Former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash of Australia spent some playing time with the grand old man of Cambodian tennis, Yi Sarun, at the National Training Centre around noon yesterday, describing the 69-year-old Khmer Rouge regime survivor as a source of great inspiration for the next generations.
“His story is amazing. He is really good. I can see that passion for tennis in him even now. I wish at 69 I am as fit as he is,” Cash told the Post in an exclusive chat.
Gaunt, slightly hunched back and almost toothless, Yi Sarun carries on his face the scars of atrocities he suffered and survived even as 40 of his tennis-playing mates perished.
Neither the advancing age nor the past troubles have stood in the way of his passion for the game. He turned up at the NTC well ahead of Cash, who had gone out in the morning on a visit to two Holy Baby run orphanages in Kandal province, where the Tennis Federation of Cambodia has initiated grassroots programs.
When the two reached out for an emotional handshake a history of sorts was in the making. The playing session lasted little less than 15 minutes. But in that time Cash could be heard showering praise for the felicity with which Yi Sarun was moving on the court and stroking the ball on both flanks.
At the end, a friendly embrace said it all, the awe and respect both had for each other.
“I knew about Cash – that he is a very good player from Australia. In fact it brought back memories of the great Australian coach Harry Hopman who trained our national team for quite some time in the early ’60s,” Yi Sarun told the Post in a voice choking with emotion.
It was the national team’s turn next to get on court with Cash, who is an Australian tennis Hall of Famer.
The tips came flowing from the Cash half of the court. Volleys, contact points, footwork, service motion, open-close stance and the art of movement.
“In warm-ups, you concentrate on techniques. In matches you concentrate on the ball. You can only move if you are on the ground, not if you are jumping around in the air,” Cash could be heard advising Phalkun Mam, Bun Kenny and Long Samneang.
Bun Kenny’s double-handed backhand came under close scrutiny from Cash, who gave an immediate prescription to solve the problem of the Cambodian number one getting his racquet too close to the body.
“Open out a little bit and hit freely. It is the upper body which generates 80 per cent of the power and you must get the contact point right,” said Cash.
The Cambodian team members told the Post they were thrilled to be on court hitting with a player of Cash’s calibre and fame.
Later at a media conference, Cash summed up his visit, saying: “Cambodian tennis has a big heart, enthusiasm and passion, and the federation has big ideas.”
“I really didn’t expect it to be this good. The federation is doing the right thing in encouraging grassroots development and the coaches are getting the approach right and I cannot think of any other country comparable to Cambodia in terms of their success in relation to limited resources and the adversities they have gone through.
“Now we are friends. We know each other quite well and I will be happy to do my bit for Cambodian tennis. Maybe leverage corporate [companies] to come in or bring a player or two along and play some exhibition matches. I have ideas – let us see how it works out.”
TFC secretary-general Tep Rithivit said: “To have someone like Pat Cash here is a blessing. It is a vote of confidence. I am sure our players will greatly benefit from the tips they have got from him and we look forward to a fruitful partnership with Cash.”
In the company of Tep Rithivit, Phalkun Mam and Bun Kenny, Cash left for Kep to visit ASPECA Orphanage and Tennis School Kep.
“I have been pretty much on the road since Wimbledon this year, and I am getting back to my home in London,” added Cash, who arrived here in Phnom Penh late Sunday evening from Kuala Lumpur.
But there is something more urgent and attractive awaiting the Australian, and that is a first look at his second grandson born in Oslo six weeks ago. After waiting four days for the new arrival, Cash left town only to find out that his daughter had delivered a baby boy two days later.