Phnom Penh Post
SIX months ago, Cambodia’s number one tennis player Tan Nysan was handing out flyers to lure partygoers to Parisian discothèques. Today, a billboard in Phnom Penh displays his bare-chested image adorned with two SEA Games bronze medals. While hardly rags to riches, Tan Nysan’s fortunes have certainly appeared to improve.
From the moment he picked up a racquet and began hitting tennis balls at the age of seven, Nysan attracted the interest of the French Tennis Federation. They soon found out, however, that it was not talent he lacked but discipline.
Nysan bolted against authority like a caged tiger. He was quickly dismissed by the French and written off as another wasted talent. Then came a call from Cambodia, the birthplace of his mother, granting him the opportunity to represent the Kingdom in the 2007 SEA Games.
As a relative nobody, Nysan surprised everyone by snatching a bronze medal. All of a sudden, the Asian tennis world was talking about him. He found himself in an uncomfortable position, this time from the weight of expectation to succeed further. A snap decision was made that he would disappear from Cambodia and the tennis scene altogether. Two years passed.
As the clock ticked down to the 2009 SEA Games, the pressure on Tep Rithivit, Secretary General of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia (TFC), to repeat the success of the last SEA Games was rapidly increasing. The Secretary knew the odds were against him, but his desire for Cambodian glory overrode all logic.
Rithivit tracked down Nysan in Paris, where he was working for nightclubs, and persuaded him to return to Cambodia and the national team. With just two months preparation time and Nysan in poor shape, the prospects of another bronze medal were slim and none.
However, nothing could have prepared Nysan for the shock he was about to receive. If he had thought the French were tough, he must have considered Cambodian national coach Braen Aneiros from Cuba as the devil incarnate. On the first day of his return to training, Nysan’s legs were left burning and lungs splitting as he collapsed with full-body cramps. The ‘belle vie’ of Paris was now a distant memory, the pain of hard work a nightmarish reality for the 20-year-old.
“I have never trained like that before,” Nysan recalls. “I thought I was going to die, and it was only the first day. Coach [Aneiros] was a crazy kind of cruel. I don’t know how I survived. But I am glad that I did not quit. Coach made me tough.”
Surviving the no-nonsense training was one thing, but having Aneiros tell him where to hit the ball was another. The rebel inside of Nysan yelled out, and went to the office of Tep Rithivit to complain about the coach. Nysan felt restricted by the disciplined tactics that forced him to employ a style built around high percentage shot selection and mental toughness. However, the Secretary remained unmoved in support of his national team trainer.
“The player has to follow the coach’s decisions,” explains Rithivit. “I trust coach Aneiros to provide the proper strategy. And I trust Nysan to stick to the plan.”
“Incredible how Tann [Nysan] handled the pressure,” remarked Thanakorn Srichaphan, the Thai national coach. “Considering that he has not played for a long time, what he did today is truly incredible.”
Fast forward to earlier this month, and a week before Nysan was scheduled to depart for Calcutta for his first professional tournament. Aneiros was faced with a decision to make. Nysan claimed he was sick and needed rest. The familiar pattern of lowering the expectations before competition began again. This time the coach wasn’t buying it and told Nysan that he must pass a fitness test the next day or he would not go to India.
“Why should we waste the money if he is not ready?” asked Aneiros. The ultimatum was clear. “Make the time or stay at home!”
Nysan picked himself up and passed the test, and flew to India where he survived the qualifying rounds to clinch a place in the main draw, thus becoming the first Cambodian to earn a professional tennis world ranking. However, just when he thought he had finally arrived, Nysan was dealt a setback. In the first set of the second round, he severely sprained his ankle, ending his championship bid. He is currently still hobbling on a pair of crutches and wondering what happened.
“Nysan is learning that tennis, like life, is not always fair,” says Rithivit. “How well a person handles the tough times often determines how quickly he gets another opportunity.”
“Nysan has the right stuff,” Aneiros asserts. “I can understand why some people might question him, but I have seen him endure the tough training and suffer after a painful loss.”
Since he started playing tennis, Nysan has had to answer some hard questions: Is he tough enough? Can he handle the pressure? So far he has responded positively. Now there is one final question that lingers. Is he willing to commit to a life of hard work and discipline needed to make it as a professional tennis player?
“He must,” remarks Aneiros. “Because he keeps coming back to the pain and asking for more.”