SINGAPORE: The tears welled up in the corners of Sarah Pang’s eyes midway through the interview.
Hers is a story of gut-wrenching lows and glorious highs. Hours on the car, bus, train, plane. The emotions are raw, and the struggle is real.
So don’t tell Sarah Pang what she can’t do – she’s the best judge of that.
And after putting in so much effort, 2019 turned out to be a breakthrough year for the 34-year-old.
In August, she broke into the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) singles' rankings, after more than four years of being on the tour full time. She is only the eighth Singaporean woman to have done so. Last month, Pang also made the WTA doubles' rankings.
But her incredible journey is far from over.
“I want to play in a Grand Slam. And to the normal mind, that’s not possible or that’s a very much longer journey,” she told CNA. “But for me, it’s the same story told to me when I said I wanted to make (the WTA) rankings.”
BADMINTON AND BLASPHEMY
Newspapers at the Pang household weren’t just for reading.
The crumpled pages also served to soak up the water on a Bukit Merah badminton court after it poured. A slick court wasn’t going to stop Pang’s father, secondary English teacher Roger Pang, from putting his children through the paces.
“We would hit on the badminton court every night (from) nine to 10 o’clock,” recalled Pang. “Even if it rained and the court was soaking wet, he bring newspapers downstairs and lay it on the floor to soak it up, and then start.”
While performing exercises, Pang would gaze at the stars. The idea of being one was planted.
“We would be looking at the sky and then he would start to seed the ideas. ‘Would it be cool if you won S$1 million dollars, (or) win the Olympics?'” Pang recalled. “Obviously coming from very humble beginnings, it was a motivation.”
Pang’s father had been trained by All-England champion Wong Peng Soon, but he suggested that his daughter consider tennis – an idea the twelve-year-old could not imagine.
“The first time he broached the topic, I remember I thought it was blasphemy,” said Pang, the fifth of six siblings.
But there was a lack of opportunities for Pang, one of the nation’s top junior players, to pursue her love for the sport.
“There were no avenues to pursue my love for badminton,” she explained. “My dad pulled me aside after my A Levels and he said: ‘Sarah, Papa has always known that you want to play professional sports.
“I'll only let you do it if you choose golf or tennis because they are the only two sports in the world that you can play independently,” he said to her.
Pang picked tennis.
At the National University of Singapore tennis courts, Pang, an English Literature student, would approach “random strangers”. Pang needed hitting partners for her training sessions – sometimes they would come in the form of the “uncles” who frequented these courts.
She had to use old rackets – new ones cost too much – but Pang played with a new passion.
She juggled studies and tennis – electing to complete her honours year, despite it being optional.
“It was the recognition that one more year of training my mind will last me infinitely longer than one more year of training my body,” she said. “I think when you when you reach a high enough level in any field, the tenets of excellence and the pursuit of them are the same.”
SOME PAIN IN SPAIN
Two hundred euros – the price-tag on the Gucci shoes owned by a 12-year-old who lived in the dormitory Pang managed was identical to the Singaporean’s monthly expenditure in Barcelona.
But unlike the youngster, Pang had to scrimp and save to get to the Sanchez-Casal Tennis Academy.
It had taken Pang one year, two loans and three jobs to fund her three weeks of training camp.
The three weeks became three months, but on top of practice, Pang would work as a dormitory warden – all to supplement her living expenses.
“When I started working in the dorm, it was really very tough,” Pang said. “I would go back to my dorm crying every night in the first three months because I'd be feverish and super tired … It was very,very overwhelming.”
“I spoke to the coaches and I said, do you think it’s possible (for me to play pro)?” she recalled. “And the verdict was: ‘It is possible Sarah, but you are carbon right now, to play pro you need to be diamond’.
“I was like: ‘The answer is not no! I can use this to go back and find sponsors in Singapore.'”
But Pang was unable to. Taking a leap of faith, she decided to return to Spain.
“I had only one friend (at the airport), my family didn't send me off,” she recalled, composing herself. “I had one friend who sent me to the airport, and I remember hugging him and telling him I was so scared. I don’t know what to expect.
“When I went back, I sat down with the owner and I said: ‘Emilio, I have no money’,” she recalled.
“‘I know I would like to stay here and train, will you give me that chance? If you need (me) to wash the dishes, clean the toilet, whatever … I want to stay here and train.'”
Braving rat infestations, fatigue, as well as the lack of proper heating, Pang’s second stint in Spain lasted a year.
“The conclusion was that I was good enough, I needed to compete more but I had no financial setup or options to compete. Working six days a week, fifteen hour shifts was not going to set me up for success in any way,” she said.
‘MENTALLY, PHYSICALLY, EMOTIONALLY, SPIRITUALLY DRAINING’
Returning home, Pang spent three years working at Sport Singapore, before taking the “leap of faith” to play tennis on the professional circuit in 2015.
At that point of time, her savings could sustain her being on tour for about six months.
“It was very stressful … Being on tour itself is a mentally, physically, emotionally spiritually, draining exercise.”
In order to obtain a WTA ranking, players have to win three points on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) circuit within a calendar year.
They earn one point when they win a match in the main draw of a US$15,000 (S$20,280) tournament in the ITF Women’s Circuit or if they qualify for the main draw of a US$25,000 event.
“Getting points when you’re starting out is actually very difficult,” said Pang, who has been one point short on two occasions, unable to compete further due to financial constraints.
“If you choose the wrong tournaments or you play the wrong strategy, you have to beat four girls to get one point.”
In her quest for points, Pang has played in tournaments around the world. It is not a life of luxury – Pang puts up in hostels while on tour, and has even couch surfed when the need arose.
“A lot of places that I’ve stayed in in Thailand, in India, in Indonesia, they can look very ratty outside, but I also realised the power of human plasticity, and we can get used to any environment that we get into,” she said.
Apart from her own savings, Pang has had to crowdfund as well as rely on the generosity of backers.
“At the start of 2015 I knew that if I wanted to do this pro thing full time, I need to share my story,” Pang explained. “That’s how it started … And then at the end of 2015, I crowdfunded.
“I think the responsibility I felt first and foremost was emotional. In a sense of duty – great duty and gratitude to people who are putting faith in me when technically there was nothing for them to.”
One of her lowest points came in 2017, when Pang was left with S$1.87 in her bank account.
“I sat at the bottom of my void deck and didn’t want to go up. I didn’t want my parents to see me like that,” she explained. “As I was crying and my body was shaking from grief and frustration, I knew … I was exactly meant to be experiencing that point,” said Pang, who is a Christian.
And there have been unexpected sources of support.
From a lady in church who handed her a cheque for S$50,000 to the sole supporter who cheered her on as she earned a long-awaited point which led to a WTA singles ranking, Pang has had many in her corner.
“The beautiful thing about this journey is that people who started off as supporters, as fans or even as sponsors, they always end up friends and that’s something that sports has the power to do,” she said.
Throughout her career, Pang has had to deal with criticism – from all quarters.
“My sister told me straight up that she’d never make my life choices,” she said. It's just too high risk.”
While on tour, a doubles partner told her: “Sarah seeing you play is like seeing a bathroom singer trying to be a professional singer.” But still Pang soldiers on.
She said: “Everyone has difficulties, everyone faces challenges, but the true champions … are the one who have extraordinary responses to normal situations.
“At the start, I would lose, walk off court and think to myself: ‘What the hell are you doing Sarah, you are the biggest joke alive … But those moments always only lasted for a while,” she added.
“Today when I lose, I’ve come to a point where I realise that there is no such thing as lose. There’s only win or learn.”
Pang aims to continue chasing her Grand Slam dream – raising money which will allow her to continue to pay for a coach and compete on the circuit.
“It's a lot cheaper funding one athlete than funding a whole team – and the potential rewards for a nation and building communities together are great,” she said. “And the beautiful thing is that when it's focused on one athlete, his or her story has the power to reflect the journey of many everyday Singaporeans. And that's really powerful.
“We have to remember, that our country was birthed and flourished under impossible odds. Why can't we recognise the same in our own talent?”
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