The Indonesians and the North Koreans were in Tokyo. They were only one day away from setting foot in the National Stadium and parading before 70,000 cheering spectators at the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on Saturday, October 10, 1964. But on Friday, October 9, the national teams of those countries, hundreds of athletes, coaches and administrators, abruptly turned around and went home. Many cried as they waited to board the trains away from Tokyo, and their chance at competing at the highest level.
Virachai Tanasugarn was on the Thai national Olympic team, a guard on his country’s basketball team. He was in Tokyo to play in a qualifying tournament with nine other national teams, with the chance to play in the beautiful Kenzo Tange Gymnasium Annex, and the hope of competing in the Olympics. And like the Indonesians and the North Koreans, he did not stay in Tokyo long enough to participate in the Games. But unlike the Indonesians and the North Koreans, he left with a sense of adventure and excitement.
From September 25 to October 4, ten teams vied in the qualifying round for four spots, in order to be a part of the 18 national teams to play in the Tokyo Olympics. Tanasugarn was on the Thai team, a spot player on the bench, who was simply excited to be in Japan. Despite starting off well, defeating Indonesia convincingly 85-50, the team proceeded to win only 3 of their 9 matches.
Tanasugarn, like his teammates, did not expect to make the cut. They were there to get experience, like so many of the other athletes from Southeast Asia. This was actually Tanasugarn’s second Olympic qualifier as a basketball player. When he was in Rome with hopes of helping the Thai team make the Olympics, he remembered looking at the spaghetti, cheese and ketchup and having no idea what they were or how to eat them. But when they came to Japan, they were happy to see more familiar food. They walked around Yokohama, went to Kamakura to visit the Big Buddha, and played lots of basketball against much better teams.
Tanasugarn was so confident that the Thai team would not qualify that he had already bought an airplane ticket for California to leave before opening ceremonies. After graduating from Thammasat University, he was encouraged to go to the United States by a cousin who graduated from the University of California Berkley, and was practicing as a medical doctor in California.
So unlike the Indonesians and North Koreans, Tanasugarn was excited to be leaving Japan just prior to the start of the Games. At the age of 26, with essentially no English ability, he was embarking on a new life in a new world. He went to a high school in San Francisco that had an adult education program where he learned English, and met his wife to be. He got his JD at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, but could not find work in the legal field. Eventually, with his wife and mother, he opened up a Thai restaurant in Hollywood named Thai House, which he ran for 8 years.
Through a friend’s introduction, Tanasugarn was able to put his first daughter, Rose, in the Jack Kramer Club, where some of the best tennis talent was being groomed: Tracy Austin, Lindsey Davenport and Pete Sampras. Their coach was Robert Lansdorp, and Rose showed progress as a tennis player. However, after 6 years Rose decided she did not want tennis to be the primary focus in her life, and left competitive play.
While in the United States, Tanasugarn had divorced and re-married, having a daughter with his second wife that they named Tamarine. In 1982, he returned to Bangkok with Tamarine, then just 5-years-old. Tamarine began to focus on her tennis with her father as coach until she was 20, and then proceeded with professional coaches and increasingly competitive tournaments.
Tamarine would go on to become Thailand’s most successful female tennis player ever, reaching the quarter-finals in Wimbledon in 2008 and the Wimbledon doubles semifinals in 2011, climbing as high as #19 in the world, and competing in four Olympics, from 1996 to 2008.
Her father, Virachai, utilizing all the wisdom and insight he learned from observing Lansdorp and some of the best up-and-coming talent in the world at the Jack Kramer School in the 1970s, and watching first hand his daughter Tamarine rise to world-class levels, embarked on a career of tennis coach. At the Rama Gardens Hotel in Bangkok, he continues to coach tennis at the age of 80.
Little did he know in Tokyo what future lay before him as he embarked the Pan Am flight for America in October, 1964.
He looks at the tennis courts with pride, knowing that his daughter Tamarine, and the success she had, helped build the foundation for tennis in Thailand today.
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