SINGAPORE — At age 20, Japan’s Naomi Osaka is the top women’s tennis player in the world, being placed No. 1 in the latest Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) singles rankings with 6.417 points.
At age 34, Singapore’s Sarah Pang is at the other end of the spectrum, being placed No. 1,236 in the same WTA rankings with three points, the minimum to be on the list.
Yet, those three points are the culmination of four years of grit and determination in overcoming her late start into professional tennis, as well as financial obstacles, as she toiled to gain a foothold in the WTA tour circuit.
She had once worked three jobs, slept in run-down hotels and launched a crowdfunding campaign to continue playing on the circuit. Yet those were not the toughest things she has had to deal with.
“The toughest part of the journey is responding to detractors, critics and sceptics with an equal measure of grace and kindness,” Pang told Yahoo News Singapore over coffee at a cafe in Novena Oasia Hotel on Thursday (15 August).
“Sometimes we get adverse reactions from people, because we don't fall into their scope of what is acceptable for them. It took me a while to realise that their responses were a reflection of their paradigms, and nothing to do with me.
“My Christian faith has been a big part of my journey, especially when people say very hurtful things.”
How she made her breakthrough
Reaching the WTA rankings for the first time – and becoming only the eighth Singaporean woman to do so – certainly gave her the impetus to continue her arduous journey.
Players earn a point if they win a match in the main draw of a US$15,000 (S$20,800) tournament in the ITF World Tennis Tour, or if they qualify for the main draw of a US$25,000 event.
Pang gained her first point last December in far-flung Djibouti, a tiny nation in Africa, where she beat Germany’s Janina Geiss 6-2, 7-5 in the main draw of a US$15,000 tournament.
Her second point came in May, when she received a Singapore Tennis Association wildcard to the main competition of a US$25,000 event here.
Then in the same month, she defeated Romania's Diana Maria Mihail 6-1, 1-6, 12-10 to make the main draw of another US$25,000 event in Singapore.
Those points were submitted and, fittingly, confirmed on National Day week earlier this month.
So what was the biggest factor that helped Pang attain her WTA goal? It was an extra pair of eyes at court-side.
“This is the first year in which I could raise enough funds to get a coach with me on tour,” she said.
“Just having a pair of trained, experienced eyes during my matches made a very big difference. Players are the most vulnerable after a closely-contested match, or after a bad loss. And to have someone deconstruct the matches for me in an approachable manner, it just helped a lot.”
Overcoming financial obstacles via crowd-funding
While Pang’s all-around tennis has improved, getting enough funding to travel and play in tournaments proved to be a constant struggle.
But there is a silver lining for her. With a WTA ranking, she gets priority entry to tournaments. This gives her more time to plan her schedule, allowing her to save on costs for flights and accommodation.
It is a far cry from when she turned professional in 2015, and had to launch her first crowd-funding campaign.
“I was so terrified, because I didn't know how people will respond,” Pang recalled. “It's one thing to ask for crowd-funding when you're in need of an organ transplant, it’s another to ask for funding to let me go play tennis.
“But the beautiful thing is that I get emails from people saying, ‘I read about your story, your spirit and your journey, and you redefine what it is for me to be Singaporean.’
“I don’t actively set out to inspire people, but it’s just the nature of the journey.”
And she plans to carry on her unconventional journey, even though she is at an age where many tennis pros would typically consider hanging up their rackets.
Only 12 players on the WTA ranking list are still playing past Pang’s current age. Yet she rattles off names of former players who have played well into their 40s – Martina Navratilova, Kimiko Date, Leander Paes.
“Time is so subjective. In this age, with the level of sports science we have, it’s much easier to manage my physical well-being,” she said.
“I’m only 34, still very young. Right now, I’m focused on what I need to move on to the next level. It’s still very doable.”
Sources of inspiration
The next step for Pang is to move further up the rankings. She is targeting the 700s as it would allow her to apply for a licence to play in WTA Tour tournament qualifiers.
By the middle of next month, she will be back on the road, playing ITF Women’s Circuit tournaments, trying to win more matches, and hoping to raise enough sponsorship to pay for a proper support team with the likes of a coach, physiotherapist, hitting partner, sports psychologist and strength coach.
As an athlete who takes the road less travelled, it is perhaps not surprising that Pang draws inspiration not from tennis stars like Serena Williams or Roger Federer – players who achieve success early and often.
Instead, she cites Jack Ma, the co-founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group who famously struggled early in his life, being rejected in 30 different jobs – even by fast-food chain KFC.
She hopes that learning about Ma’s incredible journey towards business success would fire up her determination – step by step – towards her ultimate dream: playing in a Grand Slam event. Ma, now 54, was around Pang’s age when he set up Alibaba in 1999.
“His perseverance in spite of so many rejections, it’s an amazing story,” she said. “It reminds me that anyone can do what they want to do.
“I like Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce too. They are building their legacy to leave behind for the betterment of their communities. As a woman myself, it’s something that I find very inspiring.”
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