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Cambodia's young tennis ace

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13-year-old Ek Chamroeun concentrates during a training session at Olympic Stadium tennis courts Wednesday.

13-year-old Ek Chamroeun has transformed into one of the country’s hottest young talents, already playing and winning in tournaments around the globe

ONE of the most promising talents emerging from the Tennis Federation of Cambodia's youth system is undoubtably 13-year-old Ek Chamroeun. Raised along with two sisters and five brothers in Phnom Penh by father Ek Sambo and mother Mao Ra, the youngster received encouragement and support from his family to pursue a career in tennis, although they lacked the funds to finance his new-found passion.

Chamroeun had always showed sporting potential. Indeed, in swimming competitions at Olympic Stadium, where he practised with his sister, he had beaten the coach's son so consistently that their jealously forced him out.

It was there that Chamroeun first discovered tennis being played, and on a Monday morning in 2005, he was dropped off by his parents at the courts, standing without a racket, balls, shoes or proper athletic clothes, with only hope and determination to offer.

Secretary General of the TFC Tep Rithivit was touched by the curious 9-year-old and took him under his wings. Chamroeun trained six days a week, before and after school. With the support of Tep Rithivit, who provided training sessions, clothing and equipment, and the moral support of his parents, Chamroeun turned out to be a natural.

In January this year, the TFC sponsored him to compete in the U16 Asian Championships in Malaysia, where he took a commendable fourth place. Chamroeun also participated in a Jakarta tournament on March 17, where he held his own against players three years older than himself, but failed to make a high placing.

The biggest test of will for the young Cambodian came May 24, when he was sent on his own by the TFC to a tennis academy in Saint-Alban-de-Roche, in southeast France. After spending two months training and competing in Rhone-Alpes regional tournaments, Chamroeun has now returned home, with a wealth of experience, and even a smattering of French.

Chamroeun recalls how it wasn't easy to be away from home, but things quickly got better. "I was really missing Cambodia at first," he said. "But my parents called me regularly, and I soon wasn't scared anymore."

Life in the French Alps consisted of four hours training per day, and Chamroeun noted how the regimented eating times and sleeping arrangements took some getting used to. "They had very strict rules," he remarked. The language barrier seemed to be just a temporary hurdle, as his heart and passion for tennis became the best tools for communication.

Chamroeun participated in six tournaments during his time in France, starting slowly, but growing with confidence in each event, reaching the fourth round, quarterfinals, and semifinals respectively, including beating a highly ranked (15/0) French junior in his penultimate match.

Unfortunately, a slight muscle tear during training kept him out of competition for 15 days, but it gave him the opportunity to travel to Paris with coach Alain Pech - whose son Patrick worked for the Coca-Cola company in Cambodia - and attend the French Open at Roland Garros to see Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and other tennis heroes play.

Upon his return from France, Chamroeun rejoined training with the national squad, which included a few sessions with visiting coach Robert Davis and his staff.

The young rising star now has his focus set on the Cambodian Open 2009, which starts Friday and features over 60 participants, including some international players.

Chamroeun, with a remarkable physique for a 13-year-old and a humble and polite manner, is set to reap the rewards of hard work and persistence by the TFC, and says he would like nothing better than to see Cambodian tennis grow in the future. "I want to win international competitions abroad to promote Cambodia," he said, adding that he will support his family and buy new sports equipment with any winnings.

Chamroeun also asserted his desire to see Cambodia produce many future stars of tennis.

He is slated to represent Cambodia at the upcoming SEA Games in Laos in December.

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