eala singles out one particular match as her personal highlight, a 6-2, 5-7, 7-6(6) win over Jessika Ponchet in the Poitiers ITF W80 quarterfinals in October. Having lost two previous matches this year in straight sets to the tricky Frenchwoman, Eala managed to save six match points en route to turning the tables.
"There were so many ups and downs and it really could have gone either way," she said. "I was able to see a huge amount of improvement -- physically, tactically, mentally -- since the other times. I try not to think about how I stayed calm, I don't know. You cannot overthink it, you just have to trust in your game."
Fitness key to the next level for Eala
As Eala awaits the Australian Open entry list, she continues to hone her game in Mallorca. Centred around a heavy left-handed forehand, there's a certain stylistic similarity to Nadal himself -- even before she began training at his academy, Eala says she was a fan for this reason. But there's one area that she says was key to her rise this year, and will be even more important as she bids to break through to tour level in 2022.
"Fitness," she said. "Growing up, I was never really the one that was super-fit. But it was my focus last preseason, and I've jumped a lot this year. I'm trying to improve it even more -- it will be the next step in taking my game to the next level."
With her professional single-minded focus on the prize, that next level will be something to watch out for in 2023.