One of Wilde Lake freshman David Nguyen's favorite pastimes is reading. That's no surprise, because the tennis standout's mother, Valerie Gross, is director of the Howard County Library system.
His favorite authors, Clive Cussler, J.K. Rowling, Robert Ludlum and Michael Crichton, reveal a lot about his personality.
Those writers create characters who are strong, independent and intelligent, and are not afraid to tackle challenging odds.
Prepared for the toughest of odds, Nguyen was supposed to play his first varsity match Monday against last year's freshman standout, Centennial's Ryan Lissner, who was 28-1, the county champ and the state runner-up who is ranked No. 33 nationally by the United States Tennis Association in the boys 16 singles class. Nguyen is not in the USTA's top 100.
But the two did not play their high school match because they missed school Monday while participating in a weekend USTA Mid-Atlantic Section tournament in Winchester, Va. An athlete must attend school the day of a high school sports event to be eligible to compete.
Nguyen and Lissner did play each other during the boys singles 16s bracket of the USTA tournament, however, with Lissner beating Nguyen in the quarterfinals, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, before going on to win the tournament, his first victory at the 16s level. He also beat high school state champ Jared Pinsky in the semifinals, 7-6, 2-6, 6-4.
Nguyen had beaten Lissner the only two previous times they had played.
"David is a good player and I'm looking forward to playing him this season," said Lissner. "I have gotten better since last year."
Nguyen, ranked as high as No. 1 in the Mid-Atlantic region, and No. 4 nationally in the 14-year-old division last year, is now 15 and ranked among the 16s. He is No. 4 in the Mid-Atlantic.
He started playing at the age of 5 and began tournament competition at 9. His only coach has been his father, Tri, who came to the United States from Vietnam 23 years ago.
"My dad is not a good player, but he knows how to coach," said David, who was born in San Francisco but has lived in Columbia for the past four years.
His father said he learned the sport from videos and library books.
"We learned together," said his father. "In Vietnam there were no tennis courts. [David] never would have been able to play. We take for granted sometimes what we have here [in the United States]."
Nguyen said he plays every day for three hours, doing drill after drill with his father. And he plays in lots of tournaments. He notes that the price of success is high.
"I sacrifice a lot of social things, and I have missed 12 days of school for tournaments," he said. "My teachers have been good about allowing me to miss and helping me make up the work."
His hard work certainly shows. He is a smooth left-hander with exceptional mechanics and timing. His shots have movement, his lobs have touch, his overhands have sizzle and his spin simply befuddles less-talented opponents.
"This is a great opportunity to play with someone who is that good. I'm glad he's on our team," said Wilde Lake's No. 1 girls player, senior Kacie Bail. "He's teaching other people. He's a good teacher and has a lot of friends. He's going to be one of the best."
Wilde Lake coach Ron Shelton is also happy to have Nguyen.
"He will inspire others and motivate them to work harder," said Shelton.
Nguyen practices mainly at the Owen Brown Tennis Club, but sometimes at Aspen Hill in Montgomery County.
He has played against River Hill's No. 1, Scott Burtzlaff.
"When I first started playing him, he beat me. The last time we played, I beat him," Nguyen said.
Nguyen describes his style as "all-court" as opposed to being strictly a baseline-style player.
"I like to attack the net," he said.
For him, the attractions are the competition, the self-reliance and the mental strength needed to perform well.
"It's also just fun," said Nguyen, a straight-A student.
Sometimes, ranked tournament players elect not to play for their high school teams because of the time commitment. Nguyen feels differently.
"I'm playing because I wanted to support my school, it's a social thing and I want to win states," he said.
He knows that winning a state title will be a tremendous challenge because Pinsky of Winston Churchill, currently ranked No. 12 nationally, returns, as well as Lissner, to name just two.
But he's used to tough competition.
In his first national 16s tournament in December, the California Bowl, he finished fourth. At the National Open for 14s in Michigan in October, he finished second.
His long-term goals are ambitious.
"I want to win a tennis or academic scholarship to college, and if I'm good enough, I want to play pro tennis," he said.
"This is the best group I've had. They are good enough to beat the top teams. Our goal is to win county and state titles." Atholton boys lacrosse coach Josh Bounds, who had seven sophomore starters last season when his team went 7-8 overall and 4-7 in the league.