Five Filipino athletes to watch at the 2023 Asian games

Eumir Marcial will be fighting for gold in the heaviest weight class of his career. AP Photo/Themba Hadebe

The Philippines will send 395 athletes to the 19th Asian Games to be held in Hangzhou, China from Sept. 23 to Oct. 8. During the last Asian Games held in Jakarta in 2018, the Philippines delegation won four gold medals -- one in weightlifting, one in skateboard, and two in golf.

Three of those gold medalists -- weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, skateboarder Margielyn Didal and golfer Lois Kaye Go (who won the women's team gold with now-pros Yuka Saso and Bianca Pagdanganan) -- will be back in Hangzhou.

Diaz and Didal will no doubt be athletes to watch in their respective events, even as Diaz will be campaigning in a higher weight division this time. But there are other Filipino athletes to keep an eye on, from gold medal hopefuls to promising prospects making their Asian Games debut. Here are five of them.

Alex Eala (tennis)

The 2022 US Open girls' division champion is now a full-fledged pro with a WTA ranking of 191. The 18-year-old has been in fine form this year, having won a couple of W25 titles and reaching the main draw of the WTA 250 Guangzhou Open just before the opening of the Hangzhou Games.

The Philippines last medaled in tennis at the 2006 Doha Games, a pair of bronze medals in men's singles and men's doubles courtesy of Cecil Mamiit and Eric Taino.

It's a long shot that the medal-less streak will come to an end in Hangzhou. Eala will be competing in women's singles and mixed doubles, with both events loaded with top Asian players. In women's singles she'll have to contend with world No. 22 Zheng Qinwen and No. 31 Zhu Lin of hosts China, among others.

That being said, Eala is the hottest tennis prospect the Philippines has had in ages, so watching how she progresses in her first Asian Games is worth observing.

Eumir Marcial (boxing) men's 80kg

To be clear, Marcial isn't the only gold medal prospect on the Philippine boxing team in these games. Tokyo silver medalists Carlo Paalam and Nesthy Petecio will also be competing, and they'll also be among the favorites in their respective divisions.

But Marcial is unique because he's the only member of the Philippine delegation who's already competing in the professional ranks. In fact, he opted out of what would have been his fifth pro fight later this year to chase a gold in the Asian Games and an Olympic ticket to Paris next year.

The road to the gold won't be easy. Marcial will be campaigning in the highest weight class of his career at 80kg or 174 pounds -- a full 14 pounds above his pro weight class of middleweight (160 lbs) -- after the organizers scrapped the division. Will he still pack power in his fists at this level, especially one that has 2023 World Championships gold medalist Nurbek Oralbay of Kazakhstan?

Rianne Malixi (golf)

Saso and Pagdanganan won't return as golf in the Asian Games only allows amateurs. This has left the door open for Rianne Malixi. At 16 years old, Malixi is one of the youngest members of the Philippine delegation and a true golf phenom.

She has already won a few titles on the local Ladies Professional Golf Tour, although she didn't collect any of the prize money in order to preserve her amateur status. She's ranked 75th in the world among amateur players, finished second in the US Girls' Junior Championship, and just reached the Round of 32 of the tough US Women's Amateur Championship last month.

Although she's one of the youngest competitors, Malixi can look to the last Asian Games women's individual gold medalist for inspiration: Saso was just 17 when she won in Jakarta five years ago.

EJ Obiena (pole vault)

Thus far the only Filipino athlete who has qualified for the Paris Olympics, Obiena is coming to Hangzhou in peak form with a World no. 2 rating and a silver medal at the Diamond League finals. Obiena holds the Asian mark in the pole vault and is the only Asian ranked in the top 15.

Obiena is without question currently the best and finest Filipino athlete regardless of sport. This year alone, he became the first Asian to clear six meters, won a gold at the Asian Athletic Championships, and bagged a silver at the World Athletics Championships.

He's a heavy favorite to bag the gold in Hangzhou, which would be the Philippines' first in athletics since Lydia De Vega blazed her way to the women's 100m dash gold in 1986. Anything less than a gold would be a disappointment for Obiena, but even a lower podium finish would be historical as it would be the country's first Asian Games athletics medal in 29 years.

Meggie Ochoa (Jiu-jitsu)

Speaking of world champions, Ochoa has twice been that in jiu-jitsu, last year and in 2018. Earlier this year she topped the 48kg division of the Asian Jiu-jitsu Championships, her third such title. She's also bagged gold twice in the Southeast Asian Games and once in the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. There's little question that she's one of the top jiu-jitsu athletes in the world.

Her trophy case, though, is still missing one important piece as she hasn't been able to translate that success yet to a gold in the Asian Games, having settled for the bronze in 2018. But there's strong belief she'll finally break through this year and give the Philippines its first-ever martial arts gold at these Games.