SINGAPORE - It was an option he was not particularly keen on at first, but national tennis player Shaheed Alam eventually realised that studying abroad would be the best way for him to keep the flag flying as an athlete.
And so in August, soon after his operationally ready date (ORD), the 23-year-old full-time national serviceman will jet off to the United States to begin a degree in business administration at the Keiser University in Florida on a full scholarship.
Shaheed told The Straits Times on Tuesday (June 21) that he had been approached by colleges as far back as "three or four years ago", but rebuffed them as he was not considering the route.
But he began to have a change of heart in the second half of 2021.
"My friends in NS and I started talking about what our plans were going to be after our ORD," he said. "I realised I had to really think about what I wanted to do. One option was to start coaching right after NS, but I felt I had more to give as an athlete... I still have the drive and passion.
"So I felt the college route would offer me the best of both worlds. It would will help me continue to play tennis at a high level while also getting a good education."
The scholarship for Shaheed's four-year programme will cover tuition fees and accommodation costs. According to its website, tuition and book fees at Keiser cost in excess of US$21,000 ($29,100) a year. He will stay at the school's flagship residential campus in West Palm Beach.
Keiser is a part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), a college athletics association for small colleges and universities that is separate from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
They finished second in the NAIA men's team tennis championship in the last two years, after losing to Georgia Gwinnett College both times.
Shaheed, who has a diploma in sports and leisure management from Republic Polytechnic, said he had the choice of two colleges, although he declined to name the other. He ultimately opted for Keiser after video calls with the school's head coach of tennis, Daniel Finn.
"Whenever I spoke to him, I felt very wanted and that he valued me as a player, and that I can contribute to the team," said Shaheed.
Other Singaporean tennis players who have earned full-time scholarships in the past decade include Ethan Lye (Idaho State University), Charmaine Seah (University of Wisconsin), Jonathan Kyle-Tan (Boston University) and Stefanie Tan (Texas Christian University).
Shaheed, who turns 24 in July, first grabbed headlines in 2015, when he became the first Singaporean male player to win an International Tennis Federation (ITF) junior singles title.
He went on to represent Singapore at the SEA Games and Davis Cup, and in Feb 2021 gained a wild card entry into the singles qualifying round of the Singapore Tennis Open, the first ATP 250 event in the Republic. He lost 6-1, 6-3 to Tunisia's former world No.42 Malek Jaziri.
In January, Shaheed also shared a court at Tanglin Club with US Open champion Emma Raducanu, who had a stopover in Singapore after her exit from the Australian Open a week earlier.
With his American adventure soon to begin, Shaheed's motivation to achieve a milestone for Singapore - namely a first men's SEA Games medal since 1995 - burns as bright as ever.
"I still want to represent Singapore at the SEA Games and the Davis Cup, and my goal is to medal at the SEA Games before hanging up my racket," he said.