Singapore’s Samuel Kang on life after Princeton and big dreams for squash
By ALEX WAN – Squash Mad Asian Bureau Editor
Beneath the hard running slender frame is a former straight-As student who had just returned from the acclaimed Ivy League school, Princeton University, with an Economics degree. Despite picking up the sport at a relatively matured age, he has won the Australian Junior Open, played a pivotal role in Princeton’s squash team and last year, helped Singapore to a silver medal in the team event of the SEA Games.
At the recently concluded 2015 Old Chang Kee Singapore Open where he was the joint-fifth seed, Kang upset the seedings to beat compatriot Vivian Rhamanan, Singapore’s only professional player.
He lost in the next round to the eventual winner, Ong Beng Hee, but after giving the former world number 7 a scare when he led 10-9 in the first game. In the third placing classification match, he led another Malaysian Elvinn Keo 2-1, but ran out of steam as he came close to stealing another famous victory.
Kang played a pivotal role in the Princeton University squash team. In his freshman year, Kang won all but one of his matches that helped end Trinity’s 13-season reign on the national title. The Princeton University captain has also twice won the National Mixed Intercollegiate Doubles title, in 2014 and 2015.
To cap off his university experience, Kang was one of the three nominees of the Skillman Award, which is awarded by the College Squash Association to a senior men’s squash player who has demonstrated outstanding sportsmanship during his entire college career. However, Kang lost out to Columbia’s University’s Ramit Tandon, who is now better known as the guy who took out Ali Farag at the Tournament Of Champions qualifiers.
While he may not have tasted life as a touring professional, Kang has had a taste of playing at the Tournament Of Champion qualifiers and took ”The Artist” Ramy Ashour to court when he was down here on a promotional visit.
You’ve graduated this year from Princeton with an Economics degree. So what are you currently doing?
I went to Princeton on a Ministry Of Education scholarship and I’m now serving in the National Institute of Education for about a year as part of my bond.
What’s next after that?
I’m bonded by the Ministry Of Education for five years, so after this I’ll most likely be teaching in a school, probably a junior college. That’ll be for about two years before I move into the ministry itself, doing planning or policies.
Since you’ll be part of the planning and policies department in future, how do you see squash integrating even better into the Singapore education system?
I think sports has grown to become a big part of our education system and as a nation we’ve come to realize the benefits of sports participation.
Hopefully squash will become more popular as a result of this, but that isn’t going to happen by chance. It’ll take the collective effort of schools and the Singapore Squash Rackets Association to make that a reality.
I think we are at an important stage now because people are getting more interested in squash after the South East Asian Games (where Singapore won a gold in jumbo doubles and a silver in the men’s team) and the recent Old Chang Kee Singapore Open tournaments, but the association must make use of this momentum rather than let it die down.
Twice you were beaten by Ali Farag in the CSA tournament. He’s now beginning to stamp his mark on tour. Does it make you wonder if you would make it if you gave it a shot?
Unlike many others who went to study on sports scholarships or financial aids from the university, for me, the option wasn’t on the table since I am on the Ministry Of Education scholarship. I knew what I signed up for and that I had to come back to work for them. So, no I’ve never actually thought about it from that angle.
So what about when you were growing up? Having picked up the racket, won a few age groups, did it cross your mind?
I started playing when I was in secondary one, when I was 13 years old. I would say it was pretty late, so the idea of that was never as realistic. I didn’t know if it was something feasible. Perhaps if I started earlier, who knows, things might have been different.
Many Singaporeans have gone to the Ivy League schools on scholarships. But none have actually gone on to play professionally. Why do you think is that?
That’s because here (in Singapore), if you take that path, everything is on the person. There’s simply no set up and support system here to fall onto. You would have to deal with everything, from training, planning, sponsorship, everything. There’s no guidance from the association here. We just do not have the experience and expertise for that.
A big reason, or perhaps the only reason needed, are the salaries one is bound to earn with a degree in hand here in Singapore. Well, since you’re the economist, the opportunity cost of playing full time must be big. Would you then say that chances of a full-time professional player from Singapore is very slim?
Yeah, when you are comparing opportunity cost, there is nothing to compare because there’s nothing on the other side. Since you would be giving up everything for nothing. So yes, it’s really hard and you’re right, the chances are pretty slim.
What’s the most memorable match for you?
That’s a hard one cause I’ve got quite a few. Maybe it’s one that was in the United States. It was my first year there and over there, we play college squash and it’s over nine ties, so it’s very much a team event and a lot more than yourself.
It was the finals and I actually lost my match, but we ended up winning the team title. I was playing a Swedish boy Johan Detter. It was hard because it was the only match I lost all season. But thankfully we won!
Who would be the player you would like to have a go at? Why?
Any of the top ten or twenty professional players. Playing in that field is really a totally whole new ball game. All of them are equally as tough and playing any of them would be a really good experience.
I got to play Ramy Ashour when he was here. It was only for five points but it was truly an amazing experience. It would be nice to actually play a full match against him.
And if I could give you a wild card, where would it be?
I would say the Tournament of Champions in New York. I’ve played it before in the qualifying, but that was in the club. Then you see the court at the Grand Central Station, it’s really amazing. I would love to play out there. Another place I’d love to play is at the Pyramids in Egypt.
Finally, who amongst the local juniors do you think has what it takes to mount a challenge on the bigger stage?
I would say Pang Ka Hoe. He’s no longer a junior but he’s one of the up and coming youngsters. Since a very young age, he’s had a solid game and he’s done very well in big tournaments like the British Juniors.
As for the younger ones, there’s Edward Thng, the boy many people are talking about. It’s good we have some of them to push the others to want to do well.
Pictures by ALEX WAN