For my whole life, I’ve wanted to be a playing member of a sports team. Anything would have done, particularly anything to do with balls. But I was shunned for perfectly good reasons. I could never catch a ball. Kick a ball. Hit a ball. Or even throw a ball in the direction of another player. Who the hell was trying to catch it anyway? But eventually that changed when I moved to Melbourne and was welcomed into the blind and visually impaired community. I finally got to play tennis that did not exclude me.
One Friday night, I turned up for the usual blind tennis practice and was greeted by my new friend Silvana who seemed unusually excited. “Are you going to the swimming pool?” she blurted out. As usual I was eager to please and replied, “Yes, I’ll come to the swimming pool”. “No Singapore” she clarified. “To play blind tennis”. I had no idea what she was talking about but I thought about it for a good two seconds and said “yes”.
Woohoo! I’m a member of a sports team
Initially quite a few members of Blind Tennis Victoria were going but unfortunately the numbers dwindled to five over the coming weeks. People had disruptions to their plans for various reasons. But for those of us remaining, we were fitted out for a sports uniform with a hoodie, a T shirt, shorts and a cap. The uniform had the logo The Primary Club of Australia on the front. The hoodie was the best with big bold writing on the back. BLIND TENNIS VICTORIA. We were also given a new tennis racket. And a lanyard with the details of our team leader, Adam, in case we got lost! And then on Sunday, the 22nd of May, four of us boarded our flight to Singapore. Rob and his wife, Felicity; Silvana and me. Adam was unable to get on the same flight, so he joined us the next evening.
We were headed for Singapore
After an eight-hour flight, we arrived in Singapore late on Sunday night. We checked in to our hotel, the Royal Plaza, then headed to our respective rooms and prepared for a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, my bedfellow snored loudly all night. At breakfast the next morning, Silvana and I had our first minor tiff over the snoring. Rob and Felicity guffawed and compared us to an old married couple. Not much help but they did secretly buy me a packet of ear plugs.
Day one – free day
After breakfast, Chris and Valerie from the Soundball Singapore team met us in the hotel foyer. These two amazing young women, both visually impaired, took a day out of their busy schedules to spend the day showing us some of the sites.
The sight seeing involved mostly eating …
First of all, we walked to a Hawker food centre to try some of the local cuisine. The heat was stifling. Chris told us that Singapore was in the midst of a heat wave and even the locals weren’t coping. She added that it was the hottest May on record since 1981. But we were tennis players from Australia and not about to expire from heat exhaustion any time soon.
Chendol, a refreshing dessert made with shaved ice, coconut milk, jelly and red bean paste followed by some freshly cooked beef jerky were two of my favourite ‘Hawker centre’ delicacies. A trip on a driverless train to Chinatown was next on the agenda. Here we bought a few souvenirs and then attempted to cool off with a delicious lime juice, another Singaporean speciality. After all this activity, it was time to head to Little India where we had an incredible lunch at the Banana Leaf Restaurant.
Meeting the Singapore team
By now, it was quite late in the afternoon, so Chris suggested we take a double decker bus to her place. It was surreal sitting upstairs in the front seat of that double decker bus with Silvana beside me. I used to think being a member of a tennis team and travelling overseas to play the game was only for sports stars like my hero, Roger Federer. Not for blind people who were still in the midst of a world pandemic. I returned to reality when the bus came to an abrupt halt and Chris announced it was our stop. Simultaneously, as we disembarked, so did the torrential downpour. We remained under the bus shelter for at least half an hour until Chris’s home help arrived with umbrellas for everyone.
At Chris’s place we had a wonderful evening meeting lots of players from the Singapore team. The hospitality and generosity shown towards us was overwhelming. The food, the drinks, the gifts, the laughter, but best of all, the new friendships.
Back at the hotel
Adam had arrived on a late flight and was in the lobby to greet us when we returned to our hotel. Exhausted and happy, we all headed straight for our rooms. I pushed the plugs in my lugs as far as they would go and had a great night’s sleep. The next morning at breakfast, Silvana and I had another minor tiff. She said she didn’t sleep a wink because my “snoring was all over the place”. Loud, soft, high, low and to top it off, whistling. From then on, snoring was never mentioned again.
Day 2 Tuesday (first day of tennis)
Mark, a volunteer coach and his son picked us up from the hotel to take us to the tennis centre to have our first day on the courts. Rob and Adam were playing real tennis and winning lots of matches while Silvana and I got some great coaching from Mark, Aaron and Jessen from the Singapore team. And I was lucky enough to play my first proper match with scoring and all! My unfortunate opponent was Chris but she was so patient as I struggled to return a serve. I managed to hit one or two balls and get one over the net. The game was short. I could only improve.
After two hours on the courts, it was time to put down the rackets, get resuscitated and start thinking about food again. So that evening we chilled out at the Hard Rock Café, a short walk from where we were staying.
Day 3 Wednesday (second day of tennis)
We travelled by train to Bedok, where the tennis centre is located. Chris and Jessen met us at the station where we continued to a food mall to refuel. Jessen bought some locally made bread to share; two lots with choc chips and fruit, the other with a pizza-like topping. I washed mine down with a cold brew coffee. Delicious!
The heat was unforgiving
By the time we arrived at the tennis centre, everyone was waiting for us! After a quick warm up, it was straight into the tennis. At this point, I was already in need of resuscitation but somehow managed to rise above it. Silvana and I had lots more coaching while Rob and Adam played lots more real tennis games. All the while, Felicity was taking lots of photos of the panting, sweating and groaning players from their best angles. Needless to say, we survived another day on the courts.
Coconut jam was flying off the shelves
At 3 PM, it was time to re-refuel. We left the tennis centre arm in arm with our new buddies and walked to a small café in the mall. Coconut jam and butter toasted sandwiches (kaya toast) and a drink called kopi cham were the specialities. Kopi cham is a local drink that is made with coffee and tea mixed together. The taste is … well … interesting! Unlike the coconut jam. They were selling it by the jar, and it was delicious. I think we Aussies cleaned up the supply of coconut jam to take back home.
That evening we went our separate ways. Rob and Felicity, who had previously lived in Singapore, dined with some of their Singaporean friends. Jessen and his wife Emily met Adam, Silvana and me at the hotel. We went to a local restaurant and had dinner there. Jessen and Emily did the ordering, so we had a variety of dishes; chicken, prawn, rice, noodles – all local and cooked in delicious sauces.
Day 4 Thursday (Day 3 and last day at the courts)
Apart from playing tennis, the final day at the courts was also a time for reflection. For me it was one of the most amazing opportunities that I’d ever had. It wasn’t just about the tennis but also the challenges, motivation, kindness, sharing, understanding, acceptance and supporting each other.
The disco bus
That evening we met Lee Ling, one of Felicity’s work colleagues and close friend. Lee Ling organised a minibus to pick us up from the Royal Plaza. We knew it was going to be a fun night as soon as the bus pulled up. Strips of flashing lights in all colours decorated the bus inside and out, disco balls and fairy lights dangled from the ceiling. We had to bob down low to avoid colliding with a disco ball or getting tangled in fairy lights when we were getting into our seats. With the music pumping and the rain beating down, the bus driver drove us to a very fancy hotel where we had dinner.
A truckload of delectable dishes
Lee Ling and Felicity ordered the food, local dishes that we all shared. There was so much food that I thought they had over-ordered. But we all laughed and talked our way through the feast until there was only a chilli crab shell left.
Day 5 Friday
Lee Ling took time to share part of her day with us, so we went to China town again for some last-minute shopping. And of course some refreshments!
That evening I decided to have a massage
The masseuse was such a tiny woman, about the size of your average seven-year-old Aussie kid. She led me into a dark room with the usual diffuser humming and the delicious aroma of caramel wafting around the room. She quickly disappeared while I removed my kit and lay belly down on the massage table. I was ready for some gentle pampering when she returned. But instead, she climbed up on top of me and ground her pointy knees and elbows into my back before pulverizing the rest of my torso with the force of someone ten times her size. The aroma of durian would have better prepared me for the pounding I got.
Day 6 Saturday
My body felt like a well-oiled machine as I strode down to the breakfast room with Silvana. After breakfast, as it was our last full day in Singapore, we decided to go to Marina Bay Sands.
You know it’s fancy when ‘shops’ are spelt ‘Shoppes’ with a capital ‘S’ …
From gondola rides in a real canal, to the ‘Shoppes’, the restaurants, the convention centres, the theatres, the Skypark crowning the three enormous luxury hotels – this place has got the lot. But after six days of full-on action, we were only interested in dragging ourselves around the ‘Shoppes’, gazing at things we couldn’t afford and having lunch at a fancy café.
Day 7 Sunday and back home
We headed back to Changi Airport early in the morning for the long trip back home. It was sad to leave all our new friends. And for Robert and Felicity, many of their old friends as well. Fortunately, Adam has already organised an exchange later this year in October, so it won’t be long until we all meet again.
Whilst reminiscing about the amazing time and the fun memories we have to keep, I also reflect on the people and businesses that made this possible.
Thank you to …
- Maurice Gleeson, CEO and President at Blind Sports and Recreation Victoria (BSRV) who organised a grant of $150 for each player
- Adam Fayad, Ambassador for BSRV and Victorian representative for the International Blind Tennis Association
- The Primary Club of Australia for supplying our uniforms
- Maria from Round Travel
- The amazing host volunteers – Kai, Aaron, Mark , Wen Kang, Jane, Leslie, Mabel, Rachel and Yida
- The equally amazing host players
And of course, my teammates Adam, Robert and Silvana.
But most of all …
The biggest thankyou of all goes to Felicity who supported us with guidance, completing paperwork, ordering food, directions and everything else. On top of that, she tirelessly took all the photos and videos of almost every move we made from leaving Australia until our return.