Tennis on wheels picks up speed

Wheelchair tennis players practise at the La Paloma Center for the Disabled in Battambang
Wheelchair tennis players practise at the La Paloma Center for the Disabled in Battambang, under the watchful eye of Australian coach Joe Kubizniak; below, Tik Toy smiles as he moves his wooden-framed wheelchair around the court. Sreng Meng Srun

Tennis on wheels picks up speed

In the blink of an eye, Tik Toy’s young life was almost lost on September 9 this year when he stepped on a landmine not far from his dwelling in Pailin.

He was lucky enough to survive but not quite fortunate enouugh to keep the left leg that made the tragic contact. What remains is only a tiny portion of his upper thigh – the rest was amputated. 

There are still pockmarks of shrapnel injuries on his face and a thick white bandage sticks out through his shorts when he sits on the wheelchair that will eventually define his future – quite possibly on a tennis court.

The 9-year-old was on his routine stroll to a nearby mountain in search of mushrooms, like he did every other day, when his left foot touched and set off the explosive lying dormant beneath the rough pathway for perhaps decades.

There were 111 casualties from landmine related incidents last year and an estimated 4 million landmines are believed to be scattered across the north and northeast regions of the country. It should come as no surprise that the Kingdom currently has the highest number of amputees per capita compared to any other nation.

Tik Toy lost his mother when he was two and has three elder brothers who help their father with his work as a farmhand. None of the boys have had formal schooling.

But despite the tragedy, Toy’s life is set to change course into an active and rewarding one. Thanks to the timely intervention of the Aruppe Welcome Center based in Battambang City, Toy is now a member of an outreach program which will provide him with education and the skills to help him look after himself.

He is also a proud member of the clan that will get help from Tennis Cambodia as it vigorously pursues a two-year project financed by the International Tennis Federation’s Wheelchair Development Fund to assist players with a disability.

“When we heard about his case, we visited the hospital. Now we have brought him to Aruppe and he will be looked after just like scores of others until they can sustain themselves,” said volunteer and project coordinator Federico Barreras Villarreal, who helped set the stage for the country’s first ever ITF Wheelchair Tennis Clinic held at Aruppe’s own La Paloma Center for the Disabled in Battambang last Wednesday and Thursday.

Australian Academy wheelchair tennis coach Joe Kubizniak conducted the two-day players’ clinic after holding sessions over three days with several coaches in Phnom Penh to help them cope with the challenges of the sport.

Joe Kubizniak/ Australian Academy wheelchair tennis coach
Joe Kubizniak/ Australian Academy wheelchair tennis coach

For the first time since that horrific experience, Toy was all smiles as he joined eight others with varying forms of disability from different age groups to learn useful tips from Kubizniak, who recently accompanied the Australian national wheelchair team to the Netherlands as its coach for the World Team Cup.

“Tennis Cambodia have done a great job over the last few years in establishing tennis programs across Cambodia. With the assistance of the ITF and the Wheelchair Tennis Development Fund, wheelchair and other inclusive tennis programs have a great chance of growing within these current programs,” Kubizniak told the Post. 

“I am looking forward to seeing participation in wheelchair tennis grow over the next few years. You never know a Cambodian player might just hit the world stage,” added the Sydney-based coach, who made it known that nothing would please him more than Cambodia taking part in the World Team Cup just like novices Kenya did recently.

“Each of the participants at Battambang showed amazing skills and enthusiasm for the game and I am sure Tennis Cambodia can build on that.

“The next step should be to get the coaches ready and for Tennis Cambodia to approach rehabilitation centres [and] organisations dealing with the disabled to try and initiate more players into tennis,” said the Australian coach, adding that a “try tennis out” offer to disabled players may induce them to take up the game.

Tennis Cambodia secretary general Tep Rithivit told the Post: “We are grateful to the ITF and Joe Kubizniak for this clinic. Our aim has always been tennis for all. We are glad to reshape the lives of people who are disabled for no fault of theirs through the medium of tennis and make their lives active and rewarding.” 

The ITF Wheelchair Development Fund aims to promote long-lasting wheelchair programs in designated countries. Over a period of two years, the ITF helps each of these countries to set up a sustainable wheelchair tennis project.

Dutch football legend Johan Cryff’s foundation has been supportive of the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Fund since 2003. As the legend himself put it: “As a player, I always believed in the power of working together in bringing good people and groups in contact with each other in order for them to work as a team.” 

The wheelchair initiative perfectly fits the philosophy and activities of the Cruyff Foundation.


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