Cambodian tennis rises from the ashes at Davis Cup

Michelle Fitzpatrick
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Cambodia has finally made it to a top world tennis event as they are to debut at Davis Cup in Qatar coming week

A Cambodian tennis player serves the ball during a training session in Phnom Penh. When the country's number one player Bun Kenny steps onto the court in Qatar for the Davis Cup being played April 16 to 22, it will mark the crowning moment of years of effort to revive a sport that was all but wiped out by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s for being 'too upper-class.'

What's most remarkable about Cambodia's imminent Davis Cup debut is not that the small nation has finally made it to a top world tennis event. It's that the sport exists in Cambodia at all.

When the country's number one player and budding heart-throb Bun Kenny steps onto the court in Qatar in the coming week, it will mark the crowning moment of years of effort to revive a sport that was all but wiped out by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s for being too upper-class.

"Tennis almost completely disappeared," Kenny told AFP as he took a break from practising his ground strokes with his three Davis Cup teammates on a recent sweltering afternoon in the Cambodian capital.

"Today, for the players and for the trainers, I think it's our job to revive tennis and get more people interested in the game," the 21-year-old said, wiping the sweat off his brow.

"We are looking forward to the Davis Cup. It's only the beginning."

Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge dismantled modern society and launched a radical revolution that led to the deaths of up to two million people from overwork, starvation or execution between 1975 and 1979.

"Like many sports, tennis was considered an elitist sport and there were no exceptions when the Khmer Rouge came. They wanted to wipe out anything that was part of the old era," said Tep Rithivit, the non-playing Davis Cup team captain and the secretary general of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia.

"Pol Pot wanted to start Year Zero in Cambodia. As far as tennis was concerned, he succeeded. We had to rebuild everything from scratch."

Only three of an estimated 40 players who were in the national team before the regime's "Killing Fields" era are known to have survived.

One of them is Yi Sarun, an energetic 67-year-old who still hits the courts almost every day and who is widely credited for leading efforts to keep the game alive in Cambodia.

"I survived because I was smart enough to lie," he told AFP after an effortless coaching lesson with a young Sri Lankan student at a sports club in Phnom Penh.

"I told them I was just a cyclo driver and that in my free time I enjoyed playing football," he added, his soaked red t-shirt emblazoned with the words "From Killing Fields to Tennis Courts" -- the federation's unofficial slogan.

Fellow players who didn't hide their identity from the Khmer Rouge "were considered rich people or high-ranking officials. They were killed."

Sarun himself didn't come from a wealthy background but his talent for the game was discovered as a teenager when he was spotted copying the moves from the local officials he saw playing tennis in his home province.

In 1975, he buried his trophies and medals, evidence of a glittering tennis career in the 1960s, and spent much of the next four years toiling in the fields, like most of his countrymen.

But the endless labour did not break his spirit nor did it extinguish his love for tennis, and after the regime was ousted from power he was at the forefront of a push to wake the game from its slumber in the early 1980s.

"I wanted to restart tennis because it's my skill, it's what I know... I love this sport.

"We had only three players, there were no other people who knew how to play so the game was paralysed," Sarun said, recalling how they had nothing better than a fishing net to string across the court and were reliant on foreigners to bring in new equipment.

Inspired by these efforts, Rithivit, whose family had left Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge era, returned to his home country in the early 1990s to help set up the Tennis Federation of Cambodia and nurture the next crop of players through free tennis lessons for school children and orphans.

"I tell them never to forget what has happened in the past and try to give a better hope for the new generation," he said, standing on the sidelines of the court, not taking his eyes off the practise doubles match now going on between his four Davis Cup team members.

Today, Cambodia boasts two ranked players and was allowed to join the Davis Cup competition after it hosted an ATP event last year and its membership to the International Tennis Federation was upgraded, Rithivit explained.

"For us, it's the greatest tennis revival, you know. It's beating all the odds and beating all the challenges that we were confronted with... It's one of the greatest moments of tennis in Cambodia."

Rithivit and the players say they hope their Davis Cup debut will lift the profile of the game in impoverished Cambodia, where it continues to be viewed as a rather expensive pastime and doesn't come close to rivalling the popularity of football or boxing.

The team will start their Davis Cup campaign in Doha in the Asia-Oceania Group IV, in which 10 nations -- including Myanmar, Iraq and Singapore -- will compete from April 16-21 for two places in the next stage.

"We have a good chance to be in Group III next year," said Kenny, who moved to Cambodia from France nearly two years ago to give himself the best shot at a professional tennis career. He is ranked 1192th in the world by the ATP.

Team captain Rithivit believes his boys feel the weight of history on their shoulders.

"These guys are hungry and they are proud to play for their country. They have worked hard to be here," he said.