Fresh off her first Grand Slam qualifiers experience as a professional, rising Filipino tennis star Alex Eala wants to focus on playing in the main draw of the remaining Grand Slams this year -- starting with the French Open in June.
Eala, 17, was given a spot in the Australian Open wild card qualifiers last month and was a game away from winning her opening match before losing in three sets to Japanese veteran Misaki Doi. More recently, she fought her way through the qualifiers of the Thailand Open before losing in straight sets in the first round to 6th seed Tatjana Maria of Germany.
While both tournaments ended in early exits, the experience she gained has emboldened Eala to go further in the year's next Grand Slam at Roland Garros.
"My next target right now is to try and qualify for the French Open," Eala said during a press conference with local media in Taguig. "I have to budget my tournaments because as a 17-year-old I only have 20 tournaments allotted. My last tournament was Thailand, that was my 15th tournament. So until Roland Garros qualification, I have five more."
Eala, who is on a short break from the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca to visit family, is determined to break through the tough Women's Tennis Association (WTA) circuit this year and gain enough tour points to improve her current ranking of 217.
She became the first Filipino tennis player -- male or female -- to win a junior Grand Slam singles title after claiming the US Open girls' championship last year, but as she turns 18 in May, she iss turning her attention more to the professional tour.
"As I climb the rankings, the level of my opponents goes higher and higher," she explained. "It's one thing for me to transition from a junior player to a professional player and it's another thing to transition from the ITF Futures tour to the WTA tour.
"So that's what I'm trying to figure right now and I'm trying to work to incorporate myself into that higher level circuit slowly."
Her commitment to improving her professional ranking may cause her to skip this year's Southeast Asian Games and Asian Games, although she won't completely rule out the possibility of playing in both events.
"I would love to represent the Philippines again in the SEA Games but from what I know it might interfere with the qualifiers of the French Open and the preparation prior," she said. "So I haven't sat down with my crew to discuss whether that's something that's going to be included in the schedule."
Eala competed in last year's SEA Games in Hanoi where she won three bronze medals. The 2023 SEA Games, to be hosted by Cambodia, will open in early May, a few weeks before the qualifiers for Roland Garros.
As for the Asian Games, which will be held in Hangzhou, China from Sept. 25 to Oct. 10, Eala said: "I would love to join the Asian Games. I've never competed in that yet. I've heard very good stories and very good experiences from other players.
"But again, I would have to check if it collides with any of the important tournaments that I plan to join this year. But I'm super open to joining and representing if it fits well into the schedule."
Despite playing in a limited number of professional events, Eala has seen her ranking steadily rise from 572nd in March 2022 to 214th in December.
"I'm super happy with my development. I'm proud of what I've done because I know the work that it took me to get here," Eala added. "Even though it's early in my career, I believe that I've worked quite a lot.
"My main goal for this year is really to be more involved in the WTA circuit, to join more tournaments and of course the Grand Slams. My goal is to get the ranking that would allow me to do that.
"Now I feel a lot stronger physically. I've been really working on my fitness with my fitness coach and that's been a big priority in my tennis as the next step I need to improve."
Eala endeared herself further to Filipino fans by giving her victory speech at the US Open in Tagalog, something she had planned on doing but didn't dwell on too much during the championship match.
"I knew that I wanted to speak Tagalog in my speech but I didn't really set it word for word," she recalled. "I kind of had an idea but I was more focused on the match than the speech because I didn't want to assume that I'll win."
Eala has been a scholar at Rafael Nadal's academy since 2019, and says she has learned so much from the 22-time Grand Slam winner.
"He said multiple times to surround yourself with good people, and being on the tour and traveling so much since I was at a young age I believe that that's really an important guideline," she said.
"To be surrounded by good people and to learn good habits. He doesn't need to directly talk to you to give advice. There's just so many things that you can learn just by observing how he is on and off the court. How he's humble, his work ethic and his attention to detail."
Eala's recent success is part of a broader string of international accomplishments by Filipina athletes and something she is proud to be a part of, as she expressed: "I'm super proud of our Filipina athletes.
"There's been a lot of success for women's sports in the Philippines this past couple of years like Hidilyn Diaz and the women's national soccer team. I think that's a great movement and it has lasting impact."