After three frustrating days on court marked by top player Bun Kenny’s health scare and defeats in all pool matches, Cambodia made a resilient comeback in the relegation playoff to beat Qatar 2-1 on Saturday at the Kompleks Tun Razak Tennis Center in Kuala Lumpur to retain the Davis Cup Asia Oceania Group III status for the next year’s cycle.
Nonplaying captain Tep Rithivit’s made an emotional appeal during the team dinner the previous night to cast the failures aside and keep the pride of the nation in their sights and heads on the task of avoiding a drop down. The speech seemingly impacted the team psyche as Phalkun Mam and Bun Kenny won their singles rubbers in straight sets to ensure a unassailable 2-0 lead after which Cambodia lost the dead doubles rubber.
It came as no surprise that Doeum Socheaphearun and Long Samneang were thrust into the doubles. The Cambodian pair fell short 2-6, 1-6 against Jabor Ali Mutawa and Mousa Shanan Zayed, giving Qatar a consolation win.
In an hour and 22 minutes of dominant display, Phalkun won 67 points in all to his rival Jabor Mohammed Ali Mutawa’s 44 in his 6-2,6-1 victory in the opening singles. The 30-year-old Phalkun, who followed in 2013 two of his younger brothers, Panhara and Vetu as the third member of the US-based Mam family to figure in Davis Cup for the country, was in a punishing mood all the way, converting six of the eight break points that came his way. Ali Mutawa, who was often pulled far and wide, could only break Phalkun twice from the nine break points he managed to force.
Phalkun’s victory no doubt came as immense relief to the Cambodian camp but there were also underlying fitness fears over Bun Kenny, who had been forced to concede his match in the tie against Turkmenistan only 48 hours before due to cramps that had hit his whole body in the final stages of the third set after he had led 6-1 and 2-0 against Isa Mammetgulyyev.
Initial anguish quickly turned into lively anticipation as Kenny, carrying huge expectation on his shoulder, which ironically had been playing up a bit even before he left for this campaign, shot into a 3-0 first set lead in the crucial second singles against Mubarak Al Harrasi.
Putting his big forehand to good use, Al Harrasi broke Kenny twice and was locking steps until it was five games all. The final push for Kenny came in the 11th game and he served out the first set at 7-5. A far more relaxed Kenny firmly got back his assurance on court and took a firm grip on the second set though towards the end, he was putting out mild signals of fatigue before he brushed off the worst of relegation fears with a 7-5, 6-3 scoreline.
“When Kenny won, I was stunned into silence for a few moments. After all we had gone through these three matches, and what Kenny had endured himself, here we were safe once again in Group III, the target we always had in mind. Of course there is disappointment of not having done better,” Rithivit told the Post.
“This was one of the toughest campaigns we had fought in four years. So many things went wrong on so many fronts yet we manage to survive these adversities and return home with a respectable outcome. I commend the players for sticking together in these difficult times,” Tep Rithivit said.
“We have learnt quite a few important lessons for the future one of which is to develop a strong and reliable second line. We have also realised how everything goes out of gear when your top player is surrounded by fitness concerns. This campaign has also taught us the vital importance of developing a specialist doubles combination.”
National coach Braen Aneiros said he was happy to see both Phalkun and Kenny keep their focus and deliver the result the team so desperately wanted.
Meanwhile, Cambodia were blanked out 0-3 by Vietnam in the last of the Pool B matches on Friday. As was to be expected captain Tep Rithivit gave Kenny the much needed rest for him to recover from the physical distress he suffered in the tie against Turkmenistan the previous day. Phalkun Mam was also kept out of the contest to keep him and Kenny as fresh as possible for the must-win encounter against Qatar.
Long Samneang and Doeum Socheaphearun lost both their singles matches and also the doubles as partners against Vietnam without much of a fight.
At the end of the four-day competition, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were relegated to Group IV. Syria defeated Saudi Arabia in the other relegation play off. In the promotional playoffs, hosts Malaysia defeated Turkmenistan and Vietnam got the better of Hong Kong.
Malaysia will move up to Group II next year for the first time since 2006 while Vietnam regains a place in the higher bracket after they were demoted last year.