Under the scorching May sun, 15-year-old tennis player Delton Kim was relieved to catch a break after hours of training at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium. “This heat is probably what’s most challenging for me. So different from France,” he said as he dried his forehead with his shirt.
In March, Kim left his country of birth—where he ranked among the top 12 junior players aged under 16—and moved to Phnom Penh to compete for the country of his ancestors.
It has meant a lot of firsts for Kim: This is the first time he has ever visited Cambodia, he is the youngest contender to ever join the Cambodian national tennis team and he will compete for the first time internationally as an adult in the upcoming Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, beginning in Singapore next weekend.
“It’s too competitive in France. Here, I can be sponsored and get a name internationally,” Kim said in a recent interview.
Born in France into a family of Cambodian tennis players, Kim first picked up a racket at age 6, influenced by his father and two older brothers. Yet he is the first in the family to take his game to the professional level.
Since moving to Phnom Penh, he has been adopted as a promising new player by Tennis Federation of Cambodia (TFC) secretary-general Tep Rithivit—almost literally, in fact, as the young player has been living in Mr. Rithivit’s home.
“The SEA Games will be quite an experience for someone as young as him,” Mr. Rithivit said.
Asked if he was confident that Kim would bring back a medal from Singapore next month, Mr. Rithivit was cautious.
“What we want now is for him to develop as a player. We already booked him in four other tournaments in the second half of the year,” he said.
A former tennis player, Mr. Rithivit has been the frontman of the CTF since the mid-1990s, when he moved back to Cambodia from Canada, where he grew up after his family fled the turbulence of the 1970s.
The Cambodian tennis team finally rejoined international competitions in 1997, and a decade later brought home its first medal—a bronze—when the men’s team placed third at the 2007 SEA Games in Thailand.
Since then, the federation has increased its budget and now receives an average of $250,000 a year from sponsors, which is used to fund the national team and run programs aimed at helping disadvantaged children break into the sport.
Still, most of the current and past national teams have comprised overseas-born Cambodians, like Kim, who are enticed back to the country after being found, mostly, on the Internet.
“I look on World Tennis Federation’s website for Khmer or Asian sounding names,” Mr. Rithivit explained of his process for finding second generation players. “Or, in the case of the United States, in schools’ and universities’ websites, since most of their players are not in the world ranking. When I find someone, I get in touch with them by email or Facebook.”
But some players of Cambodian parentage, such as U.S.-born Chenda Som, have approached their parents’ country themselves.
Fifteen-year-old Som also joined the national team this year—after competing in some daunting U.S. tournaments alongside the likes of Andy Roddick—and will head to Singapore’s SEA Games with the rest of the squad.
“Even though I grew up in the U.S., I think of myself as Cambodian,” Som said. “I have ties in this country because I know what my parents have been through with everything that happened here.”
“I was moved when learned about the federation and how they’re trying to revive tennis in Cambodia, so I decided I wanted to be a part of this,” she said.
Yet despite the enthusiasm of the new recruits, a lack of infrastructure is still hindering Cambodia’s path to success on the court. “There are over 3,000 tennis courts in Southern Vietnam alone, while in Cambodia it’s only 53 in the entire country,” according to Mr. Rithivit.
Veteran tennis player Yi Sarun, 68, one of the few top players of the 1960s who survived the Khmer Rouge regime, recalled that during the era, the sport had great prestige in the country.
“We used to have better salaries and always ate in good restaurants,” he said, adding that today’s players needed more support if they were to succeed on the international stage.
“It’s important for players today to have a salary and not have to worry about doing other part-time work,” Mr. Sarun said.
Mr. Rithivit said that despite the difficulties, the country’s team has gradually improved over the last decade.
“I still remember how in the beginning so many people would ask us to get water or ice during the tournaments, thinking we worked for the organization: That’s how bad we were.”
“Now, our Asean competitors know that they cannot take us so lightly,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)