The Singapore Tennis Scene

The backhand that sailed wide from Sloane Stephens marked Elina Svitolina’s first WTA Finals title, as well as the end of what has been an amazing five years in Singapore for the WTA Finals. As Singapore’s hosting of the largest indoor women’s tennis event comes to an end, what is the legacy left behind from hosting the WTA Finals? What’s next for Singapore Tennis?

Svitolina wins the 2018 WTA Finals in Singapore

Svitolina wins the 2018 WTA Finals in Singapore

 The Impact of the WTA Finals and ITF World Tennis Tour/Futures

A study done by Sport Singapore in 2015 suggested that the number of people playing tennis at least once a week increased by 34%, not even a full year after the WTA Finals first hit our shores. Tennis in Singapore has definitely become more popular as a result of hosting the championships. The WTA Finals gave Singaporeans the opportunity to watch live matches where the legends of women’s tennis like Serena and Venus Williams fight it out with fellow legends or rising stars such as Naomi Osaka and Caroline Garcia.

In 2017, Sport Singapore launched the Singapore Tennis Festival, which is a month-long celebration of tennis, culminating in the WTA Finals matches. The Singapore Tennis Festival offered free tennis lessons to the public to introduce them to the sport before the Greatest Eight descended onto our shores.

Some even got the chance to play on the practice courts of the actual tournament, testing out the courts that Grand Slam champions were playing on. I had the opportunity to play on the practice court and I felt like I was one of the top players! The WTA Finals gave Singaporeans an insight into tennis, what it was, and how exciting and exhilarating matches could get.

In 2017, a new Singaporean tournament was formed. This event was not as popular as the WTA Finals, but still successful. The ITF Futures (or ITF World Tennis Tour, as it will be called from 2019 onwards) was played in Singapore, with a Men’s $15k event being played, and a Women’s $25k event added to the roster in 2018.

These events gave Singaporeans the chance to catch a glimpse of action at the lower tiers of professional tennis, as well as a platform to watch and support local national players battle it out for valuable ATP and WTA points (ITF points from 2019 onwards).

Two interesting developments that Kallang Tennis Centre witnessed were Julia Glushko of Israel and Thai-Son Kwaitkowski of the USA. Kwaitkowski was the 2017 NCAA Singles champion, and showed signs of brilliance when he dominated Soichiro Moritani of Japan in the F1 Futures final, dismantling him 6-2, 6-2 to seal the title. Unfortunately, injury forced him to retire in the F2 semifinals, and he withdrew from the F3 event, but there were promising signs shown by the 23 year old.

Glushko, on the other hand, won the 2nd week of the ITF Women’s events. What happened in the subsequent months shocked tennis fans as Glushko went on to make larger improvements in 2018, leading to a US Open Round of 64 appearance as a qualifier. She went on to lose the second round match to Naomi Osaka (the eventual champion ICYMI).

These events served to create a more vibrant tennis scene in Singapore and introduced Singaporeans to the world of professional tennis by allowing them to get up close to the action, sparked interest in the careers of tennis players such as Glushko and Kwaitkowski.

 Tennis Courts in Singapore

In 2017 the courts in Kallang Tennis Centre were resurfaced and undergone maintenance works so that they could meet the standards stipulated by the ITF. This came after Farrer Park Tennis Centre had a six month reconstruction period in 2016. As a result, the tennis courts in Singapore have improved in quality, providing a safe environment for all players.

Indoor tennis courts at Heartbeat Bedok

Indoor tennis courts at Heartbeat Bedok

Sport Singapore also opened the Heartbeat@Bedok integrated sports complex in 2018, featuring six sheltered tennis courts under a canvas cover. In the same year, the People’s Association opened OTH (Our Tampines Hub), which has four sheltered tennis courts that could also be used for other purposes as removable nets are installed.

These new facilities have made Singapore a better environment to play tennis. There will be more opportunities for everyone to have a hitting session. This is especially so with sheltered tennis courts open to the public, meaning tennis can be a rain-or-shine activity.

With more people playing tennis it would be easier to find tennis partners of similar NTRP levels, and to train with them. I see a more vibrant tennis scene in Singapore in the next few years.

Role Models for Singapore Tennis

If Singapore Swimming has Joseph Schooling, then Singapore Tennis has Shaheed Alam and Stefanie Tan.

Shaheed made local headlines when he became the first Singaporean tennis player to win an ITF Juniors title. 2017 saw him capture his first ATP ranking point on home soil when he made the Round of 16 at the Singapore Futures event, and swept the Open categories of 2018 Singapore National Games, reigning in the Men’s Singles, Men’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles events.

Stefanie was first noticed when she won her first Women’s $10k Pro Circuit titles in Baku and Jakarta in 2016. In the 2017 SEA Games, she brought home a Bronze medal, marking the end of a 34 year drought for a Singapore’s tennis medal.

Singapore’s tennis pro, Sarah Pang

Singapore’s tennis pro, Sarah Pang

Another Singaporean that many might not know of is Sarah Pang. She picked up tennis at the age of 19, and worked multiple jobs to make ends meet so that she could train in Europe. She started a crowd-funding campaign to obtain the resources necessary for her to be able to train and compete on the ITF Tour. Sarah is an inspiration to all, showing us that with perseverance and determination, we can fulfil our dreams.

Having local tennis players to look up to definitely gives a boost to the Singapore tennis scene as there is local talent that we can relate to. This stimulates interest in tennis at all levels, from watching the likes of Roger Federer or Serena Williams on the main tours to signing up for tennis lessons in Singapore.

Singaporean parents are now more open to the possibility of professional tennis as a career for their children. They understand that enrolling their kids in a good tennis academy is the first step to seeing them play the ATP or WTA level one day.

How Local Tennis Academies Have Helped the Growth of the Sport

In 2016 Sport Singapore set up the ActiveSG Tennis Academy, where Mini Tennis was taught to kids at relatively affordable prices, in a season lasting three months. Each season culminated in a Mini Tennis Season Finale, where matches were held and prizes were awarded to the best performing kids. This initiative by the ActiveSG Tennis Academy has helped to promote tennis lessons for kids in Singapore.

The general perception of tennis is that it is a costly, and hence, a somewhat elitist sport. This may indeed be the case if players go for the higher end racquets that cost over $200 or purchase tennis balls that cost over $2 each. However, there are always more affordable equipment options.

Organisations such as SC Global (the presenting sponsor of the WTA Finals) and Play! Tennis have also made the sport more affordable to players. An initiative started by SC Global, called Tennis for Every Child, gives primary school students in Singapore the chance to encounter tennis and play friendly matches with fellow juniors in the programme. This definitely introduced tennis to more local kids, and showed them how fun the game can be.

Participants at the Play! Tennis Festival

Participants at the Play! Tennis Festival

Play! Tennis has also made significant strides in making the game more affordable and has successfully introduced the sport at the grassroots level to thousands of adults. The innovative club organises monthly tennis festivals, which is a great avenue for players of all levels to come together to play and learn more about the game.

All these events give the public a chance to encounter tennis, especially if they have not had the opportunity. Naturally, Singaporeans’ curiosity for tennis will grow, and they will start wanting to know more about it, and eventually give it a try. Tennis is a sport that can be played for a lifetime, and is a fun social activity.

However, as with any sport, there are always some challenges to its continued growth. I will now share my thoughts on some of these challenges that Singapore tennis faces.

Challenges to the Continued Growth of Tennis in Singapore

There is limited media coverage in Singapore of professional tennis events around the world. Tennis only seems to get significant coverage in the local media when the top players crash out of Masters 1000 events or Grand Slams, or when Grand Slam champions are crowned.

Tennis controversies are covered, and sometimes, local events get some limelight. Other than these events, tennis news is mainly stagnant in the local media. We may need more mention of tennis in the media for the sport to develop into a form of national culture in Singapore.

Free-to-air channels hardly broadcast tennis matches at all, even when the WTA Finals was in town. Any broadcast appears ad hoc and is not promoted (ICYMI: Okto showed the semifinals of the Stockholm Open ATP 250 event).

Will Zverev be the next Number One?

Will Zverev be the next Number One?

Therefore, the lack of airtime gives tennis a backseat when it comes to sports, and the general public may even be somewhat ignorant of tennis and its stars. This definitely suggests an urgent need for tennis to receive more airtime, and some form of promotion when it is on.

Local free-to-air channels could broadcast Grand Slam Finals, and promote them, in the hopes of inspiring Singaporeans to pick up tennis, and maybe, develop one into a future Grand Slam champion.

Tennis does not enjoy the popularity other sports such as football or even fellow racquet sports like badminton as tennis is often seen as a sport for the older generation (especially when the dominant players - Djokovic, Nadal and Federer – are mostly over 30).

Millennials might not find tennis attractive if they view tennis as an old-person sport and are unable to discover role models closer to their age group (which there are, as seen during the NextGen Finals in Milan).  

The Singapore Tennis Scene has been growing, with very encouraging signs after the WTA Finals. However, sustaining this tennis legacy that the WTA Finals has left behind will be a challenge in the next few years. Therefore, it is very important that tennis be promoted through word of mouth, or on the larger scale. Singapore Tennis may get a boost in three years’ time, should the ATP decide to host its year-end championships in Singapore from 2021 to 2025. For now, we will have to do whatever is within our capacity to spread our love for this game in Singapore.

Matthias Lee