Singaporean tennis player Sarah Pang on WTA rankings and why it is imperative to support local sporting talent

Singaporean tennis player Sarah Pang on WTA rankings and why it is imperative to support local sporting talent

Game changer

Text: Amelia Chia

Sarah Pang is a name you need to know. The 34-year-old Singaporean tennis player has recently broken into the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) rankings in both singles and doubles, joining an elite league of the most brilliant of players. This puts her in the top one percent of tennis players worldwide, and she's only the eighth Singaporean woman to achieve this feat.

But Pang didn't have it easy to get where she is today. At one point in 2017, due to the financial constraints of being on tour, she had $1.87 left in her bank account. Her savings itself were far from sufficient — she has had to crowdfund and turn to different sources of support to chase her dream. It has long been a painful conundrum in the tennis world — being on tour at least six months of the year requires a decent sum of money, but playing tournaments worldwide is the only way to obtain points for the coveted WTA ranking. Pang plays between 20 and 30 tournaments yearly and it is hardly a glamourous life. She stays in hostels — and has even couch-surfed — when on tour.

While others at her age might be hanging up their racquets, Pang believes she has a long way more to go and in many ways, feels like "the journey has just started". The next goal for this tenacious star? To play in a Grand Slam. We're behind her all the way.

Pang's serve is her favourite stroke

Sarah, your road to breaking into the WTA rankings has been nothing short of inspiring. How would you describe your tennis career at the moment?

My primary on-court goals are to stay focused on training and on the progressive goals I've charted with my coach. Off court, I'm constantly working to build more relationships with Singaporean companies to climb higher up the ranks, as I cannot do this without financial backing — it takes money to pay for coaching and to bring a team with me on tour to compete and scale seriously. When you study the history of players who have broken through the rankings at exponential rates, it is almost always done with a team supporting them on the road. To be sustainable, it is never a one-man endeavour. When we look at our Singaporean scene, there's a great gap in our industry in how our local athletes are supported by our corporate spaces (from SMEs to MNCs), and I feel this is a gap I can use the vehicle of my journey, to help bridge. On one level, yes, they're aggressive goals to move up the WTA rankings, but on an equally important level, it's also about setting a precedence and building a narrative that we are stronger together. That the best of the Singapore spirit, of overcoming impossible odds, is still very much alive.

Part of the nexus of why and how I hope to build this, has been due my fans who have made me understand my journey serves far more than just breaking onto the WTA or scaling its rankings. It has the ability to represent any individual, or group of people who recognise the importance of fulfilling one's highest, truest expression, not just of themselves, but through and for others. I really believe at the end of the day this is what our hearts beat for. It gives the matter of our journeys a deeper tilt. It is what brings us together.

In that sense, playing tennis, working to be a better version of myself, is the matter I use to encourage others to go take on their own giants. Whatever impossible monsters they may be. We all need that forerunner. We all need people who walk the talk. I don't think there's ever an end goal to that.

Pang striking a backhand

What has been your greatest challenge when it comes to becoming a professional tennis player and how did you find the ability to overcome these challenges?

Social prejudice has been one of the greatest challenges in the journey! I come from a big family of six kids — I'm the youngest girl, the fifth of six. My dad was pretty unorthodox and supportive of my tennis path, but I was also accountable to four other surrogate parents (read: older siblings). Socially within the tennis circle, it was also tough because I was seen (and probably am still seen) as a joke by many. We ultimately come from a very conservative Asian society. We generally don't take risks — growing up and filing in the 9-5pm is what makes us so good at what we do. But the outliers who dare to stake it out, often get punished with social awkwardness, pessimism, sneering, debilitating remarks (yes, I've received all of that). But I also choose to look at the flip side.

The flip side to all our conservative perimeters in an Asian context, are also remarkable traits like loyalty, togetherness, and stay-by-your-side faithfulness. Over the course of my journey, I've internally learnt to address these differences by looking at critics not by what they say, but who they are as people. If you look at people heart to heart, we are essentially all the same, and that stirs compassion. So, it's about understanding that, and finding commonality.

Because at the end of the day, tennis is just the vehicle. I don't want to be remembered as how great I hit a ball, or how high I scaled in the rankings. I do that to hone and a better version of myself; and break that door into public consciousness. What I really want to be remembered by, is how I paved a pathway and inspired a whole new generation to believe in the greatness that lies within them.

This will benefit the country I love, so much more than just hitting a yellow furry ball.

"In that sense, playing tennis, working to be a better version of myself, is the matter I use to encourage others to go take on their own giants."

What's your current training schedule like?

Right now, I'm in pre-season, so a lot of time is spent addressing weaknesses and building strengths for Tour 2020. I don't want to give you a baseline of the number of hours a pro athlete needs to clock — the emphasis should always be quality first, and then quantity. Not the other way around.

I enjoy how my coach Jorge Jimenez Lletrado from Befit121, and my sports psychologist Dr Jorge Valverde, emphasise and guide me to using a very specific mental methodology to unlock my next level of tennis. Needless to say, the mental game takes a lot of commitment and discipline to hone. It's easy to maintain it for a point or two. But to consistently sustain it across a three-hour match is a different beast altogether. It takes a lot of background work.

Pang at Fed Cup 2020

Who's a tennis player you look up to or inspired you to play the game and why?

I grew up a Justine Henin-Hardenne fan. I love how she solved the problems of the game by being a multi-dimensional, all-court player. She was tiny, and even in her eyes as she played, you could see that vulnerability, almost like a slight worry. But she used her intelligence to counter that physical lack. She played very smart, and she was very well trained. She went on to be world number 1.

Fun story: I once played Fed Cup trials and broke apart a local top junior not by playing the usual baseline ball-bashing game, but slicing, lobbing, chip and charging, constantly changing the pace and angle of the ball. One of the parents came up to me after that and exclaimed, "You have so many weapons!" I took that as a massive compliment — a lot of that came from emulating and watching Justine play.

I've found it interesting that in the men's game, it seems like Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer have really dominated but in the women's game, the winners keep changing in Osaka, Andreescu, Barty, and most recently, Kenin. What's your take on the women's game at the moment and why do you think this is so?

That's a great question. To me, this shows the beauty of the depth of the women's game. If you are rolling in the right mental space, you can have a field day, and anything can happen. It's also open knowledge that the difference between the different tiers of ranked tennis players, is mainly mental. Tennis is also a very emotional sport — men in general are much less emotionally cognitive creatures than women. It's physiologically, biologically more challenging for women to keep methodologies ceterus paribus in the midst of extreme physical, mental, and emotional flux (which is what happens during a typical competitive match).

To our benefit, we're naturally in sync with ourselves on a deeper, emotional plane. But that also can work against us because it means we feel the variance of conflict within ourselves a lot more acutely. That is, I feel, one reason why we have such a wide spread of winners in the women's field. The biggest takeaway for me, is if you can keep yourself together, you give yourself a much higher chance of breaking through.

"It's physiologically, biologically more challenging for women to keep methodologies ceterus paribus in the midst of extreme physical, mental, and emotional flux (which is what happens during a typical competitive match)."

What do you love most about the game of tennis?

It's not the winning that I love the most, but rather, the person it forces you to become, as you move towards higher levels of excellence. Gaining more territory means the need to be more focused, more disciplined, more tenacious and resilient. Knowing when to press and pursue the things that matter, knowing when to not sweat the small stuff.

If you want to talk about performance sustainability, and maintaining wellness in the process of that pursuit — it also means having great internal clarity of why you are doing what you are doing.  Sometimes when the going gets really rough, it is your reasons why that pull you through.

Pang bending low for a forehand

In a way, the tenets of high performance across many fields are the same. Sport, amongst these fields is harder, because it's not just emotional or mental tenacity you need, but you need to be able to rein in your body, the physical, to follow suit in that path of excellence. If we take it another step, tennis amongst sports, is one of the hardest to master because of the duration, intensity and focus it requires, within a marriage of the physical, mental and emotional spaces.

The global popularity of tennis, its competitive structure, and heavy financing of this sport; adds additional weight to the mix.

It takes an incredible lot of work to fund, train and get out there to compete internationally, week in and week out. For me, this duress makes the act of actually stepping out on court, a laden affair. I am acutely aware of how much it took for me to get there. Maybe I've had to work harder than a lot of other Singaporean players for the chance to compete. When I travel alone, I am often exhausted even before I start competing, juggling everything else that the tour requires. But one thing it does leave me, is grateful for the chance to keep chugging at this, to keep working hard. Getting on court to compete becomes almost like a spiritual practice.

What do you think of Singapore's tennis climate? Are there opportunities for younger players to make it, or do you think more can be done to encourage tennis in Singapore?

I think local tennis has grown more compared to pre-WTA Finals days. There has been more investment into building indoor facilities, a few World Tour tournaments organised in Singapore, some support for a few of our local players. I feel we make the grave mistake of not investing in our talent in a sustainable way — instead the larger Singaporean model is largely based on results first, before support is rendered. What that creates, is a huge chicken and egg problem, and the biggest message that gives the ground, is that really, there is little faith in local talent. Very few have the grit to stick it in, and ride it out with you.

What I see on the ground, however, is that there is a lot of talent and commitment in our juniors, and it breaks my heart because unless you come from money to back your way, or unless you have the ins to expertise and trade hacks which are so hard to come by — there is no way you can make it. Our mental models and our desire to stake out and build pathways are still nascent at best. We need to change the way we choose to define success beyond winning and losing to looking at what and how sport can build leaders through our athletes, to recognise the incredible potential, and to keep our eyes on that in order to develop a truly sustainable pipeline.

Pang believes success in sport has to go beyond winning and losing

Sport in its finest form, builds tenacious leaders for society. It is the modern day equivalent to honing warriors for your country. But this development, for the record, should not be the responsibility of just the government, but industry players in our larger sporting fraternity. From the family unit, to school participation, the media, coaching levels, corporate involvement and marketing, branding and PR specialists. Spearheading it with a few key success stories, with replicable, bite-size beta models, is an intelligent way to start even as the larger pieces keep moving and adjusting.

Coming back to the topic of building sustainable pipelines, let me give you an example. I just came back from representing Singapore for Fed Cup in Wellington, New Zealand. Thailand was in our pool, having lost for the first time in history last year, and relegated to Fed Cup Zone Asia/Oceania Qualifying Group II. They had lost their match off against every nation they played against in Group I in the previous year, so by technical performance standards, they had "missed the mark".

With a lack of performance, the approach we normally see practised from an administrative perspective is a cut in funding, because there would be no "justification" for continued support. But no, not with Thailand. These guys understand how development works. They rocked up in NZ this year with a solid team to support their players. They came with a cook, a physio, two coaches, two photographers, and a full five player team. "How did you cook in the hotel?" I asked my Thai player friends. "Oh, we connected with the Thai embassy here and they gave our cook access to their embassy kitchen." Within their player team, they had the spectrum from veteran Tamarine Tanasugarn (ex top WTA20 player), to their youngest, promising junior at 18 years young.

From their actions, you can see they understand pipeline development. Winning is not the only sole obsessive priority. They take note with nutrition, have management support, and are connected to their marketing instruments. And even though they lost narrowly this year, the point is, it is consistency in action that will set them up for long term success. They understand that it's a full pathway. You stick with your athletes through thick and thin, so that they, in turn, are taught by your example, the values of commitment, of dedication, in the task that they too, one day, will rise to do the same for their people, for their country.

For more information, visit Tennis with Sarah.