© Ella Ling

Tennis balls

From killing fields to tennis courts


The Monte Carlo Country Club, wedged between limestone cliffs and the Med, tends to demand everyone’s attention. Yet it is worth taking a moment to consider some of the tennis being played elsewhere this week, with Cambodia’s Davis Cup team making their debut in the competition. For a country whose federation has the unofficial slogan, ‘from killing fields to tennis courts’, Cambodia’s appearance in Group Four of the Asia and Oceania Zone, at a stadium in Qatar,┬áis of no little significance.

Such was the success of Khmer Rouge’s attempts to destroy tennis in Cambodia in the 1970s – they regarded the sport as being the pastime of the rich, the educated, the elite and the intelligentsia – that only three of the 40 players who were competing at national level survived. “Like many sports, tennis was considered an elitist sport and there were no exceptions when the Khmer Rouge came,” Tep Rithvit, Cambodia’s non-playing captain, and the secretary general of the tennis federation, told the news agency Agence France Presse. “They wanted to wipe out anything that was part of the old era. Pol Pot wanted to start Year Zero in Cambodia. As far as tennis was concerned, he succeeded. We had to rebuild everything from scratch.”

Cambodia’s first appearance brought victory over Singapore. “I had the strangest feeling when I walked on court – It was a mixture of anxiety and a sweet smell of revenge over the dark years of trying to rebuild tennis in Cambodia,” said Rithvit.

One survivor from the 1970s – courts were occasionally used for executions – is Yi Sarun, who has helped to bring about this revival in Cambodian tennis. He has that he survived because he was “smart enough to lie” to the Khymer Rouge. “I told them that I was a cyclo-driver and that in my free time I enjoyed playing football. Those who didn’t [hide their identity] were considered rich people or high-ranking officials. They were killed.”

Some in tennis still regard all comebacks as bad ideas. Maybe that’s because they can’t shift the images in their mind of Bjorn Borg returning to the sport with wooden rackets, the assistance of a Welsh martial-arts instructor, and a head full of self-delusion. But two players who have been in the news over the past few days – Jennifer Capriati and Kim Clijsters – show that a ‘second career’ can be as successful, sometimes more so, than the first.

Capriati has been inducted into the hall of fame, but obviously not for being a burnt-out child star, but for what happened on her return, for winning the Australian Open twice and the French Open once. And Clijsters, though she will miss the entire clay-court season, to return for the grass, has had a hugely successful comeback. Three of her four career slams – two US Open victories and one at the Australian Open – have been achieved during The Second Coming of Kim Clijsters. While Capriati and Clijsters took career breaks for different reasons – the American because of personal problems, the Belgian to start a family – they have both proved the same point; there ‘s no reason to sneer at the player who comes back for a second go.