Skip to main content

How tennis survived the Khmer Rouge

By Chris Murphy, CNN
Click to play
Tennis under the Khmer Rouge
  • Cambodia's love of tennis has been re-ignited after the game was wiped out in the 1970s
  • The brutal Khmer Rouge regime decimated tennis and anything else they considered elitist
  • Tep Rithivit made it his mission to build the game back up from the grass roots
  • Cambodia will re-enter the Davis Cup in 2012

(CNN) -- The brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s brought Cambodia to its knees. Pol Pot and his cadres persecuted anything they regarded as middle-class or intellectual -- from pop musicians to tennis players.

Former tennis coach turned journalist Robert Davis told CNN of the extremes to which the Khmer Rouge were willing to go.

"When the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh and Cambodia, anyone who was elite or academic was exterminated," said Davis.

As a child, Tep Rithivit learned tennis with his father at Le Cercle Sportif club, which now houses the U.S. embassy. His father was captain of the national tennis team. When the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh in 1975, the family fled into exile.

It would be nearly 20 years before Tep returned to his homeland to embark on a mission to reintroduce the game he loved to his compatriots.

"As everyone knows Pol Pot wanted to start at year zero; we started at year zero back in 1993 as far as tennis was concerned," Tep told CNN's Open Court.

It was basically ethnic cleansing. Tennis is considered elitist and anyone who had anything to do with tennis was killed
--Tennis journalist Robert Davis
  • Cambodia
  • Tennis
  • Davis Cup

"It was a painful, difficult process -- we had no equipment, we had no money to do this but we had one thing, this determination. From my part and also from the kids, they wanted a better place in the sun."

Now, in his role as head of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia, he has established a national tennis center and introduced the game into schools.

"We basically rebuilt it from scratch. I went to get a lot of young talent and found it in the ball-boys. I personally took all the ball-boys and started giving them a tennis lesson."

In 1997, Tep saw his hard work pay off as Cambodia entered its first international competition, the South East Asian Games (SEAG) in Indonesia.

Though the team came away without a single win to its name, it had made an important step on the road to recovery.

And, 10 years later, young Tan Nysan achieved something that many would have never dared imagine was possible.

Nysan won a bronze medal at the SEAG, and then repeated the feat in 2009.

"That day everything changed for Cambodian tennis, everything changed for our players and everything changed for me," recalls Tep.

"It was worth gold or platinum for us, everybody was cheering, most of the people were crying and our player was delirious."

Cambodia's tennis revolution will be complete in 2012, when the country proudly makes its Davis Cup debut.

It will be the ultimate accolade for Tep Rithivit, the man who made it his mission to pull Cambodian tennis out of the killing fields and put it back onto the world stage.