Former tennis champion Yi Sarun reaches into his tennis bag takes out an old wrinkled plastic bag filled with black and white photographs and sets the stack on the table. He carries them everywhere he goes, for they are reminders of when life was good to be a Cambodian tennis player.
In one photograph Yi Sarun is seen wearing a coat, tie and trousers and carrying an armload of wood tennis racquets while disembarking from an airplane. Another one shows him on the court at the Cambodian Sports Club right after an epic five set match against a Vietnamese opponent. Yi’s arms are raised in victory and an exhausted smile spreads across the face of a young man in the prime of his life. One after another, Yi passes photos around, studying each one as if he were seeing it for the first time. Suddenly, the photographs stop. For it is 1975, and that is the year when the Maoist group of soldiers called the Khmer Rouge, came to power. And then all hell broke loose.
Phnom Penh was once considered one of the most beautiful cities in Southeast Asia. Now with the Khmer Rouge in power it would become a town of terror. It was the upper class who would most pay the price; doctors, teachers, lawyers, and even tennis players. Throats were slit, skulls crushed with a whack of a shovel and babies tossed from windows. Those that were not killed or tortured to death were force-marched to the countryside to develop an agrarian styled utopia immortalized by the film, The Killing Fields. Life as Cambodians knew it stopped. A new era began and Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, called it, “Year Zero”. In “Year Zero”, marriages were dissolved and families were banned. Parents separated from their children. Even children’s toys thrown away, because there would be no time to play.
Two popular slogans of the new regime were, “To spare you is no profit. To destroy you in no loss.” And, “Better to kill an innocent person, than to leave an enemy alive.” With that mantra, the Khmer Rouge went on a bloodthirsty hunt for anyone associated, even remotely, with the beaugouis. Some was just plain ridiculous, like anyone wearing eye-glasses were considered intelligent and must be executed. And if you happened to play tennis, you must be an elitist and were marked for death. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge would go on to commit one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century killing an estimated 1.7 -2 million people.
Rewind a few years earlier, on a sunny spring day in Phnom Penh where a young Prince Sihanouk is sitting by the tennis courts at Le Cercle Sportif, an exclusive country club. He is watching the national champion of Cambodia and Davis Cup player, Tep Kunnah train. Children are gathered around too, all watching the man called affectionately, ‘Mr. Tennis’. It was not unusual for the Prince to regularly attended Tep Kunnah’s matches.
“In the 60’s and early 70’s, tennis was considered as an elitist sport world wide and Cambodia was no exception,” explains Rithi Tep, Secretary General of the Cambodia Tennis Association and son of Tep Kunnah. “Cambodian tennis at the time was at its prime, dominating all regional countries like; Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Burma and Laos.”
Little could anyone imagine then that those neatly manicured lawns and private tennis courts of the Le Cercle Sportif would be the setting for political executions carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Most notably that of Lon Non and other government figures. In 1968, Yi Sarin (teammate of Yi Sarun) was the number one junior ranked player in Cambodia. Like Yi Sarun he was ordered to Takeo Province to labour in the fields.
“I was so scared that they (Khmer Rouge) would find out that I was a tennis player,” Yi Sarin admits. “So many tennis players were killed because they were considered upper-class. I refused to even think about tennis.”
Both Yi Sarun and Yi Sarin survived the Khmer Rouge but at least thirty-seven other tennis players did not.
Cham Prasidh, current Minister of Commerce and President of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia, is a survivor of the killing fields. He remembers when they were forced to eat anything that crawled.
“We were allocated only one kilogram of rice per fifty people,” Cham Prasidh begins, “I can remember counting the number of rice grains in my bowl. Obviously, with the impossible hours and workload each day we could not survive with only that. So we ate whatever we could. Anything, even earthworms were dug up and pounded into a paste to mix with mother’s milk to try and keep the babies alive. We thought the protein would help them survive.”
After Vietnamese forces removed the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, slowly life began to resume some sort of normalcy. It would take a few years for tennis to return to Cambodia, as all equipment had been destroyed. But thanks to expats and diplomats racquets, balls, and nets were donated to the former players and clubs. Then goodwill sporting tours inspired by the Soviet Union sent athletes all over the world to play games.
Tennis was back again.
Yi Sarin must have thought his life something of a wild roller-coaster ride. Now, he is on a flight rumbling over the Aral Sea en route to Moscow. There he will board a train and back track for seventeen-hours in the freezing snow where he will eventually arrive in Lithuania to play tennis. He and Yi Sarun would travel to other Soviet Union countries like Estonia and Ukraine to play tennis matches. Today, Yi Sarin is the national coach of Cambodia
But the driving force in the effort to return Cambodian tennis to glory is Rithi Tep.
“It is a legacy that I feel I have to perpetuate on behalf of my family,” Rithi says. “Because of not only what tennis meant to my father and uncle, but also what they did for tennis too. My family believes that such legacy has to be carried on by my children to continuously remind the greatness of a Cambodian athlete and their grand father and uncle.”
With only eight public courts and a handful of private ones in the entire country tennis has a long way to go in Cambodia before it regains its former status. But at the 2007 Southeast Asia Games held in Khorat, Thailand, Cambodia showed that it is ready to challenge again. When Nyssan Tan captured the bronze medal in the men’s individual singles category his teammates and coaches erupted in celebration as if he had just won the gold, not the bronze. For a country that has seen so much death and destruction, and suffered so many hardships any medal is something to be cheered. A visibly shaken, but jubilant Rithi Tep is crying tears of joy, “We have waited over thirty years for this,” he says while hugging the kids and coaches. “Finally!”
Suresh Menom, International Tennis Federation (ITF) Development Officer for Asia feels that Cambodia just needs a little help to get going again. Already the ITF has sent equipment and is considering an Olympic Solidarity Fund financial grant to Cambodia for coaching expertise.
“Despite their lack of facilities and tennis infrastructure development,” Menom begins, “Cambodia has managed to achieve some remarkable success in the South East Asian tennis arena in recent years. The SEA Games bronze medal and 14 and under juniors that were selected on the ITF teams is a demonstration of the tenacity and determination of the Cambodian players in achieving success despite facing insurmountable hardships. If the Tennis Federation of Cambodia can have a center of its own to develop players, the future is going to be much brighter for Cambodian tennis.”
At age sixty-three, former tennis champion Yi Sarun still gets paid to play tennis. Non-Government Officers and expatriates slip him a couple of dollars per hour to play a set or two at Phnom Penh’s VIP Club. Yi Sarun’s skin is sunburned a dark walnut colour and his face is gaunt with high cheekbones. A hearing aide dangles from his ear and a shy smile reveals that only a few teeth remain. While his strokes have become as stiff as his stride, he can still beat most of his younger clients. Although he lets them win just enough to keep them coming back. From a nearby court, Yi Sarin is watching him play.
“Still, after all these years he never learned to volley,” he says with a laugh just as Yi Sarun dumps a backhand into the net.
Yi Sarun might not have learned to volley, but just like those that survived the Khmer Rouge and their descendents, he has not given up trying to improve either.