Sport that survived the Khmer Rouge

Cambodia's contestants in the Davis Cup are inspired by a player who lived through the Killing Fields

Tep Rithivit is a successful businessman who has played his part in rebuilding Cambodia after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years. Yet one of the proudest moments of his life will come this week when four of his fellow countrymen play a series of tennis matches in what is likely to be a near-empty stadium.

Group four of the Asia/Oceania Zone is as low as you can get in the Davis Cup, the team event contested by countries from every corner of the planet. But Cambodia's first appearance in the competition, which starts in Qatar tomorrow, will be the realisation of a 17-year dream.

When Tep returned to the land of his birth in 1995, his family having fled to France and then Canada shortly before Pol Pot came to power 20 years earlier, he was anxious to find out what had happened to the men he used to watch playing tennis with his father, Tep Khunnah, who was one of the country's best players in the 1960s. He discovered that all but three of Cambodia's top 40 players had perished. Courts were used for executions, swimming pools as mass graves. An estimated 1.7 million people died.

Since Tep's return, which was prompted by his father's death, he has taken tennis into Cambodia's schools and orphanages, built a training centre for the country's best players, recruited coaches and scoured the world for expatriates who might be good enough to compete at international level. It has been a long road, but he has drawn inspiration from men such as 66-year-old Yi Sarun, who used to play tennis with his father. Yi, who is one of the three who survived, still plays.

The Khmer Rouge forced millions of Cambodians to leave the cities and work in rural labour camps. Money and private property were abolished and people who were suspected of being educated or middle class were tortured or executed. Those who played tennis, which was a preserve of the elite, did not have a chance.

Yi survived by claiming he was a peasant. "He destroyed his ID card and hid his trophies and press clippings," Tep said. "He is dark skinned, which helped. The Khmer Rouge were looking for people who wore glasses, which meant that you were educated, and for people with lighter skin, which was a sign that you hadn't been working in a rice field."

Other tennis players were not so fortunate. You Samoeun was the first player Tep asked about when he returned. You was taller and more athletic than most. He spoke fluent French, having travelled, and had been taken under the wing of Tep's father.

Soon after the fall of Phnom Penh, Yi saw You being escorted out of the capital with a group of men. They were heading towards Choeung Ek, which was to become the most notorious of the killing fields. He was never seen again. "He was walking in one direction and Yi Sarun was going the other way," Tep said. "They pretended not to know each other because they didn't want to give each other away."

Tep, who was 10 when his family fled, used to watch his father play at Le Cercle Sportif, a club in Phnom Penh used by the wealthy. The Khmer Rouge found another use for it. Political executions were carried out there and its Olympic-sized pool became a mass grave. Cham Prasidh, Cambodia's Minister of Trade and Commerce, another survivor of the killing fields, used to go to school next to the club. He would watch Tep Khunnah's matches through a fence.

"When I returned to Cambodia and Cham heard that I was back, he tried to find me," Tep said. "He had just restarted the tennis federation. He said, 'Why don't you come in and help me do this? You know tennis here.' He knew that I could put in the money. We've worked together since then."

While the government and the International Tennis Federation have given financial support, the tennis programme would not have been possible without Tep, who is the Cambodian federation's secretary general. "I fund it mostly with my money," Tep said. "I am fortunate. I have an investment company and a consultancy company here."

Six of Cambodia's tennis squad live at the new national training centre. Lessons in English are given three times a week. A Cuban coach, Braen Aneiros, works with the top players, while 12 coaches provide free tennis lessons for 3,000 children at schools and orphanages.

Standards are improving rapidly, but Tep knew he would have to look elsewhere for players capable of representing the country internationally. He discovered Bun Kenny, who has a Cambodian father and French mother, while on holiday in France. Bun came to Phnom Penh for a trial three years ago, lived with Tep's family for eight months, and has stayed. He is the only Cambodian with a current world ranking: he is number 1,192.

After his team won a bronze medal at last year's South-east Asian Games, Tep received a letter of congratulations from an expatriate Cambodian living in the US, who mentioned that he had three sons who played college tennis in Oregon. Two of them, Mam Pannhara and Mam Vetu, travelled to Cambodia last month and Tep has put them into his Davis Cup squad.

While Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the region, living standards are rising and the political situation is stable. The Cambodia to which the Mam brothers are being introduced is very different from the country in which Yi Sarun spent his prime years.

Yi's presence, however, is a reminder of the country's past. "He's half deaf and he has no more teeth, but he can still go three sets," Tep said. "He still enters tournaments. He usually goes out in the first or second round, but I always make sure that he's around on the final day and he gets a gift. We don't want people to forget him. He's the reason that a lot of us are here."

Suggested Topics
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Life and Style
fashionThe supermodel on her career, motherhood and Cara Delevingne
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments