Sarah Pang stands tall amongst a sea of Eastern Europeans and Americans who have successfully broken through the 2019 Women’s Tennis Association (WTA’s) singles rankings. This time-sensitive endeavor is no easy feat, as a player is required to perform consistently throughout 52 cycles in a year; and out of 7,000 women who compete, only 1% of new players break rank. Whilst she’s not the first Singaporean to have achieved this, with 7 before her time, Sarah’s story is not one to be downplayed.
The 34-year old was brought up humbly in a four-room flat with five of her other siblings. Through her own sheer will, Sarah crowd-funded enough money since 2015 to engage a professional coach who was ultimately instrumental to her success. With the coach on tour, he was able to assess her strengths and weakness on and off court. Together, they strategically planned which matches to attend, which eventually propelled Sarah to make ranking in half the time they hoped for.
Popspoken: Congratulations! How do you think your sporting career will proceed henceforth?
Sarah: Most corporations typically support charities, events and events, hardly focusing on individuals as it is not a model that has been tried-and-tested. As an individual athlete, Joseph Schooling has done well with his Olympic gold medal to secure key sponsors such as DBS, Visa, Hugo Boss, Under Armour and more. However, aside from him, there’s been no strong precedent on how a local athlete can leverage on something beyond a typical corporate model that is purely transactional.
Having made this ranking with the help of the people, it is a demonstration of how we can all be stronger together and how our people can be ready for such a time for this. They chose their athelete. They chose me. They saw faith, hope and promise before the cards had turned.
Moving forward, what I hope for is corporations to see the potential in individual athletes and propel them to multiply their social capital for our country. This way, an athlete’s will and voice is able to inspire hearts, ignite imagination and open more possibilities. This pursuit of excellence echoes what all Singaporeans need to strive for in their own field of work. Within that parallel, lies the identity, resonance and how Singapore professional athletes form part of the social fabric.
Popspoken: What has kept you grounded through this journey?
Sarah: I was petrified when I started my fund-raising campaign. I was living in real technicolor flesh what a lot of them wanted to pursue and undertake. My Christian faith was what I turned to when times were tough.
I had to have a strong belief in myself and perhaps due to my Asian upbringing, I was not used to asking for help. It was stressful at times, but I have come to realise that I’m my own worst critic.
A lot of us may think we don’t know what we want, but in actual fact, we do know what we want. We know what makes us come alive and feel alive. Just that most of us are too scared to say this is what I want and go for it.
With the lens of fear, we end up becoming sub-standard or second best. All I knew was that I wasn’t willing to do that, and continuously went back to the reasons to why I started playing tennis to begin with.
Through my journey, I had emails from successful people, with messaging along the lines of my story having “redefined what it means for them to be Singaporean”. That’s the power of the voice of a national athlete. I hope to bridge the gap and build a narrative whereby corporations and SMEs are closer to the people, as we, the athletes, lead the rest of the tribe to fly our National flag high.
Popspoken: Many lament the lack of funding given by the Singapore government for cultural industries. What are your thoughts on that?
Sarah: We have to cut them a bit of slack as our sporting culture and arts culture is relatively young compared to other countries. In the past 54 years, our country has moved from third world to first, and just hope that the government is ready to start looking at building the cultural industries as our nation matures. It is important to encourage young athletes to be leaders in their own right, and even more importantly to support local athletes on the global stage.
Singapore has a population size of 5.6 million. I don’t believe that amongst our sea of athletes, there aren’t more who can eventually break it into the world circuit. You see countries of similar sizes such as Sweden (9.95 million) who don’t have that many more people than us, but have produced countless Olympic medallists. It is possible. Circling back to my crowd-funding story; for every 10 critics who tell me I can’t make it, I felt if I could just inspire 1 person with my story, that will be enough for me.
I see faith, promise and hope. You have no idea how incredible the feeling is when I step on the court and hear Majulah Singapura being played. I still tear and feel so proud even though I’m 6,000 miles away. The complexity and depth we can bring to Singaporeans is immense. The government needs to see the connections that National athletes can build with the ground, that will eventually help strengthen our country as a whole.
Popspoken: Who do you look up to for inspiration?
Sarah: Jack Ma for his resilience and for sticking to his guns after so many rejections. Also, Beyoncé and Oprah Winfrey for their strength, what they stand for and with the power with what they’ve built, has always consistently been about giving back. I love the way they strengthened their communities and people. Those have been my beacons.
Sarah is one point short of breaking through the WTA Doubles’ Ranking. Follow the rest of her journey here.
Editor’s note: Original transcript modified for readability.