The fall and rise of tennis in Cambodia

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Tep Rithivit (centre) this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of the start of his tenure as the secretary-general of Tennis Cambodia. Sreng Meng Srun

Tep Rithivit took over the reins of Cambodia’s fledgling tennis federation, Tennis Cambodia, as secretary-general in 1997. Approaching his milestone 20th year at the helm, he has achieved national and international success as an able administrator.

A promising player, circumstances prevented him from pursuing a tennis career, the path his father, the late Tep Khunnah, one of the Kingdom’s best players in the 1960s, had wanted for his son.

As a 10-year-old boy he was taken to the safety of Canada just before the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. But Rithivit had such passion for Cambodian tennis that he returned two decades later and began reviving the fortunes of a game at its lowest ebb.

In 2010 and in November 2016, the International Tennis Federation recognised Cambodia’s as the most improved federation in Asia against the backdrop of a country developing into a strong tennis nation after starting out with a mere 27 courts and constantly facing a lack of resources.

The start of 2017 saw Cambodia regain their Davis Cup Group III status in Bahrain with an all-win record, as well as one of the most successful players ever to represent the country, Andrea Ka, breaking the 600 barrier to rank 597th. She is now the highest ranked Cambodian player of all time.

There are now up to 10,000 boys and girls going through grassroots programmes today in 15 public schools and six orphanages.

Rithivit took some time to speak with The Post’s HS Manjunath about the fall and rise of tennis in the Kingdom.

What prompted you to give up your life in Canada to get into the unknown entity that was tennis in Cambodia at the time?
I always wanted to come back and live in Cambodia, although I could not say when I would back then. I returned in 1992 for the first time since 1973. Business opportunities were my first motivation.
However, the rediscovery of my country triggered my tennis passions once I met my father’s former tennis teammates who were also keen to revive the game.

When do you think Cambodian Tennis turned a corner?
I think it began when we beat the No3 player from Thailand at the SEA Games in Korat in 2005. It was a big deal. We were nowhere near the dream of participating at the Davis Cup, let alone having a vote as a member of the ITF then. That happened in 2011 when we finally became Class B members and gained an entry into the Davis Cup. Looking back, 2007 was definitely a turning point to where we are today. Let us not forget that we have since always managed to win a bronze medal at the SEA Games.

How would you explain the progress made in Cambodian tennis over the past five or six years?
I see this as huge team success. Everyone at Tennis Cambodia understands that only with a ‘cause’ is there a ‘consequence’. We fight for the same cause and that is why we have the results we have today.

What are your future plans?
We have many plans but we have to prioritise some. Grassroots, training and certifying new coaches, continuing to move forward with competition tennis. Men’s tennis has to do better in the world rankings as well. This means more competitions abroad. This also means funding. We cannot do it alone. Our business community has to engage in this quest as well.

What have been your best and worst moments in tennis?
At the 1997 Jakarta SEA Games, I was leading our national team. We lost all our matches to love sets. Our players were so ashamed that they hid their player passes. I made a promise right there to never feel this shame again. My best moment would be several weeks ago when we got back to Group III in Bahrain. Homegrown player Long Samneang won four matches. He is a pure product of our Grassroots and Junior Development Program. It’s amazing how a good day will make you forget the 29 bad ones, but that’s the business we’re in.