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Cambodia’s ‘Mr Tennis’ Yi Sarun feted at Olympic Stadium

Yi Sarun attends a tribute in his honour at the Olympic Stadium courts on Thursday.
Yi Sarun attends a tribute in his honour at the Olympic Stadium tennis courts on Thursday.

Cambodia’s ‘Mr Tennis’ Yi Sarun feted at Olympic Stadium

The grand old man of Cambodian Tennis, Yi Sarun, who was one of only three survivors of the murder of more than 40 tennis players during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, was felicitated by Tennis Cambodia on Thursday at the Olympic Stadium courts.

The occasion was a sentimental tribute to the 74-year-old after he suffered a stroke some months ago, severely limiting his mobility.

With the help of a family member, the frail looking yet good-spirited Sarun made his way to courtside to be greeted by Cambodian national team members, none of whom were even born when his tennis life was shattered and the Khmer Rouge takeover brought untold miseries as he was driven out of Phnom Penh to a bleak and terrifying future in a Takeo labour camp.

For a man who donned the Royal Cambodian Army uniform to confront the insurgency in the tough terrains of Rattanakkiri in the prime of his youth and at the height of his tennis prowess, age has merely been a matter of numbers.

Every passing year seemingly made him that much more determined to carry on playing, with Sarun once famously declaring: “I want to play until I drop dead!”

But towards the end of last year, that passion of his for the game was cruelly curtailed.

While he may never again be able to wield a racquet, his life story, suffering, sacrifices and his commitment until the last moment he spends on a tennis court will forever inspire generations of players.

‘Great esteem forever’

The Cambodian squad has been training for the past 10 days in preparation for the Asia/Oceania Group III cycle in Hanoi early next month, and non-playing captain and Tennis Cambodia secretary-general Tep Rithivit thought it imperative to share the joy of competing in the Davis Cup with a veteran like Sarun, and for the current young players to learn the hard fought lessons of history.

“Yi Sarun’s presence at courtside today was a great sight and a big motivating factor. I wanted our players to realise how these people had put their lives on line and given their all for the cause of tennis.

“It is because of the sacrifices made then that we are proud to be where we are today,” said Rithivit, who was forced to flee the country as a 10-year-old boy with his family just before the horrors began.

“To see him mingle with our players even though he has difficulty with his mobility was indeed a moving experience. In my mind, Yi Sarun is ‘Mr Tennis’. He has always been and will always be.

“It is a testament that we hold our players in great esteem forever. We never forget them or their contributions,” Rithivit added.

“We have done as much as we can do to help him financially when he fell sick and for his recovery. It is our motto that we do not leave our players behind.”

As an extension of this sentiment, all members of the national squad headed to the Genocidal Museum in Tuol Sleng later in the day to get a sense of the darker chapters of Cambodia’s history, and also get a feel for themselves of the ordeals tennis players of the time like Sarun would have gone through after the sport was deemed elitist and ruthlessly rooted out.

Yi Sarun poses for a photo with secretary-general of Tennis Cambodia Tep Rithivit at the Olympic Stadium tennis courts on Thursday.
Yi Sarun poses for a photo with secretary-general of Tennis Cambodia Tep Rithivit at the Olympic Stadium tennis courts on Thursday.

Unfortunately, for a man so actively involved even as he moved into his early 70s, Sarun had a stroke several months ago and his tennis life seemingly came to a halt.

Until then his life had rotated around the game. He never took another job – nor did he even think about it.

He would be on court seven or eight hours a day holding lessons to make ends meet and was never the one to miss a chance to help out youngsters.

For a while he even made weekly trips to Kep to coach grassroots players.

Decade of hell

Sarun will go down in the history of Cambodian tennis as a great survivor who lived through the lows of life to find its meaning in tennis on either side of genocide, civil war and economic collapse.

The 1970s was a decade of hell for Sarun. Amid death and destruction and the ruins of war lay his tennis bag, and it was not until early 80s that he pulled it out of the rubble.

He burnt his military uniform and all items relating to tennis, including his photographs and trophies, to hide his identity as a player just hours before he was seized by his captors.

Yet with a smile on his face and in a voice that was excited but cracking, Sarun said he had no regrets and was happy with all he has received from tennis.

Months ago it was a familiar sight to see an elderly man with a wrinkled face, toothless smile and slight stoop carrying a tennis bag on his shoulder.

Perfectly dressed for a tennis session on Thursday. Sarun will probably never hit a ball again. But his legacy will never leave a Cambodian tennis court.

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