Sarah Pang picked up tennis at the age of 19 with the aspiration of going pro but instead of encouragement, all she heard was that she was being ‘crazy’, ‘delusional’ and ‘unrealistic’. “Someone close even told me he was concerned I would end up penniless and a spinster at 40!” shares Pang.
Eleven years on, Pang has successfully broken into the global sporting scene, becoming the only Singaporean tennis player who competes regularly on the International Tennis Federation Women’s Pro circuit. The 30-year-old athlete shares with us her bumpy journey to fulfilling her dream.
How does it feel to be a Singaporean woman flying the flag on the international pro circuit?
It’s something I do with great pride, knowing where I came from. [When I started training at a Spanish academy,] I bartered to work in kind for a year-and-a-half to learn the game. There, I clocked 12- to 15-hour shifts, slept in a container without heating, and drank tap water to save money! Over 10 years, I basically self-funded my developmental pipeline, working jobs while constantly looking for ways to improve my game. It wasn’t easy, and there were many moments of tears and frustration. (Actually, there still are! Ha!) But no journey worth going through is meant to be easy — and over the years, I have learnt how to stay tuned to what I want deep in my heart — not the desires or even fears of others.
What does playing for our country mean to you?
It means having a platform to potentially be a tennis sporting symbol for our nation. That is a huge possibility and responsibility that I do not take lightly. To me, that includes the way you comport yourself both on and off the court. On court, it makes it just a little bit harder, especially when you get caught up in the moment and the heat is real. During SEA Games, for example, I had to bite my tongue from cussing like a sailor because there were all these little schoolchildren watching me! Haha. I’m trying.
Why pro tennis as a career?
I think there are very few things in life that can give a person the feeling that they were made for it. In a way, it is like falling in love! When I ask my married friends why they decided to commit to their spouse, the answer I oft get is “You just know”. It’s the same for me with this career. I just knew. Everything else, as exciting as it was sometimes, always ended up tasting like paper.
What is the biggest misconception about female sportswomen?
There are many! I think the biggest is that people tend to conflate who an athlete is on court, to who she is off court. That’s not always true, nor fair. When you are competing, you need a great amount of aggression, verve and fierce fight to win — traits that are recognised as masculine. But off court, we are still biologically (and mentally) women. We still have open hearts, respond to the soft touch of a loved one, or the caring gaze of another. We just happen to also be able to turn our other game on when it counts.
You’re left-handed — does that make playing tennis trickier?
I love it actually! Playing southpaw actually gives you a natural advantage over opponents who are right-handed. Your most natural forehand swing hammers cross-court into their backhand (typically a weaker side for most players). And the spin that comes off your leftie ball makes it slightly harder for them because it comes with a different tilt, too.
A disciplined diet comes with being a sportswoman. Do you have a secret indulgence though?
Mee pok from Kim Fa Fishball Noodles at Tiong Bahru Market. Shhhh!!
You reach out to Singaporeans through TenniswithSarah – what do you get out of it?
I think the question begs the reasons why I started TenniswithSarah. When I started my journey, I kept very low-key about it because there were so many cynics, and I had gotten bitten badly. But when things on the tennis front started picking up, and I started sharing bits of it on Facebook, I was very surprised to get messages from long-lost friends telling me how truly inspired they were by my journey.
That made me realise that for every 10 cynics out there, if my story could help inspire just one, I would share it. And that’s how TenniswithSarah came about. It’s not about Sarah Pang. It’s about enjoying tennis with me. An old friend gave me the ultimate compliment the other day about it. “I can’t give a flying f*** about tennis, Sarah!” she said, laughing, “But when I read your posts, they seriously inspire me.”
Photos: Under Armour