Cambodia scripted a fairytale ending to its inaugural Davis Cup campaign by earning a promotional ticket to Group III next year along with the United Arab Emirates.
In a sensational climax to the week-long Asia Oceania Group IV series at the Khalifa International Tennis Complex in Doha, Cambodia raced to their fifth straight victory, outplaying tough Turkmenistan 3-0 on Saturday while United Arab Emirates prevailed over hosts Qatar 2-1 in the two promotional playoffs.
The triumphant Cambodian squad returned home yesterday afternoon to a rousing reception at the Phnom Penh International Airport.
“This was our first time in the Davis Cup, and we were considered the underdogs of the group. However, we didn’t go there to lose, we went there to win,” President of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia and Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh told the Post yesterday evening after greeting the team at the arrivals gate.
“Our victory is no small achievement as we beat five separate nations. It is a surprising result, but one that we hold with great pride.”
The Minister revealed he had suffered a string of sleepless nights in response to the unrelenting good news from Doha.
“I couldn’t sleep, I was so happy,” he said. “We won because of a supreme effort from the players and team, and our international-standard facility at the National Training Centre [next to the Cambodian Country Club].
“The ability is improving from one year to the next.”
Cham Prasidh expressed the need to continue this winning mentality at future international events while also reclaiming the use of courts at Olympic Stadium and helping them get back to a top-level playing surface.
Cambodia’s non-playing captain Tep Rithivit, meanwhile, described their run as a “Cinderella story”.
“We are unbeaten. This promotion ticket is a game-changer for Cambodian tennis,” he told the Post yesterday.
“Imagine what we have achieved [in our] first season with fewer than 30 tennis courts in the whole of Cambodia. The Doha complex has 27 courts.
“That puts this amazing feat in perspective. It is such an inspiration for all the tennis playing kids back home.”
Cambodia’s dream debut was given its expected happy ending by Bun Kenny and Mam Panhara, both of whom zealously guarded their unbeaten records during the week in singles rubbers.
Turkmenistan were one of the best teams in the competition, and their round-robin run in Pool A had just one blemish: a 1-2 loss to United Arab Emirates. But on the hard court at Khalifa, Cambodia cracked the tough nut in the easiest of fashions.
Mam Panhara gave Cambodia a flying start, just like he had done in the four previous ties.
His 6-0, 6-0 victory over Eriz Davletov brightened up the mood in the camp, and in the next hour, Bun Kenny ensured Cambodia were clutching the promotion ticket.
Kenny swept aside Alexandr Ernepesov 6-3, 6-0 to see Cambodia happily home and dry.
The Mam brothers, Panhara and Vetu, took the court in a visibly relaxed frame of mind and were soon stringing together their first doubles victory: 7-5, 6-2 over Eriz Davletov and Jamsin Il Muradov.
“Kenny was cruising in all his singles matches. He was apparently superior to his opponents. He did bring a great amount of energy and passion every day,” Cambodia’s head coach Braen Aneiros, himself a former Davis Cupper for Panama, said.
“Panhara was also quite impressive. He won all his matches to give us that crucial 1-0 lead. I think that helped Kenny a great deal to play with less pressure. Even though Panhara won all his singles matches in straight sets, he had quite a few battles.”
Cambodia No 1 Bun Kenny had a mile-wide smile on his return to Phnom Penh.
“We just made our debut, and I never thought we could win all five ties. We showed our strength was substantial,” he told the Post during an interview at the airport.
“All my matches were difficult, especially the final one [against Turkmenistan], during which I lost three games in the first set.
“We tried so hard because we were playing for our country and there were a lot of fans backing us.”
Mam Panhara was also delighted with his five wins from five singles matches.
“I’m happy that I could play well, and happy that I can represent Cambodia,” the US-based player said.
“I didnt think about winning [all five matches]. The first match came up and I tried to fight as hard as I could. I took one match at a time, and I was lucky enough to win all five.
“It wasn’t easy. It was pretty tough for me, as I was the first one to go on every day. So I felt I had a lot of pressure on me. After I got past the first one, however, the doubles matches felt more relaxed.”
The main sponsor of Cambodia’s Mission to Doha campaign, entertainment and gaming sector giant NagaWorld, said it took great pride in what the Davis Cup team had accomplished.
“It’s a great feeling for us to share this historic moment of success with the Cambodian tennis squad.
“It has been an unforgettable experience for us in Doha, feeling all the courtside excitement and witnessing this spectacular turn of events,” NagaWorld vice-president of events, promotion and entertainment Rajesh Kumar told the Post.
Cambodia’s first-time succ-ess has triggered a wave of congratulatory messages from around the world.
Among those who have expressed their admiration include the top brass at the International Tennis Federation – president Francesco Ricci Bitti, executive director Dave Miley and development officer for the Southeast Asian region Suresh Menon – as well as Asian Tennis Federation chief Anil Khanna.
In other playoff matches on Saturday to decide the final placings, Saudi Arabia downed Singapore 2-1 in the 5th to 6th place contest. Down the line, Jordan beat Iraq 3-0 and Myanmar defeated Bahrain 3-0.
Cambodia down Jordan
Cambodia had polished off the round-robin stage on Friday with a well crafted 2-1 victory over Jordan to top Pool B with an all-win record. Mam Panhara gave Cambodia a 1-0 lead when he disposed of El Hourani 6-1, 6-2. Kenny wrapped up the tie for Cambodia, making short work of Sief Adas 6-1, 6-1, dropping his first games in three matches.
Non-playing captain Tep Rithivit, who is also TFC secretary-general, blooded the baby of the team, Long Samneang ,in the dead doubles rubber.
In the company of Mam Vetu, Long Samneang put up a spirited show but that wasn’t enough to contain Jordanian pair Abu Dayeh and Seif Adas, who went on to win 6-4, 6-1 to earn a consolation rubber.
Pool A saw a tantalising twist on Friday when group leaders Turkmenistan were edged out in the final round robin tie 2-1 by the United Arab Emirates, who secured top spot with the victory to set up a semi-final showdown with Pool B runners-up Qatar.
Despite their trailblazing debut in Qatar, Cambodia will not be expecting such overwhelming success in next year’s Asia/Oceania Zone Group III competition.
Their opponents in 2013 will become clear by the end of the week, with this year’s edition getting under way on Wednesday at the Enghelab Sport Complex in Tehran, Iran.
Cambodia’s regional rivals Vietnam and Malaysia are the top-ranked nations in the eight-team event – which includes Bangladesh, Iran, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Oman and Syria – and will fancy their chances of obtaining one of two berths to Group II.