Off the tennis court, she’s a poised, feminine style maven. But when she picks up the racket to play, Maria Lourdes “Marilu” Toda Batchelor looks tough and intimidating.
“I’m a fighter,” she says, adding that her forehand is her trademark stroke.
When her opponent’s ball arcs up into the air, she returns it with great force. Like a missile, the ball goes straight and long across the court.
For all her power, Marilu insists that she’s merely a recreational tennis player who competes at the club level. Modest about her ranking, she says, “Let’s say I played in a high division while I was living in Hong Kong.”
Her advantage is that she has cultivated the passion since childhood. Her father Rafael “Piling” Toda, an airline executive and sportsman, invented Pelota Filipina in the 1960s. “The game is similar to racquetball with four players. The partners alternately hit the ball against the wall,” she explains.
Toda built the first pelota court in the family residence in San Juan, which subsequently became a venue for gatherings and tournaments.
He gave her daughter a custom-made pelota racket when she was a year old. She would be thrilled to watch her father and brothers hit the ball with consistent precision and force. It was inevitable that she would take up the sport. Her early pelota training developed her hand-and-ball coordination, quick reflexes and masterful strokes.
With the advent of Martial Law in 1972, the Todas migrated to Adelaide in southern Australia. Marilu’s dad built a pelota court where family and friends continued to play.
“Living in Australia, I progressed to tennis. I would spend hours playing tennis against the wall in our pelota court,” she recalls.
She started competing in school and in clubs at the age of nine. “I had a coach, Mr. Hanes. With a bucket of balls, he would push me by making me serve for one hour. I wanted to cry because I’d had enough,” she recounts.
In spite of her skills, she didn’t pass the trials for the state team. “I missed out because I was short at five feet. I could not compete with the taller Aussies,” she says.
Nonetheless, her petite frame was an advantage because she moved faster than taller players.
Thinking and strategy
“Tennis has stuck with me since then. It’s a fantastic sport to keep fit. It’s also a very social sport, and which requires a lot of thinking and strategy. It’s a physical, mental and social sport,” she points out.
She met her future husband, David Batchelor, when they were both working at the same hotel in Sydney.
She left Australia to be with David, who was hired by the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. “From 1993 to 2001, I wasn’t playing as much. I had babies,” she notes. Between mommy duties, she managed to find time at the courts in the Mid-Levels, an affluent residential area in Hong Kong.
When David was transferred to the Peninsula Manila, Marilu took to tennis more seriously and joined tournaments such as the Philippine Ladies’ Tennis League. More important was that she, her husband and their two sons, James and William, would bond through tennis.
David became the longest-serving expatriate general manager at the Peninsula Manila, having served for seven years.
In 2009, he was reassigned to the Peninsula head office in Hong Kong, then became managing director of Peninsula Shanghai.
Meanwhile, Marilu and her two sons stayed in Hong Kong. With her husband coming home on weekends and the boys now older, she had more time at the tennis court to improve her game.
“In Hong Kong, we would train for two hours with lots of doubles drills,” she says. But the overtraining led to a burnout, such that Marilu had to stay away from the court.
A turning point came when David, 56, retired from the Peninsula group after 20 years of service. The Batchelors returned to the Philippines last August so that David could start a hotel consultancy, while their youngest son William, 15, went to high school. Then Ayala Hotels offered David to be managing director of Raffles-Fairmont Makati.
Meanwhile, Marilu picked up her racket again. “I had a break from tennis. I wasn’t playing in Hong Kong toward the end of our stay. I wanted to do other things. After the break, I’m happy playing again,” she says.
She plays singles with the trainers at the Manila Polo Club. “I enjoy singles more. You’re responsible for yourself.”
She also goes through the mean drills. “You do forehands, forehand crosscourt, forehand down the line, backhands down the line, forehand and backhand volleys, smashes, serves, point for point! Oh my gosh, that’s enough. I am no longer 20 years old,” she says.
Marilu has grown accustomed to the Babolat racket and uses the latest model, the Pure Drive. She says it’s unusual for a petite player like herself to favor heavier rackets.
Of the different playing surfaces, she prefers the clay court. Aside from being friendly to body joints, the clay court provides more bounce and the player can slide into the shots, and thereby save one’s energy.
“The clay court is slower and it suits my game,” she says.
She admits she can get superstitious during competitions. “If I’m in a tournament, I have to wear the same outfit—washed, of course—and shoes every time. In my tennis bag, I bring a holding cross and a good luck charm. I would bring things that my sons made in their art class. Once they gave me a necklace with a love heart.”
On hero moments in tennis, she cites winning a mixed doubles tournament with her partner Oscar Jesena. For the longest time, victory had eluded them.
‘Every point counts’
“We kept at it until we finally won,” she says.
“I just don’t give up easily! Every point counts. In doubles, I don’t want to let my partner down, I go for everything,” she adds.
How does she maintain her equanimity in a game?
“If you get a bad line call, keep your cool and focus. I just tell myself to move on to the next point,” she notes.
Beyond competition, Marilu cites another hero moment as seeing how her children evolved from raw talents to skilled players. “Playing with your kids is the best! It’s a great way to spend time together and watch them improve. It’s an incredible thing for a mom,” she says.
Her son William won a club championship in the under-12 division. “He used to play in national tournaments and did well. More than myself, it’s seeing my son develop [that excites me]. I would cheer for him. When he watches me, I try to set a good example,” says Marilu.
On her tennis idols, Marilu used to look up to John McEnroe when he was the world’s No. 1 tennis player in the early ’80s. Although his playing was mesmerizing, he was equally notorious for his boorishness and racket smashing.
“I was 13 when the whole world was against him for being a brat. I decided he was my hero. Let us not focus on his temper,” she points out.
Today, she admires Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova for their savagery and relentlessness, and the way they sting and sling their opponents.
Not bothered by aging
Marilu learns from their cunning strokes, pacing and strategy. “I pick up their form, their footwork, and the way they get out of difficult situations,” she says.
At 46, she is not bothered by aging—not yet, anyway. “I will slow down one day. I won’t run as fast. I worry if I will be able to stay under the sun. How long will I have this energy? But I see women in their 60s who play doubles for three hours. They are fabulous. I aspire to be like them when I’m 65.”