Just twelve hours after junior men’s tennis star Victor Pham secured a runner-up finish at the Oracle ITA Masters in Malibu, California two Sundays ago, the political science major walked into his 8:40 a.m. American politics class, ready for another day as a student.
Beyond just taking notes and paying attention to the lecture, No. 38 ranked Pham was coming off a tournament where he topped some of the nation’s best tennis players—including Wake Forest’s Petros Chrysochos, ranked No. 3 in the nation. Yet after Pham dropped his final match to secure a runner-up finish against USC’s Brandon Holt—ranked No. 11 in the nation—it was back to Morningside Heights to resume his day-to-day life.
Pham’s weekend served as a perfect snapshot of a larger trend for men’s tennis, which has consistently competed at the highest level both inside and outside the classroom. When the team won the Ivy League championship last year for the fourth consecutive year, finishing at No. 25 in the ITA rankings, the team’s GPA was also the highest of any Columbia team according to associate head coach Howard Endelman, CC ’87.
“It was an impressive performance by Victor [Pham] in one of the three top tournaments in the fall,” Endelman said. “It was a tremendous effort by Victor to balance these various obligations at Columbia in the classroom and on the tennis court.”
Pham and his teammates often travel all over the United States to compete at the national level; as a result, missing classes for extended periods of time is often unavoidable and time to study is hard to come by. According to Pham, after playing as many as three matches in one day, the exhaustion sets in and makes it difficult to do anything but rest.
“I think I forgot how hard it is to focus on school while you’re on a trip, especially when you’re doing so well,” he said. “Thursday, Friday, and Saturday I really didn’t even open my laptop, I was just trying to be as locked-in as possible.”
Since Pham was the lone Lions’ player to make the trip, he knew that his teammates were eagerly anticipating his arrival back home, and embraced the responsibility to represent Columbia and the Ivy League on college tennis’ national stage. Pham and his teammates regularly cheer each other on during matches, and while Endelman was able to gather an entourage of Columbia supporters, Pham’s teammates could not make the trip.
Yet Pham persisted, and in doing so, fought back against Chrysochos, who cruised to a 6-3 first-set victory over Pham in which the Saratoga, California native failed to hold serve a single time throughout the entire set. Navigating tired legs, Pham mustered up energy to push forward, motivated to overcome yet another obstacle.
Needing a win in the second set, Pham battled his way to a 5-2 lead after breaking Chrysochos at 4-2 in front. Then, with a chance to finish the set at 5-3, Pham took the lead at 40-0 and inexplicably collapsed. He missed one shot, tallied three double faults, and gave Chrysochos the game. Eventually the duo would go to a tiebreaker, one of Pham’s strengths throughout his college career.
“The best part about tiebreakers is anything can happen,” Pham said. “Every point counts. I had the momentum going in, and I was pretty confident. I got the first point of the tiebreaker, which is crucial, and was able to take advantage of that and took the second set.”
With a 7-5 tiebreak victory in his back pocket, Pham came out sensing that he had Chrysochos “right where [he] wanted him.” After Pham broke Chrysochos to take the first game and easily held to go up 2-0, the Light Blue star did not back down. Pham took the third set 6-0 and captured a victory that sent shockwaves through the college tennis community.
While even Pham would say that it wasn’t his best match, the win itself came as no surprise to those who have worked closely with him during his time at Columbia.
Per Endelman’s account, Pham is the first to deflect attention from himself, but the junior has embraced the responsibility of being a leader on a team hungry for a fifth straight title. For Pham, whose stolid presence on the court can often lure an opponent to sleep, leading by example on and off the court comes as second nature.
For this reason, according to Endelman, it was an easy choice for Pham to show up to American politics on that Monday, knowing very well his future teammates would look to emulate that behavior if given the opportunity.
“We try to tell all our players that if you follow the structure of the program then there are no limits. It may have been inconvenient for [Victor] to take a red-eye but it’s all part of stretching and expanding what you believe is possible. The program has achieved it, going 36-1 against Ivy opponents since 2013. People used to say not to play tennis at an Ivy League school because of the stringent academics but there is plenty of time to do work, if you don’t waste time. Victor has proven that.”
Pham and his teammate, sophomore Jackie Tang, will take on the ITA All-American Championships, with main draw competition starting Thursday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And while Pham plans to miss up to a week of school yet again, odds are that he’ll be back in time for his 8:40 a.m. class.