Although Derek Pham has faced several injury setbacks in his young career, the 18-year-old is more determined than ever to chase his dreams.
Pham grew up in Perth, but has relocated to Brisbane to train at Tennis Australia’s National Tennis Academy.
In our series profiling academy athletes, Pham reflects on his biggest lessons and motivations …
Tell us about your start in tennis. How old were you when you started playing?
I started playing tennis when I was two. I was at a preschool where there was a tennis program. They gave kids racquets and tennis balls just to have fun. I must have been pretty interested in that, because I went home, I believe, and told my mum that tennis is cool. That’s where it started for me.
Where was your first tennis club?
It was Midland Lawn Tennis Club in Perth. I played a lot of my junior tennis there and at Robertson Park, then I moved to train at the State Tennis Centre.
So, you grew up playing on grass courts?
It is a lawn tennis club, but I mostly played on the hard courts there. There are a lot of grass court tournaments in Perth, so I did play a few of them.
What do you enjoy most about tennis?
I just enjoy competing and testing myself against other people.
Who have been the biggest influences on your career so far?
I’d have to say my coach, Andrew Roberts. I’ve been working with him since I was 13 and he’s been very influential in my tennis career.
What impact has Andrew had on your career?
I like how he can be really serious, but also pretty relaxed at the same time. He pays a lot of attention to detail. He likes to take care of business and work on the one-percenters, all the little things that can make your tennis better and I’ve really enjoyed working on that.
Who is your favourite tennis player?
Rafael Nadal has always been a favourite of mine. He works hard and is a very good competitor. If I could model him in any way, especially his character on court, that’d be great.
Do you have a favourite Australian player?
I got to train a tiny bit with Jason Kubler in WA and I really like how he goes about his business. He’s very professional. He is obviously getting some good results now, which inspires me as well.
What has been your proudest on-court moment so far in your career?
I’ll have to go back a couple of years, to when I was 14 and I won the December Showdown. Winning a national title, it was a pretty big turning point in my view towards tennis. I’ve played some ITF events in the past two years, but have been struggling with injury, so it hasn’t been all butterflies and rainbows.
Can you tell us more about your injury challenges?
In March last year I was playing in the one of the UTR Pro Tennis Series events and I went to hit a smash on match point. The smash went in and at the same time I tore my subscapularis. Since then, I’ve had multiple recurrences of the injury and it’s been actually quite tough for me to get back to playing.
Have you learnt any important lessons about yourself during this time?
It’s helped me listen to cues from my body, so I’m understanding what’s going on a bit better. I’m in touch with my shoulder and what feels like an injury and what might just be a niggle. It’s also helped me value actually playing tennis and spending competitive time on court. Training can be fun, but the reason I play tennis is to play matches, be competitive and win. It wasn’t fun when that was taken away from me.
What are your tennis dreams for the future?
I want to get inside the top 100. To make a living out of tennis and represent Australia would be great. I think that if I can get inside the top 100, I’d be very fulfilled and happy.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Just don’t lose track of why you started playing tennis. It has to be fun, it has to be enjoyable. It’s obviously not going to be easy, but you just have to keep working hard towards your goals.
How would you describe your playing style in one sentence?
I like to be aggressive, keep control of the baseline and look to push forward when I can.
What is your biggest strength?
I like my backhand down the line. My backhand has always been a really good shot, even as a kid.
If you could steal any stroke from another player, what would it be and why?
Growing up, I’ve never had amazing feel or touch. My hands around the net have always been a bit of a struggle, but I’m improving. I really admire someone like Benoit Paire for his feel. He obviously has ridiculous hands, and they would be a real great asset for me to have.
Do you have any pre-match superstitions that you like to follow?
I like to have a shower right before every match and always try to wake up three hours before my match is scheduled. I’ve been doing this since I was 13. It’s pretty annoying for me to keep having to do them, but I always do.
If you weren’t pursuing a tennis career, what would your dream job be?
I think I’d like to be a real estate agent. I think that’d be pretty cool. My parents are pretty into real estate, so it wouldn’t be a terrible line of work.
Tell us your favourites in the following categories:
Social media: Instagram.
Food: I like a prosciutto pizza and it has to be wood-fired.
Playing surface: Hard courts.
Musician: Spacey Jane.
TV series: Suits.
Who would be your dream doubles partner?
I’ve been itching to get back on court with Jeremy Jin. I think we owe each other a couple of matches together.
How would your friends and family describe you?
They’d say I’m pretty outgoing and I’m fun to be around. But when it comes to work and tennis, I’m pretty diligent.
Do you remember which player you got your first autograph or selfie with?
I can’t. I’ve definitely gotten a couple with players like Alexander Zverev and Roger Federer.
Do you remember when you first got to hit with a professional player?
I hit with Matthew Ebden when I was maybe 13 or 14. That was pretty cool. It was intense. He obviously brings a lot of physicality to the court and I always felt like you have to match that. So playing with him, as opposed to playing with one of the other juniors at that time, was a real big step up. He really brought the energy.
What do you enjoy most about being a National Tennis Academy member?
It’s good. The facilities are great. They obviously are really good with taking care of the players. Not just the tennis coaching and strength and conditioning staff, but also with nutritionists and psychologists as well. I think that’s pretty important for players, especially when they’re coming through as juniors.
Does being in this environment and training with the top players in Australia provide further inspiration?
Yeah, it’s inspiring because you get to see what everyone’s doing day-to-day and you can compare what you’re doing as well. It’s very easy to model yourself off others and you can see if you’re putting yourself in the best position to become a pro.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned since joining the National Tennis Academy?
Probably just really taking care of your body. Without your body you’re not going to be able to play, so it is important to make sure everything you are doing is helping yourself on and off the court. You have to be on top of it. Taking care of your body is so important, I can’t stress it more. I probably wasn’t on top of it when I got injured and it’s obviously cost me.
What have been your goals while injured?
I’ve had a bit of a focus with my nutritionist on putting on a bit of weight. It’s been part of my injury management, because I want more bulk around my shoulder to take the pressure off the subscapularis. I’ve been focusing on eating food every hour basically, lots of snacking. Lots of carbs, healthy fats, lots of protein, especially after I’m training.
What type of snacks do you enjoy?
I enjoy a handful of roasted macadamias. I rate oat slices too, they are like a mini meal.
Is managing your nutrition well while travelling a challenge?
Yeah it’s interesting. The last time I went away, I depleted my snacks in about a week and I was on the road for five weeks. You just have to be on top of it and take as much with you as you can. A little tip that I have for anyone travelling to a place where they might not have very good food, is just take a spread or seasoning that might remind you of food that you like at home. I like taking jam or chicken salt, to add a bit of flavour to food.
Are you still studying as well as competing?
I finished year 12 last year and I decided to take a gap year. I applied to study a business and property economics degree and was accepted but deferred my first year. I’ll probably start around March next year.
What is your motivation to continue studying?
I just want to do something else to keep my mind busy. Tennis is obviously what I do, but you can’t always be thinking about tennis.
Book online, play today: Visit play.tennis.com.au to get out on court and have some fun!