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Yi Sarun keeps on playing


Cambodian tennis players Yi Sarun, Pel Oum and Mey Rin arrive at Riga Airport in what is now known as Latvia, for an international tennis tournament in 1986. Photo Supplied

The Kingdom’s oldest active tennis player, 65-year-old Yi Sarun, has one burning desire. “I want to impart tennis lessons to kids as long as I can so that they can achieve in their playing time what we missed out on.”

For a man who joined government forces against the Khmer Rouge insurgency in the tough terrain of Ratanakkiri at the height of his tennis prowess, age has only been a matter of numbers. Every passing year seems to have made him that much more determined to carry on playing.

“I want to play till I drop dead,” he said. If a man has that kind of zest for tennis, and no real concern for ageing limbs, no wonder he is the most sought after as a hitting partner at the VIP Club here.

Yi Sarun is ready for a knock at any time of the day, and he doesn’t play to live but lives to play. “I make some little money. People give me US$5 an hour for a knock. But I love to play as long as my legs and body allow me to,” says the father of three, whose tennis-playing son in the army is no chip off the old block.

It is not the kind of pleasure or leisure tennis that Yi Sarun is made of. He had been a fierce competitor and feared contender in his prime, cruelly interrupted by war and its tragic aftermath. His tennis kit gathered dust for years. His life was in tatters but amazingly his tennis was intact, a great survivor who lived through the lows of life to find its meaning in tennis on either side of the genocide, civil war and a total economic collapse.

In his formative years, his native Battambang offered him nothing for all the passion and desire he had developed for tennis, watching the rich and the famous of the day play. But his interest was heightened in Phnom Penh when he had a chance to watch tennis near Wat Phnom on the location where the United States Embassy presently stands.

For the quick learner that he was, an unknown benefactor came along to put him through his first steps. He picked up the threads so rapidly that his tennis exploits reached the provinces and he was the one to beat in tournaments. By the mid ’60s, Yi Sarun’s reputation would precede him everywhere he played and it was not long before the recognition for his precocious talent came from none other than the Kingdom’s best player at the time, Tep Khunnah.

“It was Mr Tep Khunnah who asked me to join the national team immediately,” said Yi Sarun. It was a lucky break at the right time for the fast-improving Yi Sarun, for whom the place in the national team meant a stint with world famous Australian coach Harry Hopman.

“We were under Hopman for a few months and when he left, a Chinese coach took over. But after three months he suggested that the team be sent to China for one-year extensive coaching,” added Yi Sarun. So the team went to China.

However, life and tennis took a nasty turn for Yi Sarun upon his return. The insurgency disrupted normal life and the Khmer Rouge take over brought untold miseries. Like legions of unfortunate men, Yi Sarun was driven out of Phnom Penh to a bleak and terrifying future in Takeo.

“I knew the only way to save my life was to shed my uniform. They told us that we have to go out of Phnom Penh for three days. It took four years,” he said.

The ’70s was a decade of hell for Yi Sarun. It wasn’t until the early ’80’s that he pulled out his tennis bag from the so called rubble left from the war. The landscape had changed and the opportunities had dried up. It was with anxiety and apprehension that Yi Sarun trekked with his national teammate Mey Rin to the newly built tennis facility at the Olympic Stadium in the middle of 1983.

They saw foreigners, mostly Russians, playing and pleaded for jobs. Luckily they were given work on the basketball courts and soccer pitches.

“They were giving us food in return for our work,” Yi Sarun said. “No money, and it took almost a year or two to get back to the tennis courts.” Once back with his favourite pastime, he returned to his best despite pushing 40 at the time.

When Yi Sarun was shuffling back to a normal tennis life, up came another notable break in 1986. This time the Soviet embassy in Phnom Penh sponsored Yi Sarun, Pel Oum and Mey Rin to take part in an international tournament in Riga, the capital of the then Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.

“It was a great trip. We won a couple of matches, it was such a strong event, but it gave me a new direction,” he said.

“I do not regret what I didn’t get. I am happy with what I eventually got from tennis. Maybe in good times things would have been better.”

Mey Rin passed away a few years ago and Pel Oum has retired from the game, but Yi Sarun is refusing to quit. If you catch sight of a man with a wrinkled face, a slight stoop, and walking purposefully with a tennis bag around his shoulder you can be sure it is Yi Sarun on his way to another tennis session.

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