SINGAPORE - At the age of 34, when many professional tennis players have already hung up their rackets, Sarah Pang is taking a baby step towards her dream of playing in a Grand Slam.
On Aug 5, Pang finally broke into the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) singles rankings after more than four years of training and touring, becoming only the eighth Singaporean woman to do so.
Players have to win three points on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) circuit to get a WTA ranking. They 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.
Her first point was won in Djibouti last December when she beat German Janina Geiss (6-2, 7-5) in the main draw of a US$15,000 tournament before receiving a Singapore Tennis Association wildcard to the main competition of a US$25,000 event here in May.
She then defeated Romania's Diana Maria Mihail (6-1, 1-6, 12-10) in a qualifier to make the main draw of another US$25,000 event in Singapore in the same month to earn her third point.
Currently ranked world No. 1,229, Pang told The Straits Times: "To break into the WTA rankings in the National Day week is especially meaningful. I'm very touched and humbled I had the chance to do this with people who supported me with their actions and funding."
While it is a personal breakthrough for Pang, her journey as a professional tennis player has barely begun.
Time may not be on her side, as many professional players choose to retire in their 30s, including Grand Slam champions Li Na, Italy's Flavia Pennetta and Marion Bartoli of France.
But Pang, who once worked three jobs, slept in dingy hotels in India and launched a crowdfunding campaign to continue touring, is not about to give up now.
She said: "This is a new beginning. I don't look at my age at all. I'm still very young as I converted to tennis only at 19 after playing badminton for 10 years."
"The tire and rigour of the journey for other players my age would be more because they have been in the sport longer and so the burnout rate can be a lot higher."
Pang, who lives in a five-room Housing and Development Board flat with her parents, is no stranger to naysayers who believe that she is too old or not good enough to compete on the WTA.
She added: "I feel very fresh, I feel good, I'm in the best shape I've ever been, and I know I haven't reached my physical peak yet. There is no finish line when it comes to being the best athlete I can be. I plan to keep pushing the boundaries and go for as long as I want to."
Attaining a WTA ranking will give her more time to plan her tournament schedule, allowing her to save on costs for flights and accommodation. As players with rankings are given priority entry, she previously had to wait two weeks before a tournament to see which players had signed up.
"Now, I can focus my energy on winning instead of worrying about logistics or the uncertainty of getting in," she said. "Of course, for the bigger tournaments, I'm still at the bottom of the rankings ladder. But for the US$15,000 and some of the US$25,000 events, you know you are in for sure, so you can plan and adjust to the conditions of that tournament earlier."
Playing in the US Open is her ultimate goal, but for now, Pang's immediate target is to slash her rankings to the 800s, which will allow her to apply for a licence to play in WTA Tour tournament qualifiers.
In order to do that, she has to play more tournaments on the ITF Women's Circuit and win more matches. She aims to play 20 to 30 weeks a year and hopes to raise $200,000 in sponsorships and donations to pay for a coach, "the bare essentials" to stay on tour. Having a physiotherapist, hitting partner, sports psychologist and strength coach will mean chalking up additional costs.
The money will also fund the team's costs for food, flights and accommodation. She also hopes to raise funds via her crowdfunding site, www.gogetfunding.com/TenniswithSarah.
Largely based in Zhongshan, China, Pang said: "If you want to break through the rankings as fast as possible, you need a full team behind you. I used whatever funds I had left to chiong (Singlish for charge forward) all the way."
Having taken the road less travelled, Pang hopes her quest will inspire others to chase their dreams, even if they seem impossible.
She said: "I would like people to watch my journey and see that so much more can be done if we just push ourselves a little bit more."