WHEN Alex Eala said hello to Rafael Nadal at the recently concluded Australian Open, the Spanish tennis superstar was stretching and putting on his socks.
Eala was with her father Mike at the time. According to Mike, Nadal stood up and greeted Eala cordially. After all, the 14-year-old Filipino was a student at his academy.
"You had a strong match," the 33-year-old player, currently ranked the world's number one, told Alex, who had defeated Israel's Shavit Kimchi in a first round singles match-up. "Congratulations on your win."
Nadal himself had come from a tough match with Nick Kyrgios. He had staved off his flashy Australian rival and knocked him out of the final eight, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4), but not before a hard-fought duel. Alex countered, "No, congratulations to you!"
"That kind of broke the ice [between them]," recalled the elder Eala, laughing. Nadal wished Alex luck in her upcoming matches.
It was a luck that would hold. While Eala would bow out of the singles running, she and her doubles partner, her old friend Priska Nugroho from Indonesia, would go the distance and win the Australian Open junior doubles title.
She became the first Filipino to win a juniors grand slam since 2009... and the first ever Filipina to do so.
Eala recognizes how historic her win is. "I'm very proud to be a Filipina," she said at a hastily assembled press conference to celebrate her win. "I'm very proud to represent my country, especially in a sport where not a lot of Filipinos are present. I want people to see that the Philippines has a lot of potential for high level talent."
While the tennis prodigy is in town for two short nights to celebrate her win with family and friends, it's back to the grind tomorrow. She flies back to Spain to continue her grueling training at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, where she's been studying for the past two years.
Currently ranked ninth in the ITF World Junior rankings, she will head back to the competition circuit in March.
While Alex obviously looks up to Nadal — "You know, I've gotten a lot of tips just watching him on court," she said — he isn't the only mentor she looks up to. Her grandfather, Robert Maniego, was the one who taught her to start playing tennis when she was just four years old.
Maniego passed away just last November. At the press conference, Eala's eyes filled with tears remembering her 'Lolo Bob.'
"I'd like to think that he's proud of me," she said. "We've been talking about me winning a Grand Slam ever since I started."
She added: "Hopefully, it's just the first of many."