MANILA, Philippines??Is this interview for fitness or fatness?? asks actress Gloria Diaz in mock self-deprecation.
In her younger days, the former beauty queen jogged, worked out in the gym and went horseback-riding to look trim for the camera. When she would pass by Manila Polo Club?s tennis courts, she would dismiss the sport upon seeing the older people taking it up.
?Now I?ve joined the force,? Diaz declares. At 58, she has shifted her fitness objectives from mere aesthetics to better health and vitality.
Six days a week, she and longtime beau, banker Michael de Jesus, do mixed doubles with her sister Georgina Diaz-Baillet and investment banker Stephen Cu-Unjieng. It?s coincidental that they?re all in their prime 50s.
Baillet recalls how their parents would eagerly prepare for golf by packing their things the night before and sleeping at 9 p.m. to be up at 4 a.m. and to tee off at 6 a.m.
Now she and Diaz share that enthusiasm. They sleep early and the household is up by 5 a.m. They eat properly before the game for energy. To them, the Polo Club tennis court in the early morning is paradise.
Diaz was into intense squash before de Jesus introduced her to tennis. ?Squash is very fast. It?s almost scary when I see it now. I can?t imagine that I used to play it. In a blink of an eye, you can injure yourself. It?s ferocious. In tennis, you can play with a slow opponent and still get a cardio workout,? says the actress.
On the tennis culture, de Jesus explains: ?In the Philippines, the name of the game is to return the ball because the courts are slower; they?re made of shell. Here, tennis is about staying power?who can outlast the opponent with placing, and making sure the opponent commits the mistake first. You don?t have to be fancy. That?s at the club level. At the professional level, it?s about power, as in the US Open where the courts are fast.?
De Jesus started playing at 15 and returned to the sport after 35 years. He was a Class A player until a few years ago, when a tennis ball hit his eye from a backhand smash and detached his retina. After the major surgery, he slowed down. Yet, experience and wisdom from age have made him more savvy. ?You understand the game more,? he says.
He enjoys the mental and emotional growth tennis provides. ?Tennis is good for many things?socializing, exercising, competition, maintaining business contacts and also meeting pretty girls. Everything rolled into one.?
The best part is that it bonds him with Diaz. ?We spend at least 90 minutes playing in the morning. Then at night, we go out and go home early so we can wake up early. If you?re dating someone who?s not into sports, it would be hard,? says de Jesus.
Although studies claim that tennis burns more fat than cycling or an aerobic workout, the banker points out, the sport doesn?t guarantee dramatic weight loss. ?Tennis will not necessarily keep you fit. You must be fit to play tennis. It won?t make you thin. It will supplement your dieting. You must do cross-training like lifting weights and running,? says de Jesus.
Diaz cross-trains in the gym to improve her game and to increase her endurance. She adds: ?I do a lot of sit-ups and leg-raises because your core strength comes from your stomach muscles. If you have a flabby tummy, you can?t run. Some tennis players have big bellies, but they compensate with their strokes and by quickly settling into position.?
?I thought this was a miracle sport,? says Baillet. Researches have shown that tennis decreases body fat percentages, lowers the risk of heart disease and improves bone health even among those who take up the sport in midlife. ?I lost weight and gained a lot of muscle to become strong.? As a result, she has become a secure counterpuncher.
Investment banker Stephen Cu-Unjieng attributes his 18-lb weight loss to appendicitis and dieting for health, not the sport?s intense burst of activity. ?Tennis was not the cause of weight loss. Improved tennis game was the result.?
Cu-Unjieng, who has been playing tennis since he was 16, enjoys tennis not only because it outdoes other sports, such as golf, in burning calories in such a compressed time. The game keeps him mentally alert, and therefore, sharpens his brain power.
?You just don?t whack the ball as hard as you can. There are tactics and placing. That?s what challenges me,? he says. The strategist in the group, he cleverly forestalls his opponents? moves and surprises them with his countermoves.
Compared to other athletes, tennis players rank high in vigor and optimism. The sport intensifies energy levels. ?In the mid-?90s, when I wasn?t exercising as much, I became lethargic and an insomniac. Now I sleep very well because of the heightened level of activity and increased stamina. It helps me at work in the sense that I?m more physically fit and therefore, more alert,? says Cu-Unjieng.
Diaz stresses that tennis is a mind game. ?You can?t be surprised or scared. It?s a game of confidence. Once you start losing, it?s downhill from there. When we had a tournament, I was scared of somebody who was so good. I was a liability from the start. Then I cleared my mind: ?I can do it.? The strokes and the talent came.?
De Jesus commends Diaz, his protégé, for quickly becoming a Class B player after learning the game in her early 50s. ?She has high lobs and good netting,? he says.
Diaz uses her actress? instincts to fool her opponents and to up her ante. ?She places the ball at the left but she?s looking at the right,? says de Jesus. ?She has improved her game because she has so much guts and always challenges the better players. In tennis etiquette, you must wait to be asked by the better players, otherwise, you might be too slow for them. But Gloria doesn?t follow those rules. She?s makapal (bold). By playing with better players, she has developed a wider array of shots in her arsenal.?
Her sister agrees: ?Glory is left-handed so she gives tremendous returns that people don?t expect. It?s difficult,? says Baillet who, despite her improved backhand, sometimes mistakenly feeds the ball to Diaz?s powerful left backhand. ?You expect the backhand would be the weak one. Everybody gives it to the person?s backhand,? says Baillet.
Despite her fitness level, Diaz admits that age is catching up; she sees younger players who are more springy, who unleash fiercer serves or drive their rivals into submission with their strikes. ?If you play with a younger person, your tongue will be hanging out. It?s a humbling experience. You realize you?re not as young.?
Still, the game holds an enduring appeal to her. ?There are people who are over 75 and play slow-mo tennis. I want to be like that at 75,? says Diaz.
She says tennis provides benefits?such as an improved sex life.
?You?re stronger,? maintains Diaz, but de Jesus disagrees: ?I don?t see the connection.?
Asked how Diaz finds time for sex with early nights and dawn wake-up calls: ?Haven?t you heard of afternoon delights??