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Los Amigos Experiences a Pham-omenal Turnabout in Tennis

Times Staff Writer

Sizing up tennis in the Garden Grove League is like coming home from a long vacation, only to find the furniture rearranged. Somebody took La Quinta High School off the trophy shelf. Los Amigos isn’t where the doormat used to be. And not only is Peter Pham wearing a different jersey in the mantel portrait, he has a younger brother with him.

You blink your eyes, but it’s no mirage.

While you were out: Third-year Coach Scott Penner’s Los Amigos program has been transformed from an also-ran into a tennis tyrant. Peter and Bill, the brothers Pham, have become more serious about tennis than ever. And a suspicious coach spotted a Lobo in Aztec clothing.

Penner’s team finished the regular season 10-0 in the Garden Grove League, 19-1 overall and ranked sixth in the Southern Section 3-A. It is an older version of the team that went 18-2 last season before losing in the first round of the Southern Section tournament. It contains the heart of the team that two seasons ago broke La Quinta’s 15-year, 350-game winning streak against opponents in the Garden Grove school district. It has little in common with mediocre teams of earlier seasons.

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“The team that I’m on now would totally demolish the one I was on as a freshman,” says Peter Pham, a 17-year-old senior and the elder of the Vietnamese brothers. “My freshman year, the team wasn’t really a team, just a bunch of individuals playing for themselves.”

He says Penner changed all that. Penner works out with every member of the team and even telephones players at home to talk about how their games are progressing. Penner says the fact that he started playing tennis at a late age helps him better understand his players.

“I think he’s the main cause for why the team is doing well,” Pham says. “He’s built a great program.”

Other would say any program would thrive with the caliber of players Penner has. Bill, 16, a junior, and Peter Pham (pronounced Fom), who play No. 1 and No. 2 singles, respectively, are playing better than ever. And that’s saying something. Last season, Bill was ranked 14th in 16-and-under singles in Southern California’s Tennis Assn.; Peter was 21st.

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At the Garden Grove tournament Friday, Bill Pham launched bombshell after bombshell to Santiago’s Tuan Tram. So many, in fact, that Tram once gazed up to friends in the bleachers and shrugged like a man who had been given a cork to stop a tidal wave. Pham won the match, 6-0, 6-1.

On a nearby court, brother Peter won by an identical score.

What’s more, Penner says that Nick Nguyen, his No. 3 player, is probably the third-best player in the league.

“They played extremely well and are an excellent team,” said Mater Dei’s Doug Williams, whose Monarchs handed Los Amigos its only loss in a nonleague match. “The Phams are definitely the heart of their team. Los Amigos would be just a normal team were it not for them.”

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La Quinta’s Dave Smith says Los Amigos would be only in third place if it were not for the Pham brothers. “Scott Penner’s done a pretty good job with the boys. But his whole team centers around three players.”

Penner says much of that assessment is sour grapes. “The Phams really help you, but you really can’t win with two guys.”

He might have had a chance to test that hypothesis in 1983. Penn Ruff, then coach of the Los Amigos junior varsity team, noticed that Peter Pham was attending La Quinta while living in the Los Amigos school district. Ruff complained to the district, and Pham found himself in a Los Amigos uniform the second quarter of his freshman year.

“I took on a false address,” Peter said. “The main reason was to play on the tennis team, and I heard the academics were better there.”

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Peter said that at first, he was annoyed at being reported. “But now I regret starting out at La Quinta and getting transferred.”

Brother Bill, who might have followed Peter to La Quinta the next year, also feels the matter worked out for the best.

“La Quinta would have been too powerful,” says Bill. “The league would have been lopsided. We feel better going to Los Amigos.”

They are playing better as well. The Phams were like ships in calm waters six years ago when they played tournaments in boys’ 12-and-under.

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“We started out slow,” Peter said. “The first year, when we got serious, we were losing in the first round, always.”

Bill says he and Peter just never put in the time. They would practice maybe an hour a day while other players put in four or five.

“Some players think they’ve always been good,” says Penner. “But they used to get beat 6-0. They’ve paid their dues. They’ve earned everything they’ve got.”

The brothers now practice longer and harder. Their reasons are as different as they are.

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Peter is the joker, the team player, the more outgoing of the brothers. He is thinking of playing tennis in college and has been accepted at UC Irvine.

Bill is serious, more withdrawn, an individual who thrives on outside tournaments. He believes he can turn professional.

“I’ve always looked up to the pros,” says Bill. “They’re making good money. I’m kind of lazy toward school, and that’s kind of a way out. It’s the one sport I can excel at.”

Peter, reflecting on why the brothers became more serious about their games, said: “The losses were too much. I felt I put money into it and I’m not getting anything back. I sort of changed then, because I thought if I worked at it, then one of these days it’s going to pay back.”

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They now compete in tournaments almost every weekend. Anh Pham, their “father, coach, mentor and trainer,” as Peter describes him, was partly responsible for their change in attitude. Anh Pham and Charlie Fischer, a tennis pro and coach, have guided the brothers in outside tournaments and stressed that they should take their games more seriously if they want to win.

“It’s what my dad calls playing for blood,” says Peter. “His main philosophy is always play 100%. It’s OK to lose, but always give 100%.”

That tennis philosophy seems to be part of the Phams’ philosophy on life. Anh Pham brought his family to the United States in 1975. He remembers the confusion in Saigon when he left, just before its fall. The seven-member Pham family originally settled in Garden Grove and Santa Ana before moving to Fountain Valley.

“In life, you don’t get anything easily. You have to work hard,” Anh Pham said. “If you’re working really hard, concentrate, and try to do something, you can survive.”

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Said Bill: “He (Anh Pham) would get mad when we throw our rackets. Because some kids we play always whine and yell. Some of them have the money and get private lessons, training camps, all of that.”

Bill said that whenever he’d lose to such opponents, he would be really annoyed. “But when I beat them, I feel I worked hard for that win.”

Bill remembers times when his game was faltering and his father would tease him. His father would tell him that if he couldn’t make it in tennis, he should concentrate on academics. Bill’s game usually improved quickly.

The brothers Pham often talk about the advantages of other, more affluent players, but they say they have their advantages as well.

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“We’re kind of lucky to have each other,” Pete said.

Bill agreed: “Some kids don’t have anybody to play with . . . except a $40-an-hour coach.”

The success at Los Amigos may be coming to an end. Peter and three other starters will graduate this year.

“They’re as high as they’re ever going to be,” said La Quinta’s Smith. “The chance of getting a ranked player is slim. Getting two is almost unheard-of.”

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“We should be all right next year,” countered Penner. “We have the No. 1 player in the league coming back, plus our JVs won the league.”

Maybe La Quinta will somehow find its way back to the trophy shelf. The mantel portrait will have only one Pham again. But the house has been turned upside down, and it might never be quite the same.


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