Tennis died in Cambodia the moment the notorious Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and went on a mass manhunt killing an estimated 2.1 million of its own people who were thought to be supporters of the elitist class. Tennis was considered an elitist sport then. Thirty-eight Cambodian tennis players were either killed or disappeared into the infamous Killing Fields.
Cambodia was liberated in 1979, but the damage was done to the tennis community. It would take 25 years to begin its revival, and the driving force behind Cambodia’s comeback is Tep Rithivit, ironically the son of the man who pioneered tennis in Cambodia back in the late 1950s. He was so popular then that Prince Sihanouk dubbed him ‘Mr. Tennis’.
“In the 60s and early 70s, Cambodia tennis at the time was in its prime, dominating all regional countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Burma and Laos,” states Tep, secretary general of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia. “But that was a long time ago. Since then we have had to start over from the beginning.”
So when Tep began picking up the pieces of a shattered tennis nation, he had one major problem - there were only a handful of tennis players left in the entire country. Two were former champions who survived the Killing Fields, but both were in their middle fifties. That is when Tep started making phone calls.
“My sister got an email from a friend who lived on the east coast of the United States,” says Mana Sara, father of Mana Pannhara and Mana Vetu, two boys who grew up in the United States and played college tennis there. “It was a global appeal for Cambodian tennis players living abroad. Since then, we have followed the Tennis Federation of Cambodia news through their programme’s development and the progress.”
It would take Tep Rithivet a little more than emails to find more tennis players. He would fly to France, home to many exiled Cambodians, and began scouring the tennis clubs. There he found Bun Kenny and Tan Nysan. Both players moved to Cambodia, began training with the association and went out on the ITF Futures circuit and became Cambodia’s first two players to earn a professional ranking. Now others are following in their footsteps.
“Because of the TFC's leadership to push Cambodian tennis to the prestigious Davis Cup level, we decided that it is the right time for our boys to participate,” continues Mana Sara. “When the approval by the TFC secretary general came that they had been selected for the team there were no words of excitement to express our joy. Thanks to the Davis Cup, our boys will become even more proud of our country.”
Cambodia begin their Davis Cup career in Asia/Oceania Group IV, with their first event taking place week of 16 April and up against teams such as Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Myanmar for a promotion to Group III for 2013. Cambodia’s technical director and national coach for the last three years is Braen Aneiros.
“Until the last three years, becoming eligible to participate in the Davis Cup was just a dream that seemed very far off considering all the steps that were needed,” admits Aneiros. “Now, the excitement is so great that our players have a motivation like none I have ever seen here. And it is not just the players, but everyone that is involved in tennis in Cambodia has contributed in some way or the other to this upcoming Davis Cup competition.”
Suresh Menon, ITF Development Officer for Asia agrees with Aneiros.
“It’s a very exciting time for Cambodian tennis,” says Menon. “It’s great to have Cambodia in the Davis Cup family especially after all the hardship endured. It’s mainly due to the efforts of a few determined individuals in the federation that has made this vision a reality.”
Cham Prasidh, current Minister of Commerce and President of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia feels that the Davis Cup is more than just a sporting event.
“This is not just great for tennis,” begins Prasidh, “but a great example for the entire nation. We don’t have many sport teams competing in international competitions. This is a strong signal to our nation that we are making progress on a worldwide stage. Again.”
What Cham Prasidh hints at by saying ‘again’ is what many Cambodians feel about their country. They were once a mighty empire ruled by the Khmer Kingdom. And out of that period came the magnificent complex of temples at Angkor Wat and the famed Khmer architecture.
"As a Khmer, I believe that the Kingdom of Cambodia was once a great empire,” says Mana Sara. “The reconstruction of this nation will be one piece greater because of the example tennis is setting for other sporting and cultural disciplines.”
The goal for the teams competing in Doha will be to win all their matches and get promoted to Group III. For Cambodia, whether they ascend or not will not dampen the pride of this tennis association who has slowly but surely risen from the ashes.