The Secretary General of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia and Chairman of venture capital and investment consulting company DEVENCO is credited with reviving tennis in Cambodia. Son of a top tennis star, Rithivit and his family had to leave the country before the sport was eradicated under the Khmer Rouge. Years later, he kick-started its rebirth. Interview by Joanna Mayhew, photography by Charles Fox.

What do you remember about living here when your father, Tep Khunnah, was a tennis champion?
I remember following my dad everywhere, carrying his bag. He took me to watch him play almost every night. After his games, he would teach me using shadow tennis. It was quite embarrassing; everyone was hitting balls, and I was hitting air. I was so anxious to hit my first ball. He said to be patient. I can’t remember hitting the ball once in Cambodia.

We left in 1973, two years before Pol Pot. I was ten. I remember my dad bought me my first pair of closed shoes. They were so tight, and the flight seemed so long. My dad told me we would probably never be able to come back. That was shocking to me. I remember being so sad that I would not see friends again, or our house again. Next thing you know, well, I’m in France with hurting feet.

Have you always loved tennis?
My love came in sequences, then it became hatred. I am the first son, so everybody expected me to be the next winner, the future hope. It was my downfall. I failed miserably as a player. I was very gifted but didn’t train hard enough. At 19, I realised I didn’t want it anymore. I remember taking down my trophies and clippings. I was a confused kid who just wanted to have fun. I think somewhere along the way people forgot to tell me to have fun playing tennis.

My love for tennis finally returned when I returned to Cambodia 22 years ago. Coming back transformed me. I walked on the same court where my dad had taught me. I felt so nostalgic, so sad. My dad was losing a battle to cancer, and I knew he would die soon. I wondered how I could best honour him. I felt I needed to carry his reputation and ensure people didn’t forget him.

How did you begin to reinstate tennis?
I started by teaching tennis to the ball boys. A handful showed up, I guess for the free food. By 1996, I was hosting my first competition. I named it in honour of my father, who had passed away the year prior.

The lowest point was the 1997 Southeast Asian Games. We were less than underdogs. We didn’t win one game, let alone a set. I told the players, “Let’s promise each other we’ll never, ever forget this day. This day is the lowest for Cambodian tennis. I don’t know how, but we’re not going to stay here.” Ten years later, we won our first bronze medal. The next competition, another bronze. The next, another. Since 2007, competition tennis has exploded.

You just returned from the Davis Cup tournament in Dubai. How did it go?
Last year was our first time competing, and we were elevated from Group IV to Group III. My goal this year was to remain there in order to stabilise progression, and we managed it. It could have gone either way.

I couldn’t be prouder of our players. They showed heart; they refused to lie down. I often tell them, “Win or lose, shake your opponent’s hand, but never forget this: next time, you’re going to do your utmost to kick his ass. But respect that, at least today, you have lost.” I want them to realise how privileged they are to be playing. The goal is to win, but not at any cost. It’s about representing our country and the sport we love properly.

What is the landscape of tennis in Cambodia today?
At a national level, we used to just be participants. Today we’re proving we are contenders. People are no longer taking us for granted. Our opponents will have to earn each point, each match. But we’re still underdogs, and I like that position.

At the grassroots level, we provide tennis training to 2,800 children, cost-free. Our goal is to continue providing access and popularising the sport. With less than 40 tennis courts in the country, we have only been able to make achievements through sheer determination and pure belief in the sport. Tennis is never growing fast enough for me, but if I step back, it has been growing fast.

Where is tennis in Cambodia headed?
We are contenders in Southeast Asia, but I dare to say we could be winners. If we continue on the current trajectory, within ten years, we could produce a Cambodian player to win Southeast Asia and perhaps be a big contender in Asia overall. I firmly believe we could be on top, but I don’t want to set targets. I’m just enjoying and living the dream.

How do you feel when you reflect on the last two decades of tennis?
The success we’ve been able to achieve as a tennis federation, representing a nation with a tremendous and difficult past, is amazing. We’ve revived tennis and given access to children who want to play, regardless of their social status. I feel I am deeply indebted to tennis. It saved my life so many times. It kept me out of trouble, provided me with jobs and has been good for my business. I didn’t come back to rebuild. I just do my thing, as a responsible citizen. I’m proud of being who I am, a Cambodian.

What would your father think of tennis in Cambodia today?
I hope he’s proud of me, and that I’ve bought back some of the years of disappointment I gave him. He wanted me to become a champion, and I never did. If I could tell him anything, it would be, “Look at us now, dad.” That’s it. I’m content with my guys; content with the sacrifices; content with the hard years; content that I came through 1997. And look at us now.