NEW YORK – He arrived in New York city armed with nothing but $200 pocket money, two suitcases and two tennis rackets; plus a choice between two roads to pursue: play tennis professionally or work on getting a permanent legal status in America.
“I got injured after a year of playing tennis in Los Angeles. I couldn’t even lift my left arm and I’m a leftie. At the same time, I still had 3 months left on my visa and I thought I’d exhaust that by trying something new. Pag ‘alang nangyari, uwi na ako, ” said Dante Sta. Cruz, a former junior division tennis star in the Philippines whose performance in the grand slam events in 1994 – 1996 earned him some offers to come to the United States.
He said he first had a reality check after he finished college at Southern Illinois University (SIU) where he was a full scholar, courtesy of tennis: “You need money to play tennis. And I did not have the funds. I tried to make it work by teaching and working in LA. But that only caused wear and tear to my body,” he said. “That was the time I had another serious ‘talk’ with myself, after L.A. May mangyayari ba talaga sa akin sa tennis? Or should I tell myself ‘It’s game over?’”On October 11, 2001, one month after the fateful 9/11 incident, Dante arrived in New York with hopes of pursuing something else, maybe even using his Economic degree to get a job: “Everyone was leaving New York because they’re scared. But I went. I was so sure there was job waiting for me in Wall Street,” he said with a laugh.
Instead, he ended up waiting tables at a bar, while living with with friends and cousins, “spend one night here, another there. I became a vagabond,” said Dante whose career in waiting tables also did not last long. He was fired by the Filipino manager at the restaurant after he called in sick one day.
Alone in New York, with no viable career to sustain and support him; and only a few months left on his visa in order to stay legally in the States, Dante once again went back to the reason that opened up America’s doors to him: tennis. He called Filipino tennis champion Rod Rafael, with the intention of asking him for any job.
“When you have nothing, you have everything to gain. When you’re zero, broke and you make $1, you’re $1 richer,” he reasoned.
It was Rod who introduced Dante to the tennis club where he started teaching. And after his first 10 hours of teaching tennis in the span of two weeks, “I saw the paycheck and wow, ang aki ng pera ko! $200,” he laughed. “ But seriously, that was when I went back to tennis.”
He was back to the sport, albeit teaching and not competing. But he still had his immigration status to worry about. When his visa expired on January 2002, he hired a lawyer to help him file for change of visa status, from student to tourist, which they knew was going to get denied.
“But once you file, you can stay until you receive the decision,” he said of the reason behind the strategy. “I used that time, January to May, to look for other options. I was buying time.”
As expected, the petition was denied. But by then, Dante had already been advised by an immigration lawyer to use his tennis background to apply for a P-1visa – for internationally recognized athletes.
“That’s the magic! That’s when it started,” Dante said of the realization of his “American Dream.” Because of that visa, he had been able to stay legally in the U.S. Town Tennis, a private club in Manhattan, eventually ended up sponsoring him for a work visa.
Through the years of working at the club, Dante has collected impressive names he’d either played or interacted with – playing with American tennis “Bad Boy” Jimmy Connors every year; assisting Roger Federer on the court for five years during the Net Jets events; even appearing on the Williams sisters’ reality show called “Venus and Serena: For Real.”
“She was here. We played for two hours on the first day. On the second day, there was a camera crew filming everything. I was already on the reality show,” he said. “I normally get starstruck for the first two minutes or so. After that, I get comfortable playing.”
Dante added that he’s also now more comfortable with his life and the choices he made, although there is one regret.
“I was scared to go home because I didn’t know if I could go back to the States. I decided to stay and while I was suppose to have been pursuing pro tennis, I chose to pursue my green card,” he admitted that the choice to stay in the States cost him his chance to play for the Philippines in international competitions: “Because hindi ako nakauwi, I missed the SEA Games, Asian Games, Davis Cup. I missed the chance to represent the country.”
Nowadays, he’s the resident head pro at Town Tennis, while teaching privately for a family who flies him to the Bahamas and drives him to the Hamptons every summer.
“All things considered, my decision was worth it. I stayed and I learned a lot. And I experienced a lot of things I don’t think I would’ve experienced had I chosen to go back home to pursue tennis there,” said Dante who’s also now waiting for his oath-taking for his American citizenship.
Jannelle So is taking a break from 20-years of print and broadcast journalism career that began in the Philippines and continued in the United States. She is credited for creating, hosting and producing America’s first and only locally-produced daily talk show for Filipinos, that ran for 8 ½ years under her leadership, making it the longest-running Filipino talk show outside of the Philippines. Connect to her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; or email her at email@example.com.