Former Wimbledon Champion Talks Tennis, Charity, Rock ‘n’ Roll

In fitting style, Pat Cash got the ball rolling on his whistle-stop visit to Cambodia with a light training session with the country’s youngest tennis players on the roof of the casino-hotel NagaWorld, where a mini tennis court was set up for his arrival.

Travel delays meant it was dark by the time the Australian arrived, but always the sportsman, he headed out on court under the spotlights and treated the kids to a game with one of tennis’ most charismatic champions.

Wimbledon champion Pat Cash plays a practice game with a young Cambodian tennis player. (Simon Henderson)
Wimbledon champion Pat Cash plays a practice game with a young Cambodian tennis player. (Simon Henderson)

Wimbledon winner and poster boy of 1980s tennis, Mr. Cash visited Cambodia this week at the invitation of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia (TFC) in the hope that the star quality of the TV presenter and former coach would rub off on Cambodia’s young generation of tennis players.

As a kind of kitsch, nostalgic icon of my youth, it was both dispiriting and entirely appropriate that Mr. Cash produced a bag of his trademark checkered headbands and waited until everyone was donning one before getting started. But is Pat Cash without the headband even Pat Cash?

He is perhaps as famous for his look and his larger than life persona as his tennis: the mullet, the checkered headband, the dangly cross earring, then the apotheosis of his rock ‘n’ roll image—scrambling into the prim and proper stands of Wimbledon’s Center Court to celebrate his men’s singles victory with his family, climbing past Princess Diana like he was Bon Jovi scaling the royal box at the Albert Hall.

It was 1987, I was 9 years old, and that summer, the Pat Cash headband was in. Up until that point, Wimbledon was just something dull and green on the screen with whispery voices and that hypnotic popping sound, back and forth for hours on end. But Pat Cash resembled a lead singer in a heavy metal band, so suddenly tennis was cool—he even played the guitar (which I played too, on the strings of a wooden tennis racket, serendipity or what?)

After his training session came to a close, I asked him whether the look and persona that quickly became his brand were part of a conscious decision to stand out amid the formality and seriousness of professional tennis, or just part of being young in the 1980s.

“It was a crossing over of the old guard and the new around that time, sort of on the back of the John McInroe thing—a bit irreverent, people were mesmerized by the way he played, though disgusted by the way he behaved. I guess the headband and earring was part of a desire to set myself apart, and I wore Iron Maiden T-shirts, which wasn’t very cool at the time,” he said, though I begged to differ.

Cash once took to the stage to play with Australian rockers INXS, though he says his guitar-playing days are now pretty much over. Yet at 48, he continues to be a draw on the tennis court—he won the Association of Tennis Professionals Legends Tour in 2012, beating Mark Philippoussis, who he once coached, and won the over 45 doubles back at Wimbledon, also just last year.

In the Cambodian heat though, the practice session has taken it out of him and he is sweating like he had just gone five sets with his old foe Ivan Lendl, who he beat to take his first and only Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in a career blighted by injury. But it brings Cash to one of his other passions, his philanthropy work—which is why he has come to Cambodia.

“This is a fact-finding mission in many ways for me, we did a CNN program [Open Court] on tennis here a couple of years ago and I have been meaning to come back, and [TFC secretary-general] Tep Rithivit tells me so much about the kids here and how passionate they are about tennis,” he said.

“Tennis is a tough sport, but it’s a great sport, and its getting bigger and bigger in Asia, China is doing well now for example, but I am here in Cambodia and am doing some exhibition matches, some coaching, whatever I can do to see where tennis is at and see how I can help out in the future.”

Mr. Cash was raised a strict Catholic but is circumspect about his religion these days, though it fostered a charitable spirit in him that he says is an important part of his life since the intensity of his professional career ended.

“There’s more to life than hitting tennis balls. If you have a passion, you should try and spread that and do what you can to help people. I’ve always been raised that way, I guess, but I don’t see it as an obligation, it’s whether you can fit it into your lifestyle,” he said.

On that note, I ask him what his thoughts are on Australia’s new Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s decision to merge the government’s aid agency, AusAID, with its Foreign Affairs department and considerably shrink its aid budget, which may have a real impact on Cambodia.

He laughed, “You’re getting me into politics are you? In truth I don’t tend to follow the politics that much but I know Australia is one of the most successful countries and though our financial situation is a little more precarious than it was, we are still one of the lucky ones.

“We have always been good on giving, so I don’t know how that will work out. I know it’s not been a very popular decision back home—I was back during the election—but I hope they figure something out,” he said.

Mr. Cash was off to spend the next few days visiting the APECA orphanage and tennis school in Kep and had a game at the National Training Center in Phnom Penh with 69-year-old Yi Sarun, one of only three tennis players to survive the Khmer Rouge regime, which saw the sport as elitist.

But before he departed there was one last thing, and with no headbands left in the bag, Cash undid his own.

“It’s a bit sweaty, but let me see if I can still sign it.”

Rock on.

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