The Cambodian Davis Cup tennis squad retained their spot in next year’s Asia Oceania Group III series with a 2-1 victory over Singapore in a relegation playoff at Tehran’s Enghelab Sports Complex on Saturday after Malaysia had dashed the Kingdom’s promotional hopes in a Pool A cliffhanger the previous day.
Cambodia were quite literally a point away from making it to the promotional playoffs that would have given them a shot at Group II. But once that golden opportunity slipped out of Bun Kenny and Mam Phalkun’s grasp in a nerve-tingling doubles rubber against Malaysia on Friday, the focus shifted to the Singapore tie and Group III survival, which in the end was accomplished without much anxiety.
Mam Phalkun ensured a winning start by taking the opening singles rubber against Singapore’s Joshua Liu 6-4, 6-3, but the scoreline concealed the fact that many of the games went to multiple deuces and the Cambodian No 2 nominee had to dig himself out of trouble many a time, especially in the first set.
What followed in the second singles rubber was a spectacular treat for the team – Bun Kenny blitzing Roy Hobs, handing him out a 6-0, 6-0 thrashing and in the bargain sealing his fourth straight singles victory in Tehran.
With tensions in the camp easing out and Group III status confirmed with that unbeatable 2-0 lead, Cambodia preferred to give the youngest in the squad Long Samneang his first match time on this trip.
He partnered Mam Panhara and the pair did a competent job in the first set before the tie breaker went against them. The Singaporean pair of Yong Jie Ong and Saeed Alam then struck a positively different note in the second to win the dead rubber 7-6, 6-3.
A frightfully close encounter with Malaysia on Friday, marked as it was with high intensity drama throughout, went against Cambodia and drew that fine line between a heart-warming entry to the promotional zone and the heart-breaking prospect of having to fight for status quo.
Cambodia pitched in Mam Panhara for the opening singles. He was listless in a 6-2, 6-0 defeat by Syed Agil Naguib.
Bun Kenny stepped in to keep the fight alive and he struck assailing form as the match progressed, his court skill and confidence shattering his Malaysian rival Mohammed Assri Merzuki 6-3, 6-1.
The tension was palatable in both camps as the tie was tantalisingly poised at 1-1 and on the outcome of the doubles wrested either team’s promotional prospects.
Multiple breakpoints earned and saved at both ends and a plethora of merited rallies inevitably drove the first set to a tie break. Undeterred by a couple of mini-breaks, the Cambodian pair took the tie-breaker to lead by a set.
But Bun Kenny and Mam Phalkun let chances to consolidate in the second set slip by, went down a break and could never recover. At one set all, it was anybody’s rubber.
After breaks were traded midway through the decider, Kenny and Phalkun were facing down the barrel at 3-6 in the tie-breaker, three match points mocking at them. The pair not only saved all three but set themselves up a match point of their own, only to blow it up.
It was all square at 7-7 and the Malaysian pair reeled off the next points to top Pool A with three wins out of three and head to the promotional playoffs along with Syria, who ended up with two wins – against Cambodia on the opening day (2-1) and Turkmenistan (2-1).
Turkmen no trouble
On Thursday, Cambodia defeated Turkmenistan 2-1 in their second Pool A match.
Mam Phalkun got the measure of Georgiy Pochay 6-3 6-4. Then Bun Kenny punished Aleksandr Ernepesov for his load of unforced errors in quickly wrapping up a 6-2, 6-4 win.
With victory sealed, Cambodia were aiming to add the doubles rubber as well. But that hope collapsed when the Mam brothers, Panhara and Phalkun, lost a three-setter to Aleksandr Ernepesov and Georgiy Pochay 7-6, 4-6, 4-6.
“Looking back, we have lot of positives to count despite that disappointment of missing out on a chance to enter the promotional pool. I am proud of the way Kenny handled his matches and ended up winning all four,” Cambodia’s nonplaying captain Tep Rithivit told the Post.
“We have proved yet again that we are made of sterner stuff. All the players played their hearts out. They wore courage on their sleeves.
“The harder we are pushed, greater is our resolve to fight right back. There is never a dull moment in Davis Cup campaigns and there never will be.
“I sincerely express my gratitude to our main sponsors NagaWorld, co-sponsors GLF, Colorblind and a host of other supporters, well-wishers, fans and admirers of Cambodian tennis all round the world,” added the captain.
Pointedly asked by the Post as to what important lessons Tennis Cambodia had learnt from their “Mission to Iran”, Tep Rithivit said the top priority would be to strengthen the second line and evolve a specialist doubles combination.
Lebanon beat Malaysia and hosts Iran beat Syria to gain promotion to Group II next year, while United Arab Emirates, which lost to Turkmenistan, will join Singapore in Group IV.