Sport that survived the Khmer Rouge

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

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The Independent Online

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."