On a tennis pitch tucked behind the offices of the General Commissariat for the National Police, an unlikely group of Cambodian athletes are training hard.
They don’t play standard tennis. This is Cambodia’s national soft tennis team. Likewise, many of those on the team aren’t typical athletes.
While they may play at the VIP sports club, many are teenagers picked up off the streets, including some recovering drug addicts. Soft tennis, according to the team’s coach, Masato Ogiwara, “has basically the same rules as tennis but is played with a soft ball and a different racquet”, making for a different style of play. The game is incredibly popular in South Korea, Taiwan and Ogiwara’s native Japan.
The Cambodian team is an initiative led by Chea Bunheng, the president of the Ministry of Interior’s sports unit, which also includes the National Police’s teams. Funding comes in part from the ministry, as part of a broader push by Minister Sar Kheng to invest in sports, Bunheng says.
“Soft tennis just started in Cambodia, but we use it to help society to collect homeless children, drug users and other young people,” he says.
For him, it’s personal. “We have changed them a lot, including my son as well,” he says. “Doing sports helped him stop using drugs.”
His 18-year-old son Senvisoth, taking a break from practise to speak to Post Weekend, says he has found that the hours swatting balls in the heat has paid off. “I was on the men’s team that won a gold medal in Thailand [for the AGEL World Tour in June],” he boasts.
Ogiwara, who at 26 years old has already attained peak soft tennis stardom in Japan, moved to Cambodia several years ago to “separate” from the sport, he says. But the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia approached him to coach the team a year and half ago, and he has grown the program from five players to more than 50.
While recognition of the sport is fairly limited in the Kingdom, the coach says he sees potential champions on his team. Twelve players – six men and six women – will travel to Chiba, Japan, next week for the Asian Soft Tennis Championships.
The lack of local popularity certainly makes for a low barrier to entry. Senvisoth says that his childhood badminton skills easily qualified him for the team. Under Ogiwara’s tutelage, he says, everyone on the team “is at a similar ability to everyone else”.
“They have a good potential,” Ogiwara says of his players, some of whom are as young as 14 years old. Already, the men’s team has placed on the podium in three out of five international competitions in the last year, at the SEA International, the AGEL World Tour and, most recently, at the Korean Cup in August.
Though established in 2011, the team has only recently received financial and material support from Japanese and Korean soft tennis associations, owing to Ogiwara’s efforts.
However, the soft tennis team hasn’t had the smoothest history. Under a different coach, the team was sent home from the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea in disgrace. A female player on the team, Yi Sophany, had tested positive for doping and was barred from competing for a year. Bunheng attributes the positive test to drinking Cambodian-brand energy drinks. (The team is now banned from consuming them.)
Eighteen-year-old Rin Sotheary, who plays for the women’s team, says she relishes the opportunity to play soft tennis competitively at the international level.
“I have never been to Japan but I played in soft tennis competitions in Thailand and Korea . . . Malaysia, Bangladesh and Vietnam,” she says, acknowledging that most of the countries the team faces have older soft tennis traditions than Cambodia.
“We only want other countries to recognise that we play this game as well,” she says.
Players like Senvisoth would like more public recognition at home.
“We didn’t have soft tennis listed in the National Games, but maybe next year,” he says. “There are many people who ask [me] about soft tennis, because they didn’t know it existed.”
But Sotheary, who comes from a middle-class background, says the coaches have fostered a sense of family spirit among the players – no matter where they’ve come from.
“I started to educate my son and other kids from different backgrounds,” says Bunheng.
With backing from the NOCC and the Ministry of Education as well as the Interior Ministry, the team is able to provide food, lodging and some material support to team members.
Soft tennis is not yet an Olympic sport, but Bunheng is optimistic about its expansion beyond Cambodia’s capital. When they retire from the team, many of the young athletes could eventually become trainers, like Ogiwara, he points out.
“Once they cannot play, they can be a trainer in the provinces, because we also have planned to train young people in the provinces,” he says.