A wheelchair tennis programme that began on a modest scale in Battambang to keep a few disabled players happy four years ago has grown big enough to enter international competition in the second half of next year.
Following the introduction of wheelchair tennis at the national level last month, Tennis Cambodia is now aiming to prepare a team of at least four players for an ITF tournament in the Southeast Asia region on the 2018 Uniqlo Wheelchair Tennis Tour.
The Uniqlo tour has a network of more than 150 tournaments all around the world with a prize money of $2 million. The tour is divided into multiple grades from the lowest level futures to grand slams.
Of the dozen or so active players training under the initiative at the La Paloma Rehabilitation Center in Battambang, four players have risen to a solid competitive level. Saim Kimsua, Khean Chen, Sovann Ravith and Teth Toy showed a lot of promise at the National Junior Tournament earlier this year, where wheelchair tennis was included as a separate category for the first time.
Back in 2013, wheelchair tennis was not something Tennis Cambodia had planned for. As Secretary-General Tep Rithivit recalled: “It just fell into our laps.”
“We had no inkling at the time that we would launch a programme of this kind, let alone foresee such a big growth in four years.”
It was a former Spanish WTA circuit player, Irene Rehberger-Bescos, who once was ranked as high as 410th in the world, who initiated the process after she took up volunteering work in Cambodia’s Battambang Apostolic Prefecture.
She found Tennis Cambodia through the federation’s website and reached out to Rithivit, suggesting that she would love to teach tennis in the prefecture.
A meeting was set up in Phnom Penh and the federation provided her with ITF balls and rackets. But when Rithivit, Mam Phalkun and others visited Battambang a week later what they saw caught them by surprise.
Some of the kids hitting balls were on crutches, others in wheelchairs – and all of them were disabled.
The Tennis Cambodia team was at the Arrupe Karuna Welcome Center for Children with Disabilities at La Paloma.
“We had no training in wheelchair tennis, no coaches who knew how to teach, but after seeing the kids for the first time, it was something we could not take away from them,’’ Rithivit recalled.
With his heart set on keeping the programme going, Rithivit looked to the ITF Wheelchair Development Fund, which aims to establish long-term wheelchair tennis initiatives in developing countries.
Tennis Cambodia’s wish was granted and the Kingdom became a project country for the next two years, during which time the ITF helped by providing a small fund to sustain costs as well as providing extra equipment.
And over the course of the project, ITF wheelchair tennis experts came to Cambodia. The first visit was by Joe Kubizniak, who was at the time the national men’s wheelchair coach for Tennis Australia.
This was followed by another highly reputed Australian coach, Greg Crump, and player ambassador Anthony Bonaccurso making the trip to Battambang for an extended camp.
While the players benefited a lot from these camps and grew in confidence, vastly improving their court skills, the best possible break any of them could have wished for came soon enough.
As part of the fund, sports wheelchairs were donated by the ITF in collaboration with Pakistan Davis Cupper Aisam Qureshi’s Stop War Start Tennis foundation.
In all, 17 sports wheelchairs of different sizes were made available to the players, who had until then been using ordinary wheelchairs that inhibited tennis movement.
Rehberger-Bescos, who inspired the whole project, had returned home to Spain, but the foundations she had laid were strong enough for a long-lasting structure.
Father Enrique Figaredo, of the Apostolic Prefecture of Battambang, said during the presentation of the wheelchairs in 2015 that it was the greatest gift the players could have asked for.
Two years on and the players have made impressive use of that gift.