FOUNTAIN VALLEY — When Linda Pham's youngest son was just a toddler, she was already testing him.
Max always loved to eat, Linda said. But she said she would put two circular objects in front of him as he crawled on the ground.
One was a ball. One was an apple.
"A tennis ball, or any ball," she said. "He'd go for the ball first, and then he'd grab the food. With him, he likes the ball."
Max Pham is now 14, and now the Newport Coast resident specializes in whacking those tennis balls back and forth across a net. He did it just a little bit better than his opponent Friday afternoon at the Southern California Junior Sectionals.
The No. 2-seeded Pham outlasted Bryce Pereira of San Gabriel, 6-3, 6-4, in the boys' 14 singles round of 32 match at Fountain Valley Tennis Center. Pham advances to play Sangeet Sridhar of Simi Valley in the round of 16, at 9 a.m. Saturday back at Fountain Valley.
Pham said he has never played Sridhar. But Pham, who is the top-ranked player in the Southern California 14s, will no doubt use his vast array of skills.
He did so against Pereira, even after his serve was broken to open the match. Pham fell behind, 2-0, before rallying to claim the first set.
"I started off a little bit slow," said Pham, who will be a freshman next fall at Fairmont Prep in Anaheim. "I was kind of sluggish, but once I started amping up my energy, I think his level went down a little bit. He started making a little more errors, and I was able to break back and eventually go up a break."
Linda watched the action along with Max's oldest brother Sean, now 25. Max's siblings, Sean (class of 2005) and Brent (class of 2008), both played tennis at Corona del Mar High.
Spectators saw Max go up a break in the second set, but then he lost three straight games. Serving at 3-4, Max fought off two break points, then he immediately broke Pereira and was able to serve for the match in the subsequent game.
"He was starting to play really well," Max Pham said. "Once I was up 3-1, he won three games in a row. I really tried to bring it back, because I didn't want to go to three sets."
Pham, who trains at the Racquet Club of Irvine with Kevin Jackson, said being the No. 2 seed at Junior Sectionals does not bother him. He does not feel any added pressure as one of the favorites.
"Some guys don't have a ranking but they're really good, and some guys play a lot so they're really high seeded," he said. "I just look at each opponent; I don't look at the ranking."
Pham has been near the top of the 14s for quite a while now, and is looking for his first Junior Sectionals title. Two years ago, he finished fourth in the 10s.
But Pham is playing well lately as well. This spring he reached the quarterfinals at the prestigious Easter Bowl.
Still, he puts academics first. Linda said Max excels in math. The common theme is that he works hard at everything he does.
"I think if he goes in the Army, he'd be very good," Linda Pham said. "He can tolerate. Some kids, they cannot tolerate the discipline, the hard work, but he can."
It doesn't take a master mathematician to know that Max needs to win four more matches to win the title. If the seedings play out, he could play his good friend, top-seeded Taylor Fritz of Rancho Santa Fe, in the championship match on Monday.
"I think I can do well in this tournament," Max Pham said. "I mean, I have a few really tough opponents in the next few rounds, but if I just play my game and play smart, I think I can do well."
Newport Beach resident Austin Di Giulio is still alive in the boys' 12s. The No. 5-seeded Di Giulio, who won two matches Friday, plays Evan Shamlian of Los Angeles in a quarterfinal match at 11 a.m. Saturday at Los Caballeros Racquet & Sport Club.
The other local still alive in the main draw is Chaz Downing, who just finished his freshman year at Corona del Mar High. Downing plays Alexander Loh of Thousand Oaks in boys' 16 singles round of 16 match, at 10:15 a.m. Saturday at Fountain Valley.
Newport Beach resident Bjorn Hoffmann fell in a boys' 14 singles round of 32 match to No. 5-seeded Connor Hance of Torrance, 6-0, 6-3.
CdM's Henry Gordon, the No. 6 seed, was upset in his boys' 16 singles round of 32 match by Ryan Shen of Newbury Park, 6-4, 6-1. Newport Harbor's Reese Stalder fell in another round of 32 match to No. 8-seeded Fabian Schaefer of Ventura, 6-2, 7-6, as did CdM resident Alastair Hurry to Kimo Barrere of Poway, 6-2, 6-3.
CdM's Alec Adamson fell in a boys' 18s round of 32 match to Robbie Bellamy of Pacific Palisades, 7-6- 6-1.
Friday's losers still can play toward a consolation championship in their respective divisions. Consolation matches also begin Saturday.