What's in Sarah Pang's gym bag

What's in Sarah Pang's gym bag
Who: Sarah Pang, 30, is a national tennis player and, currently, the only Singaporean playing on the professional Women’s Tennis Association circuit. She will be representing Singapore in the upcoming SEA Games here.

The odds have never been in favour of Sarah Pang playing tennis professionally.

In secondary school, badminton was her forte. It was only at 19 that she began playing tennis. At that age, some athletes who played tennis in school would actually be retiring from the sport.

Then she had a tough time finding a coach. Her father, who had coached her in badminton, wanted to coach her in tennis, but there were hiccups.

She recalled: "My dad took it upon himself to teach me how to play, and he would buy the cheapest balls from NTUC and obviously, they were all the wrong sorts of balls."

Her racquets came from the Salvation Army's thrift shop. In her final year at the National University of Singapore, they agreed that she needed a dedicated tennis coach.

She worked to pay for the minimum of lessons needed to advance her skills, because it was all she could afford. "I would ask the coach what I needed to improve on and do it myself," she said.

Looking back at those days, she admitted her routine lacked structure and guidance.

"Tennis is a rich man's sport. My dad was a schoolteacher and my mum is a housewife. I'm the fifth of six children and I sleep on the floor of our four-room flat."

She had planned to turn pro earlier, but her parents wanted her to get a university degree, hoping that the years of study would diminish her interest in tennis.

Instead, it only reinforced her determination. In 2009, she found her way to the prestigious Sanchez Casal Tennis Academy in Barcelona, Spain, run by former Olympian and three-time Grand Slam doubles champion, Emilio Sanchez.

Before she could take the three-week course, she worked three jobs for a year and saved whatever she could. She also took two loans to pay her own way there.

But those three weeks delivered something she had long waited to hear - she had the potential, but still needed plenty of polishing up.

"I was so euphoric, because the answer wasn't no," she said.

She came home with a new sense of validation and hope, but facing the same reality she had left. Few were willing to back, train and sponsor an ageing athlete.

Seven months later, she flew back to Barcelona and approached the only person who could help her - Emilio Sanchez.

In exchange for training at the academy, she would double as caretaker and house master for the teenagers who attended the training classes there.

Home for the next 11/2 years was an empty container that had no heater. She was also watching over students who spent more on their tennis shoes than the 200 euros she had to live on each month, courtesy of her supportive father.

A visit from the Singapore Sports Council to the academy, while she was still there, prompted her to come home to continue training.

And at 26, she competed in the WTA's Womens Pro-Circuit tournament in Jarkata, reached the quarter-finals in women's doubles and nabbed her first WTA point.

Last month, she nabbed her first WTA doubles point of 2015 at the Women's Pro Circuit Tournament in Tarakan, Indonesia.

But her journey is far from over.

"I decided to quit my job at Singapore Sports Council to focus on being a professional player. The whole story screams of fighting the impossible and making it possible."

She recently signed a year-long apparel sponsorship agreement with sports brand Under Armour, and her next challenge is crowd sourcing for training funds.

"I can't afford the money to play the pro tour seriously. It is no shame, regret or "paiseh-ness" (shy in Hokkien) to ask for help. Because I have come so far, with none."

This article was first published on June 3, 2015.
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