Situated in the charming city of Walla Walla, Washington, Whitman College is a private institution founded in 1883 that competes athletically in the NCAA Division III North West Conference.
The college has given its entire roster of 20 tennis players a dream trip to Cambodia to widen their game, but more significantly to soak up the cultural experiences from a historical perspective.
It was in early May last year that Whitman alumnus Phalkun Mam, a member of the Kingdom’s Davis Cup squad since 2013 and head of junior development, received a simple message from his former coach Jeff Northam: “I have a crazy idea that I need your help with.”
That first serve was indeed an ace as Northam worked out a plan for a “match” with the Cambodian national tennis team as part of their winter vacation break.
After months of correspondence back and forth, and some solid groundwork at both ends, Northam and volunteer assistant coach Tom Sawatzki landed with their entire troupe of 20 players in Cambodia on Sunday.
They are now in the middle of a hectic schedule that includes tennis contests against the national team and rushing off to visit places of historical and cultural significance in their free time away from the court.
‘A dream come true’
It was at the Killing Fields that the Whitman group realised the depth of the tragedy that struck tennis during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, with nearly 40 registered players at the time slain for just being tennis players, with many of them buried in those shallow graves.
While magnifying the total destruction of the game, it also served to show the young players the resilience with which Cambodian tennis was gradually revived, and after nearly two decades of hard work by Tennis Cambodia restored to the level of being recognised for the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s award late last year.
The green light for Jeff Northam to take the team to Cambodia was given by the college’s study abroad department, with the entire touring party listening with rapt attention to a lecture from Bruce Magnusson, a genocide professor, to prepare the players for the upcoming trip.
“Everything has gone so smoothly. This trip has been a dream come true. To be able to bring 20 guys to Cambodia is just something I never could have imagined for my program. A big thank you to Tennis Cambodia for helping to organise this and have their players match up against my team,’’ Northam told The Post yesterday.
“They seem to all be having a great time both on the court and learning about the history of the country and Tennis Cambodia. I hope this is the start of something that we could potentially organise every few years,” Northam said.
Tennis Cambodia Secretary-General Tep Rithivit said: “It’s not so often that we can organise something of this scale – just to think of 20 college players of good standard coming to our country to play against our national team.
“It’s a great honour to have them travel here, see our country and spar with our players just as we are looking ahead to our Asia/Oceania Group III Davis Cup campaign. Last month we hosted a preseason training camp with ATP players, and now a top NCAA Division III school from the US – what a treat it has been.”
During the first day of matches, the country’s No1 player Bun Kenny was able to play a modified match against Zach Hewlin, Whitman’s top player, who is in his senior year and had made it as far as the semifinals of the NCAA Division III Men’s Singles Tournament as a sophomore. Kenny managed to wrap up the set 6-4 from 0-2 down.
Long Samneang had a tough time against Whitman’s likely No2 player, with Ben Kirsh edging him out 9-7 in a tie-break. For Phalkun, who played four years of college tennis at Whitman under Northam, it was a throwback to the old days. He faced Adam Rapaport and won 6-3 in a set that was closer than the score indicated.
“When I was at Whitman, I had no clue that 10 years later I would be in Cambodia working and playing. And now to have coach Northam bring his current team here, training with our national team as they prepare for their 2017-18 spring season, is definitely something I never thought would have happened,” Phalkun said.
“During my time at Whitman, Jeff was not only a coach but a mentor as well, and I’m so happy to see his team here with him experiencing the same love and care he showed me and my team 10 years ago.”
The second day was all about the doubles, with five courts in use for a bump-style game with winners moving up and losers sliding down. The final day yesterday was spent with more singles practice matches.
Tennis and Wine Camps
The first ever international trip bringing the whole squad of 20 players to Cambodia would not have happened but for a unique marketing idea flouted by Northam with Boise State men’s tennis coach Greg Patton seven years ago.
The two started what they called Tennis and Wine Camps in Walla Walla. From its very first camp of 12 participants, it has grown all over the US and around the world.
Every summer now eight camps are held with anywhere from 24 to 30 participants, with proceeds going directly to the Whitman Men’s and Women’s Tennis Programs, which has now created a fabulous opening for players to travel overseas.
Having seen most of the tourist attractions in Phnom Penh, the Whitman touring party will spend the next three days in Siem Reap winding down their exciting trip with a visit to Angkor Wat.
The most precious memories for the Cambodian juniors are the dozen or so racquets some of the Whitman players generously donated – and for Tennis Cambodia it is heartening to note that they now have a new outpost of well-wishers in Walla Walla.