Sisters of Singapore
“How are you doing Sarah? How is your leg?”
It was Chinese custom amongst us to feel these things, and yet not say a word. She smiled at me and held both my hands in hers, across the counter of her small shop.
In this last instalment of Sisters of Sarah, I really want to shed light on the silent kindness of many incredible Singaporean women I have met as I’ve strived to represent my nation on the world tennis rankings. These stories come in snippets of different women who have, in different times, all reached out to me in care and love. Their persons are different. The colour of their skin, the sound of their voices, and the crinkle of their laughter are as varied as the tapestry of a thousand colours. But they all have risen to help me climb this impossible mountain—especially in moments when it felt like no one believed in me. Their spirit is infectious—it is full, strong, loving, and it has made this often lonely journey, a sweeter, humbler one. Here, in my last story for the season, I pay tribute to the strength and support of these women, standing in our midst.
She held my hands as the tears streamed hot and heavy down my cheeks. Her beautiful dark doe eyes pooled with love and mirrored with edges of tears as she felt my hands quiver from the shake of my sobs—the stress of fundraising, rejection, of so much great doubt and uncertainty.
“Love you, dear.” She whispered. I understood there was nothing she could have done. But I could feel the warmth of her palms as she held on tight to my bony, trembling hands.
As an independent athlete, starting the search for support can be as debilitating and paralysing as trying to stay afloat after a boxer stingray zaps the crap out of you while out at sea. Funding is critical to any tennis player serious about doing well on the professional circuit, because the structure of the Tour requires that you travel heavily to compete. This means seeing to all aspects related to competing—covering your coaching, flights, accommodation, transport, food, and full equipment, before even stepping on court to commence. Miss one part, and playing is not possible. The outlay is enormous and the players who do find consistent success on the professional rankings, come either heavily backed by sponsors, or from families with deep pockets to sustain this assault.
I came from neither. In my earlier years on Tour, I had to work multiple jobs to support myself as I trained and saved to compete. Eventually when I had to make that jump to focus on training full-time, I had to learn how to ask for help—instead of trying to do everything myself.
Often, the echoes I got from others were depressingly cynical. I learnt to pick it up quickly in the dart of an eye, or a double, empty blink of a gaze. A folded arm, or that slight turn of a shoulder. These were the skeptical cues that often met me when I shared my tennis aspirations in earnestness. The mental toil of rejection, especially in the earlier days, was very hard on the heart.
I was nervous and my palms sweaty—sitting amongst the plush couches of her waiting area. I hardly knew her, but had heard enough. Some good, some bad. We can never quite tell. She walked into her office and sat down, spreading her hands over the smooth countertop as a small posse of staff followed after her. “Come! I’m hungry. Let’s have some crayfish laksa! Would you like some??” She grinned, beckoning.
A few days later, I remember standing by a cheque deposit box late one night, after a long gruelling day of training. I was tired. My shoulders weighed low from carrying bags of heavy sweaty clothes, empty food containers, water bottles, and all the packed paraphernalia that comes from a full day of training. I stood there, alone, staring at that little piece of paper she signed on. “Thank you.” I emailed her later that evening. “It was a very emotional moment for me… to be allowed these long days of training.”
She funded me for 6 tournaments and 1 life-changing training camp.
“How are you doing? Have been thinking of you.”
A short text from a fellow superwoman. Energy. Tucked neatly between the folds of the day.
“THAT MUCH for a burrata set?!” My eyes bulged at the menu. This was just an appetizer. We hadn’t even got to the mains!
“Aiyah! Nevermind lah Sarah Pang! Just order, just order!!”
I looked across the table at the dinner table at these two women who have journeyed with me through so much of my tennis career. They both had slanting shoulders from years of life, waddled ever so slightly from side to side from miles they had walked. They spent the next ten minutes playing musical chairs—trying to figure out which seat got less cold air from the AC vents above. One loved it, the other didn’t. I looked at them with a smile, a kind of happiness that edges tears around your eyes when you see someone dear to you in motion.
They both had no children of their own, but thoroughly mothered me that night.
“Do you want more pumpkin soup?”
“How about some meatballs? You need more protein!”
Every time I hesitated because it meant a higher bill, that same old wave of a hand would come motioning nonchalantly back.
“Aiyah, just order, just order! Don’t think so much!”
She smiled a little nervously, her big downturned eyes held a shy kindness about them.
“I bought you a year’s worth of strings.”
“I have a small studio your coach can stay at. If you really need courts as well can help book at my parent’s place. So proud of you. I’m glad to be of help in your journey.”
“I have a fundraising dinner tonight,” I texted a close friend. “I am freaking out. My head is a mess. I feel like I’m on the verge of a breakdown.” Tears starting to edge the corners of my eyes.
No Singaporean athlete I know has ever tried to do a fundraising dinner for themselves. It takes a tremendous amount of verve, it was a first of its kind, and I was just overwhelmed by the number of things to do for this seemingly small dinner.
“Need help with the ppt slides?” she quickly texted back. I felt so defeated, for a moment, I didn’t know what to say. I could only feel my head throbbing.
“You can lean on me.” She pressed.
“Talk to me.”
“What do you need me to do?”
She churned out 12 slides with text and images in two hours.
“I’ve set up a donation box for you in my clinic. I’ll ask people to donate.”
“My wife…” His slit eyes stared back at me, no emotion flickered across his face. He had to host a dinner, and offered to put me at the front of a whole table of businessmen to pitch for support. But when his wife heard about it, she would have none of it. “She’s insisted we hold the dinner at our home instead.”
Being new to the sponsorship search, I didn’t quite understand the implications of her actions. But many years later, after many more meetings, after being put in uncomfortable business encounters where the person offering me “funding” is taking the liberty to place his hand on my lap—I realise what she did. She wanted to make sure I stayed safe.
“I’ve pooled together a bunch of high net worth friends who will sit in on this zoom call.”
“I can’t help you with funding, but I can help you with publicity and media.”
“I’m a massive tennis fan. I would love to contribute to your journey.
“Would you like to use my massage package?”
“I just sent you some healing reiki for your injury.”
“No, please don’t pay me. Everyone starts out needing a little help. I was like that too.”
“This is for you.”
She took out a thin piece of paper from a book, and pushed the cheque across the table. We sat in a bustling food court, and I genuinely thought she was going to share the latest book she had just read. My eyes baulked. On that little piece of paper, stood a pledge that was enough to keep me going for the year. I could see my vision blur as I stared at the cheque. “No, no, no!” I said, immediately, instinctively. Tears came on fast, fresh.
“No. Please,” she said firmly, in her quiet, still way.
“The only thing I want you to know, is that God loves you very much.”
The rest of the world continued moving around us in its own rhythm, at its own pace. People came in, people walked out. Oblivious, orbiting. No one would have ever understood the depth of these actions, the weight of these emotions. Except for the two of us. Holding space for each other, in that same space.
Sisters of Sarah
Sisters of Sarah is a story series in collaboration with The Best of You movement, born from the lives of some truly incredible women Sarah Pang, a Singaporean professional tennis player, met while travelling the world playing Tour. This project is an overture to helping one another realise that there are deeper dimensions to people than just the jobs they do.