Phil Star – Johnny Arcilla: The making of a champion

Johnny Arcilla unleashing another killer backhand. No wonder he has stayed on top for so long.

By Mae Coyiuto (The Philippine Star) | Updated January 11, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - After hours of intense neck-and-neck rallies, it was down to the final set. Cramping in both legs, Johnny Arcilla could barely walk. With multiple warnings and violations from having too many injury timeouts, he knew he had to get this point. It was now or never. With all the energy left in his body, he took a chance with a backhand down the line shot. It went in. He did it. He won. It didn’t matter that he could not feel his legs. He didn’t care that he could barely stand. It was all worth it.

If the ATP tour had the likes of Roger Federer and Pete Sampras, Philippine tennis has Johnny Arcilla. I grew up watching him play. He was the country’s best even before I knew anything about the sport. Everybody calls him a natural. He makes every shot seem so effortless. Seeing him play makes you think that tennis is as easy as controlling a joystick. I used to think that champions like him must have been born great. I imagined that when Johnny as a child first held a racquet, he automatically knew everything about the game. I thought that he must have been gifted with superhero ability in the sport. But after talking to him, I looked at this great champion in a different light.

To be a champion, you start with yourself.

At the young age of five, Johnny started as a ball boy in the city of Butuan. His father was his sole coach and he would play in the tennis court right behind his house. His daily routine consisted of school and tennis. If it weren’t for school, he would probably be on the court all day. He had no allowance, no sponsor, so he would use his own money to buy his own equipment. When he was seven, he started joining tournaments and was discovered by Milo at the age of 10. From the first moment they saw Johnny play, they knew he had potential. Since most of the tournaments were held in Manila, Johnny moved there all by himself when he was just 12. This was one of the biggest difficulties in his life. He was in an unfamiliar place and he didn’t know anyone. He was unsure with himself and started losing to competitors who he knew he could beat. But he adjusted and worked hard. He trained six days a week and dominated the whole juniors’ category. While most kid players aim to break the top 10, Johnny held the number one spot from the time he joined the 12 under category to the 18 under category. “One of the greatest feelings is to realize that there are rewards for all my hard work. To be great in this sport, this is what you must do.”

To be a champion = confidence + sacrifice

To get to his practices, Johnny has to wake up extra early and commute all the way to the courts. Although he never complains: “This is my training. I have to get used to it because it will be worth it.” Even though he has been the number one player in the country for 10 years, he knows that he still has to practice. “I was once injured for two months then jumped in and joined tournaments right after. I thought I could still win but the lack of training put me behind everyone. I started losing to almost everybody. Even if I relax for just three weeks, my game will be totally off.” You never stop working. There’s always room to get better.

Before the biggest annual national tournament, the PCA Open (also dubbed the Wimbledon of the Philippines), Johnny underwent intensive training for weeks. He was up against Marc Sieber who had just beaten a player who was ranked 50th in the world. No one expected that Johnny would win this match and all odds were against him. But he walked onto that court without giving any sign of self-doubt: “Confidence is crucial. If I know that I’m conditioned, I go in that court knowing that I can win this game. You have to believe that you’re going to win.” And he did. Johnny proved once again why he has been on top for so long. He grabbed his record breaking seventh PCA mens’ title.

To be a champion, you must have something worth fighting for.

“My dream ever since I was young was to play for the Davis cup and represent the country. When that dream finally came true, I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was so nervous and could hardly run at first. Fortunately, I learned to handle my nerves and they slowly disappeared. It’s a completely different story when it’s the country’s name you’re carrying.” When I asked Johnny what was his best experience in his career, he immediately answered being in the Davis Cup. One of his most memorable matches is going against Kazakhstan and beating their player who was top 400 in the world. “To play for my country is the greatest honor that I’ve been given.”

I have always wondered what tennis players think about while they’re in the middle of the game. Johnny’s thoughts are summed up in three words: for my family. “This is not just for me; it’s for us. This is where I think I get my confidence and my strength. I’m playing to give my family the things they rightfully deserve. With tennis, I am able to support them. I owe everything to this sport, including the roof my family has over their heads.”

To be a champion, you have to love what you’re doing.

If you were given a chance to turn back time and change your past, would you? If Johnny had that opportunity, he would still play this game and he will gladly do it all over again. “I have no regrets. I wish I could have televised my whole career so I can watch it and relive every moment.” Even after so many years of playing, he has never gotten tired of the sport. “I feel sick whenever I go a day without playing. My heart is in tennis. I don’t think it’s the end for me yet. I still enjoy competing and I’ve never stopped loving this game.”

Tennis is his work, his passion and his love. “Where would I be without tennis? I would have probably just remained in the province lounging around aimlessly without any goal in life. I might have joined the wrong crowd and who knows what could have happened to me. I have been blessed with a better life because of this sport. It turned me into somebody. It brought out the best I could possibly be.”

So what’s next for Johnny? You can expect him to represent the Philippines for the next couple of years and most likely adding more titles to his incredible record. But eventually Johnny plans to coach kids in Visayas. “I want to share everything I have learned from the sport. There are so many kids out there with huge undiscovered potential. They have so much talent, but unfortunately lack the opportunities. I want tennis to help them the way it had helped me.”

People look up to Johnny not only for his amazing talent, but also for his passion. Even if he were hitting that ball for possibly the billionth time, he still wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else. That’s what you call true love. What’s even more admirable about Johnny is that you know that he has earned every award and title he has received. Any other person would give up if put in the scenarios that occurred throughout his life. But he never did. Even if people didn’t believe in him, he chose to play. Even if his body reached complete exhaustion, he still chose to play. If you take away his legs, I bet he would still find a way to play the sport.

Johnny did not have any special powers. He did not become great overnight; he strived for greatness. He did all that he could to add the “extra” to the ordinary. Everybody is born to win, but Johnny made himself into a winner. Johnny Arcilla is nothing short of a legend.


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