Close to 200 priests from around the country trooped to the court last week in a unique show of support, friendship and camaraderie. No, not to the Senate impeachment court, but the tennis courts of Manila Polo Club in Forbes Park, Makati.
“I’ve always had a passion for sports. I believe in wellness. I believe in promoting health. There’s no better prevention for sickness than sports,” said the healing priest and tennis enthusiast Fr. Fernando Suarez.
The dramatic rise in popularity of tennis among priests is no accident. When Suarez discovered the sport, he got so hooked he was able to convince other members of the clergy to play tennis.
Traveling around the country and abroad for his healing ministry made it more convenient for him to spread the love.
Soon he convinced parishes to build tennis courts and, a few years later, mounted the first ever National Tennis Tournament for Priests, also known as the Fr. Suarez Cup.
Suarez, who turned 45 last Sunday, is far from the stereotypical stoic priest. He guffaws like a teenager, he raises both his eyebrows when he gets anxious, and his eyes grow large and round when he gets excited. On this day he was impassioned about tennis—this tennis, this Cup, his brainchild.
He fell in love with tennis when he entered the seminary in 1995. Although he has always been athletic in his youth—playing basketball, football and volleyball—it was tennis, he said, that sealed the deal for him.
“Everywhere I go nagpapatayo ako ng tennis courts. Usually they have basketball courts but I’m hoping many more will know that tennis is a good sport,” said Suarez.
Now on its third year, the Fr. Suarez Cup has grown from a mere 50 priests to over a hundred. That’s not counting the many more who couldn’t make it due to lack of finances and/or parish work and obligations.
The Cup, for now, has only doubles matches. Instead of cash prizes of the past, this year Suarez decided to award the champion a trip for two to the Holy Land. They will also be the official representatives of the country during the first World Tennis Championship for Priests in Poland in Sept. 10-12 this year.
“This is going to be the major prize from now on. So many priests want to go to the Holy Land but can’t afford the trip. I’m thankful I’m able to get good sponsors. I’m well-connected,” Suarez said, laughing, one hand holding his stomach.
Dominating the Cup
Priests from the Visayas have always dominated the Cup. This year was no exemption. The team of Fr. Jolard Larida and Fr. Rere Ducao from Cebu, defending champions since 2010, won first prize.
Larida, also a triathlete, said he started playing tennis when he entered the seminary as means to gain leverage with the priests. Tennis has always been the sport of preference among priests in Cebu. Bonding with priests usually meant having privileges, rights.
“I haven’t been able to practice as much as I wanted to for this match,” Larida said. The tennis club where he plays closed down, forcing him to play a little farther away from his parish and cutting down his matches to just twice a week instead of the usual four.
Msgr. Ruben C. Labajo, president of the Cebu Clergy Club, said the Larida-Ducao team is driven and competitive. They make a strong team, undefeated for the third time in a row.
Competition, however, is never the highlight of the Cup. They are here, he said, to be in communion with other tennis aficionado priests. It’s not every day, he said, that you meet other priests with the same passion and interest.
“So many priests now are starting to learn tennis because of this tournament. You need to discipline your body. It all starts there. If you have a sound body and mind you will also be spiritually sound and strong,” Labajo said.
Bishop Antonio Palang, now 65, is one of Suarez’s staunch supporters. Even if he’s not expecting to win, he’s been to all three tourneys. Playing tennis since 1973, it has been his passion way before it became what it is today. Palang, who has a commanding, stern voice and witty personality, said he joins the Fr. Suarez Cup to enjoy the company of other priests.
“I’m also here to win, of course! Winning is not everything, but to win is another thing,” Palang said, laughing. His feet hurt when he walks, he said, the perils of old age, but he is still in full fighting mode as he jokingly said he hoped his partner was younger and stronger. He was later overheard saying there should be an age category in the future Cups.
Runner-up Fr. Jublas Nolasco, however, hopes there will be singles matches next time. Playing tennis since high school, the 32-year-old Nolasco is a two-time champion in the singles matches in Negros Occidental.
“Tennis has always been my sport. It’s my way of relaxation,” Nolasco said.
Fr. Jomar Dehita from Naga City travels 45 minutes just to play tennis, but was in very good spirit during the tournament. It’s an experience, he said, just to be among like-minded priests.
That he is a Novak Djokovic fan while Suarez and Larida are always rooting for a Rafael Nadal win is immaterial. That he wins or loses, in fact, is immaterial. What matters most is the company.