29 March 17 The Straits Times by NICOLE CHIA
He took up his role as national men's water polo coach only last month, but Dejan Milakovic is confident that Singapore has what it takes to succeed on the Asian stage.
While the Serb, who is here on a two-year contract, acknowledged that there are "a lot of things to be done" in order to achieve that, he was pleased with the potential his charges have shown.
"The most important (areas to improve) are the individual skills of each player and their physical fitness," said the 34-year-old, who was officially announced as Singapore's head coach yesterday at the OCBC Aquatic Centre.
"The boys are really willing to train and to learn, so the feedback is positive for now."
Milakovic represented the former Yugoslavia at youth level and featured for Partizan Belgrade as well as Red Star, clubs in the Serbian Water Polo League A - the highest level of men's water polo in the country.
Singapore were fifth out of seven teams at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, and its last water polo medal at the Asiad came in 1986, when it clinched a bronze in Seoul.
Milakovic said the minimum goal at next year's Asian Games in Jakarta is to finish fourth.
For now, his immediate goal is to ensure that the Singapore men win their 27th straight SEA Games gold medal at the Aug 19-31 Kuala Lumpur Games.
While acknowledging the pressure of leading a team that has won gold ever since the sport was introduced at the 1965 South-east Asian Peninsular Games, Milakovic insisted that he is not bothered by the weight of expectation.
"I've seen these boys and I've seen how they work," added the former coach of Serbia's national youth and 'B' teams.
"If they continue in this rhythm at this level of training... I cannot say for sure in sport, but I'm really positive the gold medal will come again at the SEA Games."
Since his arrival, the team have started double training sessions. They train six days a week, with double sessions on two of those days. Their female counterparts are also working hard in their bid to wrest the SEA Games title back from Thailand.
The Republic won gold when women's water polo made its debut in 2011 in Palembang, Indonesia, but suffered a 4-5 loss against Thailand at the 2015 Singapore edition.
The women's team will be led by Milakovic's predecessor Lee Sai Meng, and the 39-year-old said that his charges have to make changes in their style of play, if they want to reclaim gold. "They must play a bit more mobile... they have to keep moving all the time," he said.
The second objective for women's water polo here, according to Lee, is to create a wide base of developmental players.
The women's development squad has just over 10 players, while the men's side boasts an estimated 120 youth players across three divisions (Under-13, U-15 and U-17).
"The men start playing water polo in primary school, but it's not happening with the women, who start much later," said Lee.
To beef up development efforts, the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) aims to grow the sport in schools, as well as start a water polo league next year.
SSA secretary general of water polo Ang Ban Leong, who was part of the 1986 bronze-winning squad in Korea, hopes more kids will be encouraged to play the sport.
"What's positive on our side is that water polo is the only sport that has retained the SEA Games gold medal since its inception," he added. "That's our bragging right."