Cambodia zealously guarded their Davis Cup Asia Oceania Group III status with sensational 2-1 victories over United Arab Emirates and Pacific Oceania late on Thursday and Friday night respectively, though the top-seeded Hong Kong stopped the Kingdom’s march in the promotional play-off.
In a pulsating contest on Saturday night, Cambodia, who made a winning Group IV debut at Doha last year, found it hard to crack Hong Kong’s unbreakable resolve built on years of experience playing in higher class and superior company.
In the opening singles, Ognian Koley scored a hard fought win over Mam Panhara 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, while Philip King gave Hong Kong the winning lead when he beat Bun Kenny 6-3, 6-1.
The Cambodian pair of Mam Phalkun and Bun Kenny restored a modicum of pride by winning the doubles against Siu Chuen Lam and Hey Yin Li 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
After the opening day’s loss to Vietnam, Cambodia were clearly feeling the stress both on and off the court. News had trickled in that the youngest member of the squad, Long Samneang, was diagnosed with chicken pox on arrival in Dubai, which meant that only three players could be used during the rest of the week.
The high intensity of the clash with the hosts UAE threw up another alarming health scare on the court. This time Mam Panhara, who was stroking and striding smoothly in the first singles rubber against Hamad Janahi to 6-4 and 3-1 in the second set, was consumed in quick time by effects of heat and dehydration.
Though he bravely battled on, his confidence and energy were seemingly draining out, and he lost four games in a row. He pulled himself through to 5-5 before severe cramps set in and Janahi took the next two games to level the set scores.
After losing the first game of the final set, Panhara sought medical attention, at the end of which he was also penalised a game, and could hardly do anything right in the next.
He was forced to cry a halt, limping out of the court to hand down Janahi a 4-6, 7-5, 3-0 win and UAE a 1-0 advantage.
Into this pressure cooker situation walked in Cambodia’s No 1 Kenny, on whose shoulders rested the fate of the country’s whole campaign. A win against seasoned Omar Khaled Al-Awadhy would keep Cambodia’s hopes alive and a loss would throw them down to the relegation pool.
In that all pervading tension, Kenny’s first set loss at 4-6 only made matters worse. When he slipped down to 2-4 in the second it seemed curtains for Cambodia.
Amazingly from this perilous passage, Kenny began a push back and with his rival granting him some double faults and crucial unforced errors, the 23-year-old Cambodian right-hander reeled off four games in a row to force the match into a decider.
Driving home the momentum and mixing it with some nice touch play, Kenny was safely home to complete a memorable 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win spread over nearly two hours to completely alter the course of the tie.
In the make-or-break doubles rubber, Kenny partnering Mam Phalkun took hold of the first set comfortably at 6-3. But the Cambodian pair slackened their grip in the second, allowing the UAE duo of a 4-0 lead.
What ensued was another dramatic fight back, Kenny and Phalkun producing a five game swoop to go 5-4. The UAE pair was not done yet. They forced a tie-breaker only to see the Cambodians race away to a comfortable win.
“For the first time in nearly four hours I was breathing freely,” non-playing captain Tep Rithivit told the Post.
“It was so gripping, so tense sitting next to these players going through a range of emotions and watching Panhara play with such gusto and Kenny playing his heart out. Kenny and Phalkun combining so well – it was all worth it.”
But a post match trauma of sorts was in store both for Kenny and the captain. Obviously suffering from exhaustion, Kenny had to visit a local hospital where he was administered fluids and given some minor treatment.
Kenny and Tep Rithivit, who was with his player all the while, returned to their hotel rooms at 5am the next morning.
It wasn't until one hour before the start of Cambodia’s next tie against Pacific Oceania that both Mam Panhara and Kenny gave captain Tep Rithivit and coach Braen Aneiros the go-ahead to name them for the singles rubbers.
As it turned out, both shrugged off the bad experiences of the previous night and settled down to play some fluid tennis.
Panhara defeated William O’Connell 6-2, 6-1 and Bun Kenny was equally emphatic in his 7-5, 6-0 victory over Gille de Guoy for a 2-0 Cambodian sweep.
A late consolation for Pacific Oceania came in the dead doubles where the Mam brothers Panhara and Phalkun found Bred Baudinett and Daniel Llareans too good, going down 2-6, 1-6. In fact, this Pacific Oceania pair had won all of their three rubbers, despite their team losing all the ties.
The victory over Pacific Oceania ensured Cambodia a safe passage to the promotional play-offs. “This was indeed our prime target – securing our place in Group III. We have achieved that goal. I am proud of our players who have helped us to be among the top four in this group,” said Tep Rithivit, who is also the secretary-general of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia.
“Once again, we have proved that Cambodian tennis is all about players wearing courage on their sleeves and playing with heart and soul against odds.
“In the midst of all this excitement, the federation would like to thank all our Davis Cup partners who supported our campaign. Our main sponsors NagaWorld and co-sponsors GLF and Cambodia Coca-Cola.”
The secretary also placed on record his appreciation for TFC Goodwill Ambassador Hisae Arai, her sister Kiko Arai, and Lavie Sak for their support of the team during practice and matches in Dubai throughout the week.