Learner Tien rise has tennis world noticing SoCal left-hander

Learner Tien played tennis almost as soon as he started walking. He was 5 when he competed in his first tournament, at the Racquet Club of Irvine, near his home. He was just short of 6, his father recalled, when he earned his first championship by winning three matches at an event in Upland. His trophy had a jack-o’-lantern on it because it was Halloween.

“He was ecstatic,” said his father, Khuong Dan Tien, a real estate lawyer who taught tennis and described himself and his wife, Huyen, a former math teacher in the Anaheim school district, as hacks who play better in their minds than on the court.

Tennis came easily to the poised, young left-hander. Maybe too easily for him to recognize the extent of his gifts and where they could take him.

His parents, both immigrants from Vietnam, didn’t push their son to play tennis. They let him run around while they played. They avoided living their lives through him or seeking attention for him and themselves. They were delighted when he excelled against his peers and kids in older age groups, but they kept his success in perspective.

“I was always afraid to be that dad that thinks, ‘Oh, little Johnny is so good,’ and in reality little Johnny is terrible,” said his father, who has a law office in Garden Grove and runs the family’s awnings business there.

Learner represented the U.S. in the prestigious 14-and-under Les Petits As tournament in France, at the junior world championships and at the junior Davis Cup. He seemed on a sure path to success.

Then he decided he didn’t want to play anymore. As he entered his teens, he walked away from the sport to seek new thrills in gaming.

“I was kind of unsure about my future playing tennis. I wasn’t sure how much I really enjoyed it anymore, just because I’d always played it and I’d played it for so long,” Learner, now 17, said last week after a practice in Lakewood. “I guess my sense of enjoyment in playing it was fading a little bit.”

Wisely, his parents didn’t try to force him to continue. “We kind of told him, ‘Just go to school. Don’t throw rocks through people’s windows, don’t light cars on fire, and you’ll be fine,’ ” his father said. “We just kind of rode it out.

Learner Tien sets for a return during a practice session in Lakewood.

Learner Tien sets for a return during a practice session in Lakewood.

(Helene Elliott / Los Angeles Times)

“We never thought much about it other than, ‘Gosh, he was really good. It’s a bit of a shame that he doesn’t enjoy it as much as you would think his talent would cause him to enjoy it.‘ ”

In time, Learner reached that conclusion himself. He returned with a new vigor and passion for tennis, which has been evident in his play the last year and distinguishes him as someone to watch among the hordes of young hopefuls in Southern California.

Last summer he reached the Wimbledon junior quarterfinals and won the U.S. Tennis Assn. boys’ 18 national title, which carried a wild-card berth into the main draw of the U.S. Open. Then 16, he impressively won the first set of his match against No. 32 seed Miomir Kecmanovic on one of the outer courts at Flushing Meadows. For a moment he allowed himself to dream about pulling an upset.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I won a set,’ ” he said. “I guess the level I was playing at dropped a little bit just because I was almost surprised that I was in that position. I think I almost would have had a better chance if I’d stayed focused on the match and didn’t really think about that. But unfortunately, I did, and I dropped the second set pretty quickly. The third and fourth I was kind of there, but not really.

“It is a lesson. I think it was something I had to learn, so I’m glad I got it out. It sucks that I had to learn in that moment.”

In January he shared the Australian Open junior doubles title with Cooper Williams and lost the singles final in a third-set tiebreak. In April, he joined USC’s team for about a dozen matches — uncertainty over NCAA rules regarding his professional prize money delayed approval of his eligibility — and in June he reached the juniors singles semifinals at the French Open.

This month he won his first International Tennis Federation professional singles title, a SoCal Pro Series developmental-level tournament at the Racquet Club of Irvine. “It was a special event,” he said, which is about as effusive as he gets.

He won his first three matches at a SoCal Pro Series event this weekend in Lakewood, before losing in the semifinal to USC teammate Stefan Dostanic in a third-set tiebreak. Even the bumps in the road can be crucial steps toward the goal of being competitive on the men’s pro circuit. Stepping away ultimately allowed him to step up.

“I realized that I do enjoy it and I do want to keep playing,” he said, “and when I did start to play again, I did enjoy it a lot more and I started really appreciating my time on court a lot more. It really helped me improve, just because I actually wanted to be out there and playing tennis instead of just this is a normal thing in my life and I just go out and do it every day.”

His short-term plans include playing another ITF event in Edwardsville, Ill., and defending his boys’ 18 title next month in Kalamazoo, Mich. He’d love to return to the U.S. Open but he’s not sure about returning to USC.

He enjoyed the team atmosphere and said he grew “in the sense that I was playing tennis not only just for myself, but I was playing for a team, for the guys next to you.” But if he continues to do well this summer, he’ll win too much money to be eligible under NCAA rules. He won’t go back in the fall but hasn’t ruled out the spring semester.

“It just depends how successful I am in the remainder of the year,” he said. “Hopefully the decision makes itself very clear.”

He will learn that soon enough. And pardon the pun, but he’s a quick learner, justifying his name. His parents chose Justice as the name of their first child, a girl. She’s now a junior at Arizona State. Two years later came the son they called Learner.

“An attorney seeks justice. A teacher seeks a learner. They were virtuous names,” his father said.

The name brought Learner unwanted attention when he was young, but he has embraced it.

“I like it a little more now just because it’s so unique,” he said. “I haven’t met anyone with the same name as me. Or heard of anyone with the same name as me. I like it in that sense. Besides that, it’s just a name.”

What’s in a name? In this case, a grounded and promising tennis player, a learner in every sense.