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Mr Tennis' dream becoming a reality through new centre

A brand new national tennis centre, international acclaim and support from the world’s top players are helping to boost the Tennis Federation of Cambodia

IT’S the night of Tuesday April 27, and Tep Rithivit cannot sleep. Wednesday will see the triumphant first day of the new national tennis center, and the significance is certainly not lost on the Secretary General of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia (TFC). Nor is realisation of his two-decade long journey towards this very moment.

To appreciate the history of the TFC, one needs to know about the background of the Tep family. In the late 1960’s Tep Khunnah was known as ‘Mr Tennis’ and could be seen playing daily at Le Cercle Sportif in Phnom Penh (now the site for the US Embassy). The then Prince Sihanouk even regularly attended his training sessions.

At that time, tennis was considered an elitist sport in the Kingdom, although Cambodia was one of the dominant tennis nations in Southeast Asia. But Mr Tennis understood that for the sport to really flourish it would need to be available for all people, regardless of their background. He figured that Cambodia would need a national hero, a tennis champion to ignite greater interest and he dreamed that his eldest son, Rithivit, would one day be that champion.

Those that knew Tep Khunnah described him as having a strong character with extremely high achievement needs. If he wanted something, he would not rest until he got it. It was a trait that would be passed on to Rithivit.

As well as movie star good looks, he had a tall, lean, chiseled physique, the perfect body for tennis. But there was a problem; he harboured a rebellious attitude. As fathers and teenage sons often do, Khunnah and Rithivit clashed, in this case over tennis. Then events in Cambodia prompted them to leave the Kingdom, and Tep Khunnah’s dream appeared to dissipate.

Fast forward to 1992, and prodigal son Rithivit returned to his homeland older, wiser and on a mission to honour his father’s legacy by developing tennis in the war-torn country. Rithivit knew what he wanted but was not sure exactly how to do it, so he went to the worldwide governing body of tennis, the International Tennis Federation (ITF), in London.

It would prove to be a painfully slow process and for long periods, the progress in Cambodian tennis was measured not so much in going forward, but not going backwards. However, all the hard work would pay off in the end.

“The ITF not only guided our enthusiasm, but provided a road map for what steps to take in order to develop tennis,” explains Tep Rithivit. “Then they allocated us a grant for a national tennis center. That grant became more than just money; it was a vote of confidence and a catalyst for greater things.”

The ITF approved the US$20,000 grant as part of their development program financed by the ITF Grand Slam Development Fund, which receives annual contributions totaling around $500,000 from the four major tennis tournaments - Wimbledon, Roland Garros, the US Open and the Australian Open.

“We are delighted to be able to direct these funds specifically towards the development of competitive tennis and deeply appreciate that the Grand Slam nations are in a position to support our program,” stated Ricci Bitti, President of the ITF.

Armed with the grant money, Tep Rithivit went to see Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Cambodian Country Club (CCC). The federation secretary knew that for the tennis center to host international events he would need the help of the CCC and its facilities. A deal was struck and land provided adjacent to the club, with construction beginning immediately.

“I was more than happy to support the TFC,” asserted Van Sou Ieng. “I was deeply impressed with Rithivit’s devotion to honoring his father’s legacy. And of course, it will be great for sport in Cambodia.”

While Tep Rithivit gets much of the attention for the rapid rise of the TFC, he is quick to pay tribute to those that have made it possible.

“I would like to express my sincere appreciation to [Federation President] Cham Prasidh for his unconditional support of the TFC,” says Tep Rithivet as he looked out over the brand new tennis center. “Without him, none of this would have been possible.”

TFC – most improved in Asia
In a recent letter written by Anil Khanna, president of the Asian Tennis Federation, the TFC was recognized as the most improved national tennis association.

“The executives on the ATF council have noted with great excitement the development of tennis in Cambodia,” writes Khanna. “The ATF has observed that [the TFC] have contracted a foreign technical director, constructed a national tennis centre, developed a professional tennis player with world ranking [Tan Nysan] and emphasized mini-tennis programs. When we add the successes of all of these efforts together in such a short time, I believe, as do the other executives of the ATF, that the Tennis Federation of Cambodia is the most improved tennis federation in Asia.”

Tennis stars express support
At the current ATP tournament in Estoril, Portugal, professional players are taking time to sign their autographs on a large towel to send their best wishes to the TFC’s new national tennis center.

“It’s fantastic!” enthused Tep Rithivit. “We are extremely grateful for the support of the ATP players. It will mean so much to our kids knowing that their idols have taken the time to think of them.”

When asked what his father would think of all this good news and attention that tennis in Cambodia is receiving today, Tep Rithivet took a deep breath, measured his words carefully and tried to control the deep well of emotions that rose up inside of him.

“I remember my father playing and teaching tennis each day,” he recalled. “He wanted everyone who wanted to learn to have the opportunity. Now, that is possible.”

Tennis is once again thriving in Cambodia and this time it is available to everyone. Now all that remains is to see the successful development of local tennis stars who will help restore the Kingdom’s prominence in the region, and beyond.

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