MANILA, Philippines — Facing her toughest opponent yet, Alex Eala didn’t back down and pushed the World No.23 Zheng Qinwen of China to her limits before yielding a 1-6, 7-6(5), 3-6 loss in their thrilling semifinal duel in the Asian Games women’s singles on Thursday at Hangzhou Olympic Tennis Centre.
The 18-year-old Filipino then settled for a bronze medal in her Asian Games debut, delivering the country’s first in tennis since 2006 when Cecil Mamiit finished bronze in the men’s singles and in the doubles with his partner Eric Taino.
It was an awe-inspiring final stand for Eala, who overcame a 2-5 deficit in the second set by saving multiple match points and getting the better of the No.1 seed home bet in the tiebreaker to force a decider, where she led by 3-1.
However, Eala lost steam with Zheng catching fire and winning five straight games to prevail and advance to the gold medal match after a grueling three-hour and 11-minute match.
The last time the Philippines won gold in Asian Games singles tennis was when Johnny Jose ruled the 1962 edition, while the best finish of a Filipino female tennis player was a silver medal by Desideria Ampon in the women’s single in 1958.
Eala, who is currently ranked 190 in the Women’s Tennis Association, had a promising start by winning the first game of the match but the 20-year-old Chinese started to heat up and won six straight games to take the opening set.
Zheng brought the momentum on her side in the second, moving to the verge of victory with a 5-2 lead. But Eala never wavered and displayed grace under pressure to tie the game at 5-5 amid the match point advantages of her foe, who was cheered by an ecstatic home crowd.
Zheng stopped the bleeding with a 6-5 lead but the Rafael Nadal Academy product continued to show resilience by forcing a tiebreaker, where she got the better of the home bet to earn her first set win against a Top 25 player in the WTA.
Eala, currently competing in the quarterfinal of the mixed doubles with Francis Casey Alcantara against Thailand as of posting time, won six of her seven singles games including her medal-clinching 0-6, 7-5, 6-0 win over Kyoka Okamura of Japan in the quarterfinal on Wednesday.
The Filipino prodigy, who is the first Grand Slam singles champion in the country after an amazing US Open girls’ run last year, has won four International Tennis Federation crowns and three bronze medals in the 31st Southeast Asian Games in Vietnam.
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