Jurence Mendoza: A national tennis champ with international dreams

MANILA, Philippines – Jurence Zosimo de Guzman Mendoza holds an exceptional tennis record. This year, in the 18-and-under boys category, Mendoza ranks first in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), ninth in the whole of Asia, thirteenth in Asia and Oceania, and fifty-fifth in the International Tennis Federation (ITF). What’s next for the country’s number one junior champion? 

“I want to be a professional tennis player,” says the Olongapo City native Mendoza. “That’s the dream, that’s the plan.” 

This prospect is not remote, but “doable,” says his coach Martin F. Misa, a former Philippine Davis Cup team captain and owner of a soon-to-open tennis academy in Manila. However, based on the detailed evaluation of Mendoza’s performance written by his coach, there is room for improvement.

More growth 

According to the evaluation, Mendoza, 17, is an athlete who is maturing and developing each day. As a teenager, he should know how to control his tantrum. He should commit to tennis’s basic requirements like watching what he eats or stretching before and after a tournament. And as a tennis player who had success in his young career, he should learn how to accept defeat, especially from a player younger than himself.

Misa recalls that when Mendoza started playing tennis at seven, he was gangly, uncoordinated, and slow. In fact, it was his older brother Julian Mendoza, a former member of the University of the Philippines (UP) varsity tennis, who had more promise. But Jurence had grit and tenacity, hitting one ball after another continuously, indefatigably. Misa calls this school of tennis “the Swiss way, a mechanical repetitionof drills for 10,000 hours, no shortcut; a mastery of movement and technique.”

According to Misa’s recommendation, Mendoza should improve his backhand return-of-serve and his backhand slice, which he has incorporated into his game. He noticed that Mendoza’s two-handed backhand has a tendency to “tighten up” during short rallies and therefore reminded him to breathe and “finish the stroke.” The Achilles heel of most tennis players is the backhand.

At the Philippines F1 Futures held at the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex last March, Hong Kong’s Hei Yin Andrew Li must have seen these chinks in Mendoza’s game. Although Mendoza cruised in the first set, Li took the second after attacking Mendoza’s backhand relentlessly. In the third set, however, Mendoza quickly adjusted in his backhand return and overpowered his opponent with his flat and sometimes topspin-heavy forehand. Mendoza won in the qualifying round, 6-2 6(6)-7 6-3.

The next day, Mendoza played against Ivo Klec in the first-round match. Klec is number 404 in the world, with 13 singles titles. Mendoza was untroubled. He assailed his opponent with his vicious forehand and serve until Klec found himself broken in the first set. The Slovak immediately broke back and produced a series of aces to win the first set. In the second set, Mendoza made unfortunate errors at the base line by rushing his shots to finish a point. Klec, who had more patience and composure, won the match, 7-6(5) 6-4.

Mendoza has had to learn to accept defeat from opponents - both older and younger. Photo courtesy of M. F. Misa/Official Chickeeduck tournament website

Mendoza has had to learn to accept defeat from opponents - both older and younger. Photo courtesy of M. F.

Misa/Official Chickeeduck tournament website

“He is playing pretty well for his age,” says 33-year-old Klec on the Filipino netter. “When he was playing aggressively, I had to play aggressively too. I tried to put him far away from the court. His forehand is heavy so I had to play to his backhand. Of course, he lacks experience, but that’s because he’s young. With more practice, more matches, he’ll learn.”

Huge loss

Nathaniel “Junjie” H. Guadayo Jr., head coach of UP Men’s Tennis, describes Jurence, a new member of the team, as “intense” and “hardworking.”

Gagapangin niya ang bawat punto,” he says. (He will strive at every point in order to win.)

One afternoon in February, Mendoza played informal doubles against Guadayo and former varsity member Dennis Vitaliano at the UP Diliman Tennis Club (UPDTC) shell court. Partnering with tennis professional Noel Ballester, Mendoza again performed his blistering left-handed forehand, his deft control of the ball in backcourt, and his speedy footwork. But after making an error on a volley shot, Mendoza berated himself. “Bobo!” he cried.” (Stupid.)

To him, no game is petty or insignificant. Every game is a serious battle. Mendoza and Ballester won, 8-5. The latter, known for his delicate placement, gave full credit to Mendoza, telling Rappler, “Ser, nakasandal ako sa pader.” (Sir, I was relying on Jurence who was as solid as a wall.) 

Similarly, Mendoza gave his support to this year’s University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Men’s Lawn Tennis Tournament. The UP Fighting Maroons beat the De La Salle University (DLSU) Green Archers after 13 years of bowing to them. More importantly, UP reached the tournament’s finals, an act that has not been achieved in more than a decade. Guadayo acknowledges Mendoza’s role in both these feats. “He plays with strong self-confidence,” he says on Jurence, who, after being undefeated in his 11 singles matches, went on to bag the Rookie of the Year award.

On April 17, Mendoza and his mother, Editha G. Mendoza, are set to leave for the United States of America (USA) to choose which of the three universities—Oklahoma State University, University of Illinois, and Pepperdine University—will be Jurence’s home in the next four years. All three schools offered Mendoza full educational scholarship. 

Editha has made a checklist of things to consider: coach, facility, teammate, and school ranking. She also has these conditions: one, her son should be allowed to play in professional tournaments; two, the school’s curriculum should be split into “70 percent tennis and 30 percent education”; and three, Jurence’s training should be “rigid.”

“We have high hopes for our son,” she says.

Studying abroad was Misa’s plan. If Mendoza were to continue with the three- to five-year program, which began in 2009, he would need $25,000 US more, or at least one million pesos. Misa says, “In order for Jurence to continue playing high-caliber tennis, he has to train and study abroad. This would be cheaper for us.”

Part of this program was a six-month training in Thailand with coach Dominik Utzinger, technical director of the Swiss Tennis Federation (STF). Utzinger is an expert in developing beginning players, says Misa. Four months into the course, Mendoza traveled to Switzerland and fought against other players of the same level. This training, which cost the family $1,500 US each month, catapulted Mendoza from number 305 to 55 ranking in the world. 

But studying is Mendoza’s bête noire. “I don’t want to study,” he says, a typical reaction of an athlete who would rather hone his backhand than hold a book. However, he seems resigned to putting his studies in his list of priorities. Perhaps there is a reason for this. Mendoza must have learned in UP that having a college degree would make him more appealing to girls. 

On Mendoza’s going abroad, Guadayo says with regret, “Jurence is a big loss to us. There’s nothing we can do. We’ll just have to look for new players in the tryouts.”

The private sector

There is also nothing that the mentor and his protégé can do to get financial help from the government. 

Editha has only this to say: “Our family and those who believed in Jurence would like to support him in the best way we can.”

An amused Misa says: “The way that the government is treating tennis is like a sport on welfare. There is very little money for development.” He was a little timid to add that a government agency had promised them some financial assistance, but after submitting their receipts for reimbursement, the agency declaredthat no money was available.

Ariel Primo L. Juliano, UP’s Varsity Director, says, “We do not believe in long-term investment. We want instant [success].” In sending athletes abroad, he narrates, the government would recruit a qualified half-Filipino athlete, issue him a Philippine passport, and ask him to represent the country. There is no sustained program by the government to look for athletes at the grassroots level and then develop and prepare them for international competition.

In Philippine tennis, he continues, most aspiring players, by the time they reach the age of 17, would see their growth stunt because of the lack of competitors and tournaments. Other constraints, says Misa, are the ill-maintained training facilities in public schools like UP. “Look at UP’s tennis court,” he says. Its hard surface is slippery, its net weather-beaten, and there is litter all around the court. “I don’t think that sport is a priority in UP.” 

He sees one solution. “In my trips abroad,” he says, “I noticed that the success of every sport lies in the private sector. If you have the private sector getting involved in tennis, it will thrive.” 

Mendoza is blessed because he has his family’s coffers behind him. His father, Zosimo Mendoza Jr., runs a law office in Olongapo City; his mother works as a Registered Financial Consultant (RFC); and the family owns a storage corporation and a convenient store franchising business. Although Editha likes to say that it is “very easy for me to raise funds” and invokes a benevolent God, there had been times when she didn’t have the wherewithal to support her son’s tennis.

So she thanks private individuals like Manuel Misa who donated cash and arranged for Mendoza’s free and full use of the Philippine Columbian Association’s (PCA) facilities; Roland So who gave Mendoza an “unlimited” supply of the “easy to swing” and “spin friendly” Technifibre Tennis Racquet; and Oscar Hilado Jr. who sponsored Mendoza’s airline ticket, hotel accommodations, and pocket money when her son joined in tournaments abroad. 

Jurence himself is obliged to three coaches who have influenced him the most. They are: Richie Cunanan, who introduced him to tennis and its rudiments; Roland Kraut, who launched him to Asia’s number five ranking in the ITF 14-and-under category; and Martin Misa, who molded and disciplined him to become an outstanding player and “asked nothing in return.”

But to sharpen his skill further, Misa recommends that Mendoza needs to play in the Futures or Circuit tournaments. A Circuit tournament is the entry level in men’s professional tennis. Every time Mendoza wins in these matches, he gains points. These points are summed up and its total corresponds to a certain ranking in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). The higher he climbs in the ranking, the more important his matches become. The ultimate goal is to break into the Grand Slam event, where elite players compete for a championship title and staggering prize money.

If everything goes according to plan, can Jurence Mendoza make it to this league?

“Yes, he can,” says Misa without hesitation. “He is a world-class athlete.” – Rappler.com