Cambodia’s 2013 Davis Cup Asia Oceania Group III campaign ended on Sunday at the Aviation Club Tennis Centre in Dubai with a 3-0 loss to Malaysia in the last of the play-offs to determine the third place behind the top two finishers, Vietnam and Hong Kong.
Cambodia were far from disgraced in defeat, having gone down in bitterly fought three-setters in all of the rubbers.
The Kingdom’s Group III status for the 2014 cycle had already been confirmed after Friday’s win over Pacific Oceania in the preliminary phase.
For the first time during the week, non-playing captain Tep Rithivit rested Cambodia’s No 1 Bun Kenny, pulling him out of the first two contests while pitching in the Mam brothers, Phalkun and Panhara, for the singles rubbers.
Phalkun took a flyer in the first set, firing an ace down the line against Muhamad Asharri bin Zainal Abidin to signal his aggressive intent. The eldest of the Mam siblings, who came into the squad this year in place of his youngest brother Vetu, wrapped up the first set for the loss of just one game.
Phalkun stood his ground well in the second and shot into a 4-1 lead before his Malaysian rival began to assert himself for the first time in the match. As Phalkun was weighed down by some unforced errors, Abidin stroked his way to restore set parity at 6-4 in the second.
Buoyed by this recovery, the Malaysian right-hander continued to pile the pressure on his Cambodian opponent and built up a 4-1 lead in the decider, but in gaining that upperhand, he had also developed cramps.
Seizing this moment, Phalkun bounced back to level at 5-5 and then drove the finish to a tie-breaker only to see Abidin produce a strong effort to polish off the tie 1-6, 6-4, 7-6, the breaker going his way 7-3.
Like his elder brother, Panhara began on a bright note against Assri Merzuki, taking the first set in style at 6-3, consolidating an eighth game break of serve.
But the Malaysian began to string together a series of sound ground strokes, taking the fight right back to Panhara’s half of the court. The second set was Merzuki’s after breaking Panhara twice and holding his own serve with a degree of comfort.
A flawless surge at the start of the final set gave Merzuki a 3-0 advantage. He kept his end tight and ran out a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 winner to give Malaysia an unbeatable 2-0 lead and with it third place in the group of eight countries.
The doubles rubber was only of academic interest, yet Bun Kenny and Phalkun put up a stiff fight before going down 4-6, 6-3, 4-6 to the Malaysian pair of Assri Merzuki and Syed Agil Syed Naguib.
“Our players made another strong statement on the court, fighting every inch of the way. Both Phalkun and Panhara gave their all and it all boiled down to a few vital points going the other way at critical junctures,” Tep Rithivit told the Post.
“The emotions at the end of this hugely significant week for Cambodian tennis ought to be mixed. There is this disappointment that we could not get past Hong Kong and Malaysia in the promotional play-offs.
"On the brighter side our place in Group III next year is secure and the gains of Doha have not gone in vain,” added the captain.
“If you count all the hurdles we had to cross to be where we are here today, I am proud of what our players and coach Braen Aneiros have delivered in Dubai.
“I think Bun Kenny, Phalkun Mam and Panhara have considerably boosted the country's tennis image, fighting against odds and adversities to give us this most satisfying result.”
Promoted to Group II
2. Hong Kong
Remaining in Group III
6. United Arab Emirates
Relegated to Group IV
7. Pacific Oceania