After immigrating to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1977, Khoa Nguyen, who’d been coached by his father John since taking up the game at age 9, won, at 14, his first U.S. Closed title—the 1980 U-15 Doubles with Brandon Olson. The following September, after he’d finished 1st at the AAU Under-15 Junior Olympics, Nguyen, “a 9th-grader at Santa Clara High School in California,” was named Topics’ Junior of the Month. Here’s local observer Yim Gee to tell us a little more about this “unknown, under-rated junior”:
“At 4’10” and 95 pounds, Khoa looks small but is a master looper. He spins the ball with authority and cleverly moves his opponent around with deadly ball placement. Mental toughness is his greatest strength. He is calm under pressure and always has that shy and satisfying boyish smile after each match….He practices 4 days during the week at home (1 to 2 hours each day) and plays matches at weekends at San Jose State University….”
[As an aside, nine years later he’d graduate from San Jose State with a degree in computer science….but back to the future.]
At the Dec., ’81 Closed, Khoa showed versatility in winning the U-17 Doubles with Scott Butler and the U-15 Doubles with Sean O’Neill. He wasn’t so unknown any more—especially after he, Scott and Jimmy Butler, Brandon Olson, and Sean had accepted that 1982 invitation to train in China for two months under two-time World Champion Guo Yuehua.
At both the 1983 and ‘84 U.S. Opens, Nguyen won the U.S. Open U-17 Doubles, first with Brandon, then Sean. In ’84, he became a U.S. citizen. Meanwhile, Khoa’s father, with the help of the Vietnamese community, continued to promote his annual Northern California Open and the Vietnamese Invitational at San Jose, a $10,000 tournament highlighted by John enjoying the guest appearance of penholder California Governor George Deukmejian.
By this time, with his usual determination and focus, Khoa was in the process of developing one of the best backhand loops in the country. This along with his speed and increasingly powerful forehand gave him a two-wing attack that helped him in 1985 and ‘86 to finish 2nd to O’Neill at the National Sports Festival, and in ’86 to win the first of his two ACU-I National Intercollegiate Championships.
1987 was also a big year for Khoa. At the New Delhi World’s, aided by an ever-developing up-to-the-table aggressive block defense, he was 9-5 in Swaythling Cup play—with a comeback, double-match-point-down, deuce-in-the-3rd win over the Brazilian #2, Hugo Hoyama. At the Pan-Am Games he won a Gold in the Mixed with Insook Bhushan. And at year’s end he came close to being our National Champion—lost in 5 to the eventual winner O’Neill, from whom he’d win the Under-22’s.
O.K., time for Khoa to go out and make a living. Which he does, but still manages at the annual ’92 Vietnamese New Year Invitational to almost upset World #22, 2800+-rated Johnny Huang, losing 24-22 in the 3rd. But, never mind—they’ll be another of these Vietnamese Internationals next year and Nguyen’s win will make him $800 richer.
At this time, Khoa was working as a programmer for Sun Microsystems. After they’d given him time off to prepare for the 1992 North American Olympics Qualifier, he responded by downing all six Canadians, including their best, Joe Ng and Horatio Pintea. Then on finishing 1st Alternate behind Jimmy Butler and O’Neill, he began the never-ending process of trying to improve his serves.
Khoa’s ‘90’s play climaxed in 1995 when, with encouragment from his wife Pauline, and with the help of his training and technique coach, Per Johansson, he’d dedicated himself to preparing for the Tianjin World’s.” Practicing my backhand footwork,” he said, “helps my forehand too.” At the Costa Mesa Chinese New Year Championships in Feb., “the relentless ferocity” of his “two-winged lightning attacks” gave him a 3-zip win over a dazed U.S. Champion David Zhuang. Then at the Mar. Louisiana Open, “he joined the ranks of 2700-rated players in the U.S.”—beating 3-time U.S. Champion Butler in both the Open and the Allstar Men’s, and splitting matches with former U.S. Open Champ Cheng Yinghua. This great showing prompted Jimmy to say, “Khoa may be the best player in the U.S. right now.”
In a 1995 summer interview, Khoa told Editor Larry Hodges that, for the first time, he’d started to do “lots of physical training—“mostly distance running…[and] weight training.” Also, now a sponsor (no relation) was providing him with a Nguyen-Nguyen situation. Except that at the World’s he wasn’t picked to play even one Team tie. Though he’d finished 5th in the Tryouts, by Tianjin-time he was rated U.S. #2 and so wasn’t happy about being completely left out. He then proved his worth in Singles with a 3-1 record—sparked by a strong win over the Croatian International, Atikovic.
In pursuit of his Olympic goal, Khoa “had spent much of August, October and November training at Nisse Sandberg’s Angby Club in Sweden (sometimes with [former European Champion] Mikael Appelgren).” Also, he and Butler “had represented the U.S. in team tournaments in Europe during this ‘95 Fall season.” Which camaraderie didn’t prevent Khoa at the National’s from powering balls through Jimmy to reach the Men’s final. There Zhuang’s sharp angle play helped him to successfully defend his title. But in further milestones for Khoa, he and Tawny Banh reached the final of the Mixed; and he and Darko Rop, his lefty Tianjin teammate, took the Men’s Doubles from Defending Champions Zhuang and Dan Seemiller. Here, too, Khoa was awarded the Rich Livingston Sportsmanship Award, and was named Player of the Year.
But the 1996 Olympic Trials was a big disappointment for Nguyen. In Singles play, he was going along 5-0 undefeated when he was upset by Darko. Then he lost deciding matches that forced him to become, as he was in ’92, the 1st Alternate. Later, to qualify for the Olympics in Doubles play, he and David had to beat Canadians Huang and Ng, but—bummer—they lost 18 in the 5th.
So, say goodbye to serious competition in the 1990’s. But hello to politics; for, in 1998, Khoa is elected for his first stint on the USATT Board of Directors.
At the Pacific Rim Open in Nov., 1999, Khoa, now 33, gives notice in losing to Zhuang, 18 in the 5th, that come the new millennium he’ll be back. His aim? To make the Olympics that’s been naggingly eluding him. Neoforma.com, the internet company he now worked for, was cooperative, as again was Pauline, by now mother to their two young daughters, Khamille and Khassidy (spelled with an initial Kh instead of a C—this, I presume, in homage to a heritage line that included his brothers Khai and Khoi, if not his competition coach, called, in-KHON-gruously, Roger). So, seized again by this mania to succeed, Khoa dedicated himself to a “grueling training schedule” where many nights he had “fewer than 4 hours of sleep.”
So how’d he do? In the beginning, beautifully—came 1st in the U.S. Qualifier where one observer filming him spoke of his “World-Top-100 offense.” “Khoa’s loop is a ‘body shot’ that primarily uses waist, torso and shoulder rotation to generate forward speed with topspin control.” But at the 2000 North American Singles Trials he was eliminated in the Preliminaries. However, he had one more chance—and, paired with Cheng Yinghua, who’d marveled at how much Khoa had accomplished with limited opportunities, he came through, would be going to Sydney. As a bonus he took the North American Singles Championship from Eric Owens, and thereafter would represent the U.S. in the World Cup in Yangchou, China.
Khoa was as ready for the Olympics as he could be—and, as an induction photo I showed of them with Khoa at his Sydney send-off party, so, happily, were Pauline and the kids. But the competition there was just too tough….Still, participating in an Olympics was something he and his family would always remem—
What? He’s not gonna go through all that agony, that manic Olympic preparation again, is he? Yep. He hasn’t qualified for the Singles yet, right? Neoforma, for whom he was working maybe 50 hours a week, granted him a good luck leave of absence. So with his customary perseverance, he again went into training. At the Mar., 2003 Pan Am and World Team Trials, Khoa, described by Hodges as being one of our “best pure athletes” and having “the most picture-perfect form in the U.S.,” is 4-1 in matches when Darko again stops him, precipitates him into a series of losses. But at the Apr. $5,000 California Open, showing his smooth, “effortless” style, acquired through years of effort, he survives a controversial match with Jamaican-born Michael Hyatt and comes runner-up to Fan Yi Yong. In Aug., he’s at the Western Open. In Sept., at the North American Team’s. In Dec., at the National’s.
Finally, in Feb., 2004 comes the Vancouver Olympic Singles Trials Khoa’s been priming for. He loses to Huang and Ilija Lupulesku who’ll win the 2005 National’s, but beats Canadian Peter-Paul, and scores a huge 12-10 in the 6th win over Zhuang. That brings him to Canada’s Bence Csaba whom he must beat to qualify. On they go into the 7th and last game, with the umpires having called a plentitude of serve faults on Khoa that finally gets even him, ever so focused, visibly upset and Coach Seemiller furiously complaining to the Referee. But, hooray! For Khoa there’s a happy ending. Mission accomplished.
Except of course the Olympics is 6 months away. That means Khoa plays in the May Singapore Open, the Chicago Killerspin U.S. Open, as well as the North American Championships where he’s runner-up to Huang. He also trains in China and Germany. So he’s ready. And ready for another send-off party with Mom Cam and Dad John. At Athens, Khoa is beaten in 5 by Australian William Henzell, destined to be the 2006 Oceania Champion. Still, there are compensations—good Greek food, and with his family a view from the Acropolis over the rooftops of historic Athens. Then of course there’s the de-rigueur visit of the Olympians to the White House and Khoa’s photo op with President Bush.
Khoa continues to play seriously through 2005, has a winning Singles record as a U.S. Team member at the Shanghai World’s, and reaches the U.S. Closed semi’s for the 4th time. However, come 2006, he gives up playing top gun for his Sunnyvale Chevrolet Mountain View Team in the Northern California TMS League because of, as he says publicly, “family and work commitments.” So don’t look for him to try to play in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Time to rest on his laurels, right?
And yet Khoa told me he was at first reluctant to accept this Dec. award while he was still a player. But what kind of fast-footwork dodge was that? For Cheng Yinghua, Lily Yip, and David Zhuang were at the time of their Inductions active tournament participants; and Khoa had just this summer accepted—with Azmy Ibrahim’s warm welcome—Induction into the California Hall of Fame. But, o.k., I understand that Khoa’s self-identity is of course much defined by his role as a very accomplished player—he doesn’t want to give that up, and so resists retirement, or any suggestion of it. So, Pauline, I don’t want to alarm you. But Khoa hasn’t won an Olympic Singles match yet. And he’s only 40.
As for our audience here tonight, please affirm with your applause that this well-deserved Award honors, but does not close, this ever-serious Inductee’s memorable 25-year career. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Olympian Khoa Nguyen.