Tennis player Ruben Gonzales finds purpose in PH nat'l team

MANILA, Philippines – The Davis Cup battle between Filipino Ruben Gonzales and Kuwait’s Mohammad Al-Ghareeb had been going on for more than 4 hours. It had become less of an athletic contest and more of a battle of wills.

If the straight sets victory by Gonzales’ teammate Jeson Patrombon over Abdulrahman Alawadhi earlier put the fans at Valle Verde Country Club on cloud 9, the epic struggle between Gonzales and Al-Ghareeb was a reminder of just how difficult international tennis can be.

The 30-year-old Gonzales had won the first two sets against Kuwait’s number one seed, but Al-Ghareeb, who earned fame for his near-upset of then-world no. 1 Roger Federer at the 2006 Dubai Tennis Championship, turned the tide in the third, and finished off a marathon fourth set tie-breaker with a bullet-driven ace. Al-Ghareeb quickly raced to a 4-1 lead in the fifth set and seemed to have all the momentum behind him.

The DJ at the sparsely occupied oven of a tennis facility must have been a Filipino, as “Eye of the Tiger” played multiple times throughout that set. Whether or not the song rejuvenated Gonzales, he began to fight his way back, just as Rocky Balboa did against Clubber Lang in Rocky III. 4-1 became 4-4, and finally 5-5.

And at that moment, when the 35-year-old Kuwaiti player's return hit the net to tie the set at 5-all, Ruben Gonzales raised his arms in relief as he soaked in the cheers from the crowd. And then the unexpected.

The final point pic.twitter.com/4BitpXQCke — Ryan Songalia (@ryansongalia) March 5, 2016

Ghareeb walked over to his captain and buried his face his shoulder. He was done for, a pulled groin muscle leaving him unable to continue. 

“You just fight. In tennis anything can happen, you just hang around and sometimes good things happen,” Gonzales said moments after the victory.

"For Ruben to tough him out and stay in the match in there until the end shows that he’s playing great tennis," said Gonzales' impressed teammate Treat Huey.

It was the equivalent of a 14th round knockout, with Ghareeb unable to answer the bell for the final round. Gonzales took a victory lap around the court holding the Philippine flag.

“It means everything to me. It’s one of the main reasons I’m still playing,” said Gonzales about representing the Philippines. “That’s why I get up in the morning and train. That’s why I want to get better so I can represent our country, not only in Davis Cup, but in all the ATP tournaments I play around the world, to represent my country as best that I can.”

For Gonzales, representing his country gives him a greater purpose in tennis, and has kept him from giving up on his dreams. Moments like Friday's win are what keeps him afloat through the ups and downs, like last year when his doubles world ranking dipped from a high of 152 to 406, putting his dreams of playing in the Grand Slams further out of touch.

“I would say the last couple months of last year was really tough,” Gonzales says of losing in the first round of 9 straight tournaments. “I’d say I’m a pretty positive guy but it’s hard to put a positive spin on those things and looking at the good things that happened. At the end of the day it’s a privilege to get to do what I love for a living.”

Born to play

Since as long as Gonzales can remember, he’s been around tennis. Born in Chicago and raised just outside of Illinois in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Filipino-American comes from a family of tennis players. His two brothers, one 7 years older, and the other, 10 years older, were decent players.

Gonzales recalls being 3 years old at the courts watching his 13-year-old brother play, and he soon picked up the racket himself. The rush of performing for crowds became an addiction.

“From the time I was little, I remember really enjoying playing in front of people, and I feel like I play my best when people are watching so I kind of embraced that,” Gonzales said as he cooled down. “It was kind of cool to get a win tonight in front of everyone.”

Gonzales has always been in touch with his Filipino roots. Terre Haute has a Filipino community of about 50 families, he said, and he lived in Manila for a short time as a child and in high school.

Gonzales earned a scholarship to play tennis at the University of Illinois, where he became known as “The Spirit of Illinois tennis”, according to his profile on the Fighting Illini website “because of the way he competes with a ferocious tenacity every match.”

Ruben Gonzales, who grew up idolizing Andre Agassi and Patrick Rafter, hopes to play in the Grand Slams.

Ruben Gonzales, who grew up idolizing Andre Agassi and Patrick Rafter, hopes to play in the Grand Slams.

That's also where he developed his distinct "yiiii" sound while returning shots, his answer to a coach commanding him to breathe out audibly while swinging.

“When I went there we were the defending national champions, so obviously to get recruited to the best team in the country was a pretty big honor,” said Gonzales. “We were always a top 5 team in the nation so it’s probably some of the most fun years of my life, the most enjoyable time in my tennis career.”

Gonzales has been a staple of the Philippine national team since 2010, winning a silver medal in the men’s doubles with Patrombon in the 2015 Southeast Asian Games, and accruing a singles record of 8-4 and doubles record of 5-3 in the Davis Cup. He lists his two, 5-set matches, which lasted 5 hours against New Zealand in the 2013 Davis Cup, among his toughest.

The two wins on Friday, plus a doubles victory on Saturday, put the Philippines in the Asia/Oceania Group II semifinals, where they'll meet the winner of Chinese Taipei vs Malaysia from July 15-17. Should the Philippines win the tournament, they’ll earn promotion to Group I for the first time since 2011.

Gonzales wants to see the Philippines to the next level of tennis, but also has a few milestones he wants to achieve for himself.

"My ultimate dream is to go deep in a [Grand Slam]," said Gonzales. "Whether it be singles or doubles, my ultimate dream is to go to a semi or a final. I think that would be pretty cool. I honestly think I have the game to do it, it’s just putting everything together."

Whatever happens, Gonzales has a feeling he'll be proud of what he's done when it's all over.

"I do all the right things, I’m training really hard. I feel like when I’m done I can be happy with the things that I’ve accomplished," said Gonzales. – Rappler.com

Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at ryan.songalia@rappler.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanSongalia.