Photos : The Straits Times Nov 2012
The last time Singapore sent tennis players to the SEA Games in 2001, junior players such as Isaac Ong (PICTURED) were still toddlers who had yet to pick up their first rackets. But Singapore Tennis Association (STA) technical director Paul Dale believes they can be good enough to contend for medals for the 2015 edition to be staged here.
Singapore did not compete in the last five SEA Games because the STA's nominations were not endorsed by the Singapore National Olympic Council, which selects athletes for major Games.
"Age-wise, our juniors have caught up really quickly and they'll be primed for the SEA Games by then (2015)," said Dale, who has more than 20 years of coaching experience in the region and once taught former world No.9 Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand.
He was speaking on the sidelines of the ongoing Summit Planners Singapore International Tennis Federation (ITF) Junior Championships at the Kallang Tennis Centre. Singapore's last SEA Games medal in tennis was a men's team bronze at the 1995 edition in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Indonesia and Thailand are the regional powerhouses in the sport.
"I have taken Thailand to three SEA Games and two Asian Games and I know the level required," declared the New Zealander.
"We're steaming towards that really quickly."
Dale's belief stems from the progress that his charges have made since devoting most of their time to the sport.
There are four players on the STA's full-time tennis programme for juniors - Joshua Liu, 16, Isaac Ong (PICTURED), 15, Sherwin Foo, 14, and Angela Lim, 15.
They go through home-schooling programmes and spend most of their time - five-and-a-half days a week - training and competing on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) junior circuit.
Isaac, in particular, has climbed more than a 1,000 rungs since March - from No.1,816 on the ITF world junior rankings to No.777.
He also recently finished in the top four at the ITF Vietnam Junior Championships in Hue and is consistently making the last eight in other tournaments on the junior circuit.
Said Dale: "People used to think nothing of meeting players from Singapore, but we're getting respect at tournaments now... it's something that happens because we're playing better.
"We'll be able to contend and compete for medals if we can keep this going.
"Sponsors need to come in, the players need to stay full-time and they need to be managed properly."
His charges share his belief, although they admit that playing full-time has not been easy.
Said Isaac: "I'm travelling a lot to tournaments overseas and it can get very lonely.
"Sometimes after losing, you feel like going home, but you've got to go to the next tournament."
Added Joshua: "People think home-schooling is easier, but it takes so much self-discipline.
"I think it (a SEA Games medal) is possible. It's just a lot of hard work and commitment involved.
"If we can do both, we can make it."