Many happy returns in rediscovery of beauty

Many happy returns in rediscovery of beauty

For years, tucked in a forgotten nook of my cupboard, lay the beautiful debris of my sporting past.

A worn Prince tennis racket which travelled with me across different nations. Every six months, for 10 years, I promised to pull it out and rediscover my inner Federer, but life and laziness kept interrupting me.

It's like the musty football boots and old cricket bat in your storeroom, relics that have too much history inscribed on them to ever throw out.

You tell yourself, one day you will start again. One day passion will be unpacked. One day between work and the clutter of circumstance, you'll find time.

Often you don't, but then some days it happens.

It's why on Sunday morning, not even a wet court can diminish the triumphant glee of the three women I am playing with.

They're falling in love again with tennis.

Leong Shieh Yen, with slitheringly fast feet at 41, was a private banker and has a daughter. Tina Jacob, 29, with an elegant, bending service action that has a hint of Gabriela Sabatini, became a broker.

Cassandra Ng, 26, with a violent down-the-line return that belies her gentleness, works at KPMG. All played Fed Cup tennis for Singapore and at US colleges. Then the game slipped away.

Maybe the suffocation of the structured life of everyday tennis when young got too much. Maybe finding a partner, then a court, then a time was too tiring.

Maybe careers weighed them down. They played but rarely. For Leong it was six years, for Jacob and Ng roughly three or more.

And then luck gave them and five other women - Lisa Theng, 47, Denise Seow, 37, Tan Lynn-Yin, 34, Jolene Wong, 25, and Leow Yik Hui, 30 - a kiss.

StarHub, in conjunction with the WTA Tour - whose year-end tour finals begin on Monday - designed a contest called Project Beautiful.

They found these women with tennis in their past, sweated them through a three-day boot camp run by gifted tennis coach Jamie Wong and are readying them for a trial on October 19.

The three winners get to play a WTA legend, but it's more than that: They get to have tennis back in their lives.

In a nation more given to grades than games, we're hostage to a word that nags grown-ups: Priorities. Especially for women, who, despite an altered gender landscape, still get hounded into stereotypes, expected to live out roles of mother, wife, worker.

It's as if sport is a frivolity best forgotten. And since they don't follow swigs of beer with a burp, they're not really sporting. As one of the women revealed, a male colleague, asked to describe his interests, noted that he liked to "watch EPL football with male friends".

But as Jacob says: "Women are interested in sport, too."

Huddled over a juice later - one of them having earlier swatted a backhand at my belly-button with no sweet apology attached - the women lean back. No ballet dresses here, only athletes. "I love perspiring," says one. "I feel refreshed". And in unison they grin.

Re-lacing a sporting life is hard work. Finesse vanishes, accuracy dies.

There is "frustration" says Leong, for the disobedient body can't keep pace with the ambitious mind.

But practice returns the game to you and time on court reminds you of what the mind can't ever perfectly recollect: The pure feeling of sport.

Ng speaks of "the smoothness of hitting balls" and Jacob of "the rush when playing well". Suddenly those competitive instincts, oiled by new sweat, are humming. "I hate to lose," grins Leong, who beat her husband the first time they played (and, hey, who remembers the second time?).

These women are a choir of sporting evangelists. Playing not for money - but ego and for everything else which sport gives us. Like integrity.

Like the reminder, through a net-cord point lost, that life is unfair. Like camaraderie and the thrill of a goal chased.

With a racket in hand, a new skin grows. "It makes you more interesting," says Leong. "It makes you more confident socially," says the shy Ng, who wasn't quite comfortable looking people in the eye but in tennis you just have to.

These women are sending us a sweaty message: Be inspired. Remember where you put that racket and those boots. Pull them out, for reacquainting yourself with sport is an act of liberation.

Do it for your lungs. Do it because regardless of the rubbish you might initially play, it's the one sweet shot you do play, which replays like a magical vine in your head, which will make you go back.

Do it because sport changes us, in how we look at ourselves. And, sometimes, in how people look at us.

One day at the St Regis hotel, where the women stayed during boot camp, Leong and Jacob, one Chinese, the other of Indian stock, stood in the foyer in tennis garb and noticed a group of people eyeing them.

As if trying to identify them and work up courage for an autograph. "I think," laughs Leong, "they thought we were Li Na and Serena Williams."

And isn't that just beautiful?

This article was first published on October 14, 2014.
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