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Tennis Fed thrives on challenges, says general secretary

An official communique from the Davis Cup committee last week to the Tennis Federation of Cambodia set out the path for next year’s Asia/Oceania Zone Group III series, to which the Kingdom earned promotion at Doha in April this year. TFC general secretary Tep Rithivit, who led Cambodia’s mission to Doha as the national team’s non-playing captain, sat down with Post sports writer H S Manjunath for an exclusive interview yesterday, keeping in perspective the country’s adventurous Davis Cup debut, its impact on domestic tennis and its future direction.

The Davis Cup committee officially communicated to you last week about Cambodia’s Group III commitment next year. What does this mean to the TFC?

It means a whole new world to us. It also means that we are now part of the Davis Cup family and we continue to play our role as a developing tennis nation.

Cambodia’s spectacular success in Doha on its Davis Cup debut in April this year has raised expectations very high. How is the federation dealing with it?

Indeed, we have raised the bar as far as our performances are concerned. The public expectations are also rising sharply, but we are dealing with it quite well. In a way, we are used to this pattern.

Remember 2007, when Cambodia earned its first SEA Games bronze medal in Thailand? I can guarantee you that a lot of expectations were on the table then. So it was when we took another bronze in Laos in 2009 and a team bronze in 2011 in Indonesia.

I can clearly say that the TFC actually thrives on expectations and hopes. We have delivered every time we were called upon to.

What impact do you think the mission to Doha has had on the tennis scene in this country?

Simple. It’s called awareness. We have created tennis awareness throughout the nation in beating five other countries at the most prestigious team event in the world.

We have also created global awareness. We wanted to tell the world that not only do we exist as a tennis nation, and that we are no longer pretenders, but we are now strong contenders.

The impact on the people has been very positive. This strengthens and confirms our vision statement: making tennis available and accessible to all.

The federation is adding more junior tournaments to its calendar this year. Can you shed more light on your junior tennis programs and initiatives?

Without grassroots, we will not be sustainable in the future. Therefore, my president, HE Cham Prasidh, and I have decided to focus on junior tournaments. We are creating a solid base for the next generation.

We are planning at least six junior tournaments per calendar year. The categories will be U14, U12 and U10.

We will set up a ranking system for juniors so they will have track records of their young careers.

Your support base has steadily increased, but so have the federation’s needs. How do you propose to confront this challenge?

With great difficulty! You are right. Our support base has been increasing very steadily amid growing expectations. Therefore, we have to commit to more events and programs.

Equally important is for our players to play regularly on the circuits. All these demand a lot of financial backing. Let’s not forget, the more successful we get, the more activities we have to create, and this has a cost tag attached to it.

How are you handling these pressures?

I believe in the fact that we need to re-invent ourselves constantly in order to move forward. We do not want to rest on our laurels. We try to keep bettering our last performance.

Thankfully, we had the NagaWorld supporting our mission to Doha. We are now in touch with several corporate firms to persuade them to join our tennis cause. They are called partners, not sponsors.

For example, NagaWorld officials came with us to Doha. They wanted to live the experience with us, and believe me, they were impressed. Not only with the result but with the spin-offs of their investment.

It has to have a clear upside for our partners to be with us, otherwise partnerships cannot last.

So far, the few partners we have are extremely happy with us. However, we need more subscribers to support our tennis cause, as our programs are getting larger. We believe in taking the lead. We first show our achievements and efforts, and usually the support follows.

Development of tennis among girls has been rather slow. Will the TFC step up its drive on this front?

We are constantly searching for junior girls. We have been working with several orphanages, and I believe we have found a few.

As a matter of fact, one of them got to the finals this weekend [at the U11 national tournament].

She picked up a tennis racquet five months ago and has all the right signs to be our star in the next few years. She is an eight-year-old orphan from Holy Baby, an NGO near Takeo, and possesses an intensity and love for the game that is uncommon and unrivalled.

It proves once again that tennis is not a sport for only the rich but for the masses too.

The TFC hosted two back-to-back ITF Men’s Futures in 2011. What are your plans for this year?

This year, we will host three back-to-back ITF Futures in November and December. Each of them will have US$10,000 prizemoney. Apart from bringing players from 10 to 15 countries to Cambodia, our own national players will benefit a great deal from this experience.

The Kep experiment of introducing tennis in orphanages has been highly successful. Will you extend this to other provinces?

Kep has been a great tennis base for us. One of our products, an orphan boy, won the junior national tournament last weekend. This is quite encouraging.

We will definitely expand to other provinces. We are looking at Kampot as our next target in the months to come.

Cambodia’s Davis Cup spearhead Bun Kenny has been doing well on the circuit this year and he is set to break the 1,000 ranking barrier. How encouraged are you by these results?

Definitely a dream come true. To have a player ranked in the 1,000s worldwide is an achievement in itself, but to have him break below 1,000 barrier is a tremendous reward to our work.

Kenny has been a true example for Cambodian sports. As for his Davis Cup debut, Kenny was a true leader and played his heart out.

I can tell you that a book about our Davis Cup tale is in the works at present. We want the people to share our experience. We want the next generation to know what we’ve gone through.

The TFC’s newly appointed goodwill ambassador, Hisae Arai of Japan, has inspired children with her artistic approach. How crucial is the role of Arai and Indian tennis legend Leander Paes, who was the first to be honoured as an ambassador in 2010?

Their roles are important to the TFC. We have purposely chosen two different personas from different spectrums to represent us abroad. One with great tennis experience and background in Leander Paes, that can help us with foreign players, coaches and tennis advice, and Hisae Arai, Miss Japan Kimono 2011, who can use her influence worldwide to bring our message across as a struggling, yet proud, federation.

They are both doing a fabulous job for us. Hisae successfully launched a drawing contest three weeks ago with the ASPECA orphanage in Kep. It is being broadcast worldwide on the internet.

To contact the reporter on this story: H S Manjunath at newsroom@phnompenhpost.com

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