There’s a blind tennis team in Singapore.
Yes, blind tennis.
In a sport that relies on one’s visual acuity to chase the ball and hit it back with as much precision, it’s challenging as it is for a sighted person, so how the hell does one play tennis blind?
I was dumbfounded.
It was only when I met the players from Soundball Singapore, our blind tennis team, during one of their weekly trainings that it started to make sense.
One of them is 39-year-old Marc Chiang, who has almost zero central vision and relies mostly on his peripheral vision for sight.
After giving me a brief history lesson of Soundball, he explained that certain elements are modified to make the sport feasible for visually handicapped players.
For example, the balls and rackets used are specially manufactured for this game.
Rules are also tweaked, and differs depending on the class of the player—players are assigned the B1 to B4 class depending on their ‘level of sight’, B1 players being those who are completely blind.
While the other players went on to set up the court and warm up for the training, I sat down with Marc at the side of the main hall at Pathlight School.
“I got to know of Soundball through another Runninghour member, Hock Bee. He’s one of the first few Singapore Soundball players.”
Runninghour is an inclusive running club that Marc had been running with after he started to lose his vision. It was also there that he found himself a second family of sorts. It’s where he found the comfort and support that helped him tide through the struggles he had been having with his vision loss.
“It was quite a setback,” Marc shared when I probed about his fears when he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degeneration of the retina that causes him to experience a gradual loss of eyesight, eight years ago.
“I was just lost. I wasn’t clinical diagnosed with depression, but I was [feeling very down] and I just withdrew [from everything]. I cut myself from a lot of social activity. I struggled with meeting my own friends.”
Social situations were a big hurdle as Marc found it hard to handle his own condition, much less explain it to the people around him. As a result, it was very easy to get frustrated. Especially when he tries to do something but realise that he has lost the ability to do so. It was an everyday struggle because he had to come to terms with the fact that he needed help in the simplest of things like scanning a document or going to the toilet.
He had been working as a facilities engineer for almost four years back then and fortunately, his company was willing to transition him to a more backend role, which he still works full-time at today.
Sports, however, was a major part of his life that he had to ‘give up’ due to his inability to see properly.
“I cut down on a lot of sports. I used to run, swim, play tennis, soccer, basketball. I still go trekking, running, and also travelling, but I can’t do any of that independently anymore.”
Finding Ways To Be Abled
After speaking to three of the Soundball players, I came to understand that the biggest joy and fulfillment for the visually handicapped is in knowing that they are still capable of achieving something that they thought they have lost the ability to do.
For Marc, it is the ability to play tennis again as it is a sport he has been playing since he was 10 years old, and had even represented his school and army unit in competitions.
It’s evident that he hasn’t lost his competitive streak. In fact, together with a couple of other players, he represented Singapore since the first International Blind Tennis Tournament in 2017. He was even ranked 4th in the B2 class in 2018.
Chairperson of the group, homemaker Chris Tan, is another player who never lost her aspirations.
Like Marc, Chris experienced a gradual loss of eyesight. Although, her condition is somewhat the opposite of Marc’s as she has tunnel vision (from Glaucoma).
Now 46, she tells me that her inspiration behind being active and keeping fit is her two boys.
“I didn’t want to be the mom who sits at home and does nothing, I want to be a role model for them. To demonstrate to my young children that disabilities shouldn’t stop you from doing what you want to do.”
With the support from her husband and friends, she also volunteers her time to Runninghour, assisting the group in events. She also took over the role as the head of Soundball Singapore when the previous chairperson stepped down, as she didn’t want the sport to die out in Singapore.
Despite the improvements in the group over the years and the encouraging results from the international tournament however, Marc and Chris told me that there’s still a long way to go for Soundball Singapore in terms of recognition and structure.
Growing A New Sport For The Visually Challenged
While they do have support from Singapore Association Of The Visually Handicapped (SAVH) and WITS (Women’s International Tennis Singapore) for certain areas, the group is run solely by chairperson Chris Tan, and assisted by Marc.
They’ve also managed to get by through the years with support from different groups of people—donations that covers part of their training and competition expenses, training venue sponsorship, and volunteers to coach and assist in training. But they still face a ‘chicken and egg’ problem when it comes to getting a permanent coach and growing the team.
Marc: “We’ve had players who left because there was no structured training programme, because we don’t have a permanent coach. And when you want to get a coach, you need players.”
Getting a permanent coach will also make it possible to track players’ progression, which will be very beneficial for the regulars who have been working hard for the international tournament every year.
However, how does one find a coach to teach blind tennis—a sport that is still so new to society?
Later, I learnt from Marc that there are only about 10 players in the group, out of which only about four are regulars. These numbers surprised me. I assumed that there would be at least twice to three times more players, since the group was established in 2012. My heart sank knowing the struggles that the group faces despite having big dreams of establishing themselves as a formal sports group in Singapore, and in helping to get blind tennis recognised as a paralympic sport.
One of Chris’ aims is also to turn Soundball Singapore into a platform for visually impaired persons to find joy. More than the sport, she hopes that it can be a space for people to socialise, to share their stories and problems with each other—a support platform of some sort.
And it is evident from the interactions I observed throughout the two hours training session that the group is more than a gathering of visually impaired individuals who want to play tennis. Among them, it was this feeling of comfort and familiarity when you finally meet your close friends amidst all your busy schedules.
Something else that struck me was what 54-year-old uncle Hock Bee, the first Soundball player in Singapore, said: “I have always believed that being visually impaired, we don’t need to do different things, just have to do the things differently.”
Beyond the sport itself, it’s also clear that this is where the players get empowered. Being able to hit a tennis ball is no big deal for most of us, but for them, playing blind tennis cultivates within them resilience and gives them the confidence they need (and deserve). They may have lost their eyesight, but through the empowerment from playing, it reminds them to never lose sight of their dreams.