For over 30 years, Tep Rithivit has strived to foster the resurgence of tennis in Cambodia, and is now working to grow the sport across the entirety of Asia.
Despite being a well-known businessman with six investment companies in his portfolio, Rithivit still remembers the final words of his father, a renowned Cambodian tennis player from the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era led by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
He not only serves as secretary-general of Tennis Cambodia, but was recently elected vice-president of the Asian Tennis Federation (ATF), where he plays a crucial part in advancing tennis academies and coaches across the continent.
His father Tep Khunna was a colonel in the military and a prominent tennis player in the 1950s and 1960s. A former Cambodian national athlete, who was renowned across the region, he encouraged all four of his children to take up the sport.
It was Rithivet, the eldest of his two sons and two daughters, who showed the most promise. When the political situation forced Khunna to make the difficult decision to move the family to France in 1973, he continued to train Rithivit.
In 1977, the family relocated again, this time to Canada, where Rithivit became a top 20 player in the 16-18 age grade.
Rithivit confesses that he still feels that he let his father down in some way when he failed to apply himself to the game as Khunna would have liked.
“All my family members play, and being the eldest son, the expectation was for me to follow in my father’s footsteps. I had numerous opportunities, but I didn’t seize them as firmly as I could have. It was probably one of my father’s biggest regrets that I never grasped the chance to compete on the international stage,” Rithivit tells The Post.
Amidst the pressure he faced – and his parents’ divorce – he made the decision to end his playing career at the age of 19.
Giving up the game
His parents’ separation meant that, in order to support his mother and younger siblings, he was compelled to find work. Previously accustomed to comfort, the young man, now a Canadian citizen, had to reconsider his priorities.
“Following my parents’ divorce, there was a short period where I tried to play tennis, coach and also find other work. It was a difficult time. After I made the decision to stop playing competitively, I volunteered to train many of the local club members, especially the elderly,” he says.
“I didn’t charge them fees, as they had known me since my early days as a player. When they learned I was searching for work, they assisted me in finding a job. Therefore, my current success and professional accomplishments are directly indebted to tennis. I owe gratitude not only to my parents and my country but also to the sport of tennis, and I will never forget this,” he adds.
With this in mind, when Rithivit made the decision to return to Cambodia in 1992 and pursue business opportunities, he also had the aim of rallying former instructors and the Kingdom’s remaining tennis players to revive the sport.
Causing a racquet
He dedicated over two years to imparting tennis skills to the younger generation, and in 1994 Tennis Cambodia was founded. It received official recognition from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC) in 1997, with former commerce minister Cham Prasidh serving as president and Rithivit as secretary-general of the fledgling federation.
“Upon returning to Cambodia, I was driven by a strong determination to find personal fulfilment and honour my father’s legacy. Driven by Khunna’s diagnosis with terminal cancer, I initiated the formation of the federation in 1994, with the invaluable support of His Excellency Cham Prasidh. Sadly, my father passed away in 1995, so he never got the chance to see the federation recognised,” he says.
“His passing fuelled my commitment even further. My aim extended beyond merely winning medals; I aspired for Cambodia to shine through this sport. At that time, the Kingdom was still reeling from the effects of the war, with many athletes lacking even basic necessities like the correct footwear. I poured all my passion and dedication into nurturing this sport and boosting its visibility. Despite never getting the chance to excel as an athlete myself, I strove to excel in administration,” he adds.
In the roughly 30 years he has served as secretary-general, Rithivit has surmounted numerous obstacles and challenges, building tennis from scratch to the point where it is now a well-known sport. The federation’s brilliant masterstroke was to start establishing training academies from the ground up, and as a result, capable and talented athletes have been meticulously selected and groomed to represent the Kingdom on the international stage.
Aside from the numerous trophies and medals it has garnered from various international competitions, one of Rithivit’s proudest achievements is the eight bronze medals the Kingdom claimed at the SEA Games between 2007 and 2023.
Commitment to regional growth
The sport’s regional body, the Asian Tennis Federation (ATF), met recently to elect a new board for the 2024-27 mandate. Yuriy Polskiy, a Kazakh, was elected as president, while Rithivit was elected as vice-president for the first time.
On January 29, Polskiy appointed Rithivit to oversee the development of the sport across the whole of Southeast Asia.
“This year has been incredibly surprising for me. I was honoured to be asked to serve as vice-president of the ATF, overseeing the 11 ASEAN divisions. Additionally, the federation has entrusted me with the role of president of the Juniors and Coaches Development Committee, where I will oversee all academy competitions for Asia,” he shares.
“Under-14s tournaments across Asia hold a massive significance in the lives of young athletes. It is a hugely important part of the development of the game, and evolved from the U16 academy format which existed several decades ago. We are shaping the future of players across Asia,” he explains.
In addition to his two significant new roles, Rithivit revealed the contribution that Tennis Cambodia made to the success for the ITF Asian 14 and Under Junior Championships 2023, held in September at the Morodok Techo National Stadium, on the outskirts of the capital. The event was such a success that the International Tennis Federation (ITF) has requested that Cambodia host it again in the future.
Additionally, Polshiy has decided to establish an ATF Regional Stakeholders Engagement Committee-Southeast Asia, appointing Rithivit as its president, along with a vice-president and six members.
“In this additional role, I need to collaborate closely with the tennis federations of the 11 countries in ASEAN, in order to propel the sport forward. Each country will report on their U14 development projects to us twice a year, enabling us to identify strengths and weaknesses and facilitate assistance from the ATF. This marks the first time we have the capacity to fulfill this regional work,” he says.
Rithivit’s goal is to encourage 30 out of 45 countries in Asia to participate in a new academy programme.
“I am very proud, especially of our tennis federation. I have requested that the ATF include three of our federation members as assistants, to support me in organising events. As ASEAN and Asia are looking at us, this is a significant opportunity for us to demonstrate our dedication. Because the ATF considers Cambodia to be on the world stage, it’s crucial for us to shine, and I am very confident in fulfilling this obligation,” he adds.
Regarding the organisation of academy competitions and other programmes aimed at promoting tennis development across the five zones of Asia, Rithivit emphasises that he has urged the ATF Board to assist countries that lack the ability to organise such events on their own. He reasons that larger countries have the resources and the capability of managing their own competitions even without support.
“I told them that we need to set the goal of assisting countries that lack the capability to organise such events. We need to organise competitions in these countries frequently, in order to facilitate the progress of those at lower levels, and the ATF president supports this idea. Why do I advocate for this? Because we were once an impoverished country, and it is important that we always remember where we came from,” he explains.
He recalls how just 15 years ago Cambodia was perceived as a below-average tennis nation. During international tennis competitions, many other teams were unaware of the Cambodian team’s origins.
An emerging power
“Since the [31st] SEA Games, Cambodia has won eight medals, so people are becoming interested in our training programmes. Moreover, we recently achieved significant success in hosting the 32nd SEA Games in 2023,” he says.
“By implementing a tennis programme within schools, we began to identify talented children, and then provided them with training within the federation. This approach has yielded good results, as evidenced by the international success of our young athletes. We have been committed to this programme for 12 years now, so I am very focused on building this academy as a crucial foundation for the advancement of tennis,” he adds.
As part of his efforts to foster the development of tennis in Cambodia, Rithivit reveals that he has extended his commitment beyond his role as secretary-general, despite it being unpaid and requiring significant personal financial input. Despite these challenges, he remains committed, especially as all three of his sons are also tennis players.
He also expresses his gratitude towards the current president of the federation, Sear Rithy, a Cambodian business mogul who has supported the organisation since 2018.
“What I have done and sacrificed for tennis is even more than my father’s expectations were, yet I still feel it’s insufficient! I need to achieve more. That’s why I have dedicated 30 years of my life to the sport. Without investing time, we cannot achieve anything,” he says.
“My ambition does not end there, and I want to make it clear that my efforts are not only intended to honour my father, but also the motherland. I aspire to see the growth, prosperity and enhanced reputation of our tennis supersede what we have already accomplished. However, this will not be achieved solely through my own work. It will depend on a collective effort, particularly from the players who compete on the court. They must exert themselves and be dedicated to reaching the levels I know they are capable of,” he adds.