Last month, 17-year-old Learner Tien, of Irvine, stepped onto tennis’s most grandiose court – the 23,859-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open – to play the No. 10 player in the world.
“Every match, I go in with the expectation that I’m going to win,” says Tien, who learned to play at Heritage Park 12 years ago. “If you get caught up in where you’re playing or who you’re playing, your mind won’t be on the match. I just focus on my side of the court.”
In the second row of seats sat his father, who first put a racket in Tien’s hands at age 2.
“Oh my gosh, sometimes you’re just overwhelmed by it all,” says Khuong Tien, an attorney and weekend tennis player. “I think back to when he was this little kid running around the court while my wife and I played tennis. You never know where it might end up.”
Khuong and his wife, Huyen, both immigrants from Vietnam, never pushed their son to play tennis. They just brought him and his sister along when they played on the courts behind their home in Oak Creek Village.
“We just pushed the ball back and forth over the net for fun,” Khuong says. “At first, the kids wanted to hit the ball, then they started playing a bit more. And more.”
Soon, Tien joined a tennis program at Heritage Park run by former pro Chris Emery.
“He was only 5, but he was beating these 10- and 11-year-olds,” says Emery, who still teaches there. “He was too young to keep score, but his forehand was better, his backhand was better, his technique was better.”
At just his second tournament, against kids twice his age, Tien won the title and never looked back.
Road to success
U.S. Tennis Association coaches began working with him at age 10.
Since then, he’s won the USTA’s Boys’ 18 national title – twice. And he’s competed in the juniors at Wimbledon and the French Open, Australian Open and U.S. Open.
“I’m lucky I grew up in Irvine,” Tien says. “We had courts right behind our house, there were all kinds of kids who played, and the weather was perfect. That spoils you a bit, but you don’t realize it at the time.”
This was Tien’s second appearance in the U.S. Open’s men’s draw – both times as the youngest player.
This year, he played the world’s No. 10 player, Francis Tiafoe, an American star who has beaten Rafael Nadal and Andrey Rublev. Tiafoe won, but Tien considers it another step in his journey.
“I’ve always wanted to see how far I could take it,” he says. “Now I feel like I can take it even further. I guess we’ll see.”
Tien trains in Newport Beach and often stays with his parents in Irvine.
“He plays pickleball with friends,” Khuong Tien says. “And he’s at Spectrum Center all the time.”
Does Dad ever offer his son any tips like he did when Learner was a child?
“No,” Khuong says. “This is his profession now. From time to time, I send him a text telling him how proud we are of him, that we love him, and to have fun. I leave it at that.”