As Cambodia gears up for the first ever ITF Junior Circuit event late next month, Kep’s poster boy Sen Sophon and his foster home in the coastal town, Aspeca Orphanages, are hoping for the biggest of breakout successes to inspire hundreds of underprivileged children looking to tennis for a path to a better life.
Casually swinging a racquet for fun when Tennis Cambodia began its grassroots drive at the orphanage five years ago, Sophon has come a long way as a serious contender, and today, as a 15-year-old with loads of success in the domestic circuit, is among the country’s upper crust of junior talent.
Having lost both his parents and with only his elder brother Sokheng caring for him, the Sen siblings inevitably took shelter in Aspeca. However, as Neak Chanly, the director of the orphanage, pointed out in an exclusive interview with the Post, Sophon seemed destined for big things on the court from the start.
“He has always been a . . . good student and very passionate about tennis. But like boys of his age, he had this impulse to give up tennis many times, but each time I succeeded in keeping him going,” the director recalled.
There have been times when Sophon’s educational demands have clashed with tennis pursuits, resulting in him missing out on several tournament opportunities. But the orphanage under the director’s personal supervision is evolving a system whereby both these areas could ideally be covered.
“I do realise how frustrating it is for a player to be told not to play because he had to study, but we also have a duty towards a student’s educational progress.
“Since Sophon is now playing at this high level, we will think of working with the social services department to find a [suitable] alternative educational route for him,” Chanly said.
“We want Sophon to be a role model for all of Aspeca. It is even more significant since Kep is the only centre where tennis is played.
“We owe this great success to the unflinching support of Tennis Cambodia and its secretary-general Tep Rithivit, who as a resident of Kep has played such a vital role,” the Aspeca director said.
Tep Rithivit, secretary-general of Tennis Cambodia, told the Post: “Without the patronage of the Aspeca management and the personal interest taken by Ms Neak Chanly, we would not have seen players like Sen Sophon rise to this national recognition. So we do hope there are more Sophons to follow.”
Sophon’s career graph shows an amazing upswing by the time he was 13. He finished 2014 as the top junior winning two titles from four final appearances besides making the semis in the other two during the six-tournament cycle.
‘Scope for improvement’
After missing out on a couple of national events that cost him precious ranking points, he was ranked third in 2015.
He has begun 2016 by winning the second national U18 title and is currently ranked fifth. In all probability, the youngster will get into the ITF Junior event as a wild card in the qualifiers.
“Having sharpened his skills in two ATF/ITF training camps in Vietnam and Thailand, Sophon has managed to refine his game and has beaten almost all the top juniors at one time or the other. He has a lot of scope for improvement,” said Phalkun Mam, at Tennis Cambodia’s head of Junior Development.
For Neak Chanly, the day the tiny town of Kep is eargerly waiting for will be when Sophon represents Cambodia at a major event like the SEA Games, the Junior Davis Cup, Asian Games or the Davis Cup with the seniors.