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Paes Brings Hope To Cambodia

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Leander Paes© Liam MacKenzieGoodwill Ambassador Leander Paes attends the inauguration of the "Killing Fields To Tennis Courts Foundation" at Angkor Wat.

As spokesperson for Cambodia's "Killing Fields To Tennis Courts" project, Leander Paes has made it his mission to help a country overcome the lingering effects of a brutal regime.

Leander Paes has accepted an offer from the Cambodian Tennis Federation to serve as its Goodwill Ambassador and international spokesperson for its project, “Killing Fields to Tennis Courts”. The foundation has a set agenda to clear areas planted with landmines by the former Khmer Rouge regime in provinces. Once the areas are cleaned of all danger, modified tennis courts will be built. Furthermore, the foundation will begin tennis programs for the disabled with prostethic limbs and wheelchair tennis.

“What attracted me to this foundation is that I can help bring landmine awareness to the tennis industry,” says Paes. “Though the genocide in Cambodia has been over for many years, the results of millions of landmines planted by the Khmer Rouge continue to be an everyday danger for the Cambodian people. And for those victims of landmines, it is now my mission to share this great sport of tennis with them. Through tennis, I can hopefully inspire children and coaches to dare to dream and that hard work and persistence you can overcome many of life’s obstacles.”

"Through tennis, I can hopefully inspire children and coaches to dare to dream"

Paes flew into Cambodia from neighboring Thailand where he was participating in the Thailand Open. He was honored by the Governor of Siem Reap and the Minister of Commerce for his role as spokesperson for the “Killing Fields to Tennis Courts Foundation”. The foundation was inaugarated at a ceremony held at the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, which is ranked as one of the Seven Wonders of the Architectural World. Here Paes was at his best, entertaining kids and visitors alike by playing tennis on a artificial grass tennis court, the same model to be used by the foundation in mined areas.

After playing tennis, Paes became serious when addressing the crowd that included both Cambodians and foreign tourists.

“Tennis has taught me how to overcome many of life’s challenges,” Paes said. “Life is not always fair. There will be times of turmoil that each of us will face. But please, I beg you, do not give up on your dreams or lose hope in moments of despair.”

The foundation’s name comes from the film, Killing Fields, which depicted life under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Those that were not killed or tortured to death were force-marched to the countryside to develop an agrarian styled utopia. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge would go on to commit one of the worst genocides of the 20th century killing an estimated 1.7-2 million people. Under the Khmer Rouge marriages were dissolved and families were banned. Parents separated from their children. Even children’s toys were thrown away, because there would be no time to play. And if you happened to play tennis, you must be an elitist and were marked for death.

Paes“In the 60s and early 70s, tennis was considered as an elitist sport world wide and Cambodia was no exception,” explains Rithivet Tep, Secretary General of the Cambodia Tennis Federation. “Cambodian tennis at the time was at its prime, dominating all regional countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Burma and Laos.”

“I was so scared that they (Khmer Rouge) would find out that I was a tennis player,” admits former national team member Yi Sarun. “So many tennis players were killed because they were considered upper-class. I burned all my tennis racquets, clothes and photographs.”

Yi Sarun survived the Khmer Rouge but at least 37 other tennis players did not.

Cham Prasidh, current Minister of Commerce and President of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia, is a survivor of the killing fields. He remembers when they were forced to eat anything that crawled.

“We were allocated only one kilogram of rice per 50 people,” Cham Prasidh begins. “I can remember counting the number of rice grains in my bowl. Obviously, with the impossible hours and workload each day we could not survive with only that. So we ate whatever we could. Anything, even earthworms, were dug up and pounded into a paste to mix with mother’s milk to try and keep the babies alive. We thought the protein would help them survive.”

"So many tennis players were killed because they were considered upper-class. I burned all my tennis racquets, clothes and photographs"

“The Killing Fields to Tennis Courts project is just the mission I have been searching for all these years,” confessed Paes. “This is a cause that allows me to give back to the sport that has given me so much.”

“For years, the outside world has associated the name Khmer with the Khmer Rouge regime,” says Tep. “But we want everyone to know that the Khmers were once a great race of people and their empire was capable of building such an incredible feat as Angkor Wat. Under the Khmer Rouge, we were stripped of our identity. That was part of their ethnic cleansing strategy. Now, with Leander Paes taking our cause on the ATP Tour, our kids finally have a hero. Leander will play a vital role in restoring our identity. He (Paes) will be our voice to the world asking them not to forget us and the results of genocide.”

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