SO Jannelle!: Tennis paved the path to Dante Sta. Cruz’s American Dream

With top-ranked player Roger Federer

With top-ranked player Roger Federer

‘Jimmy Connors loves me; we’re both lefties.’

‘Jimmy Connors loves me; we’re both lefties.’

By Jannelle So

As a tennis pro, Dante Sta. Cruz always had the will to win. In sports as in life, he exhibited the same determination in his pursuit of the American Dream.

Dante came to U.S. in late 1990s, thinking, ‘why not try his luck in America?’

He was already a tennis star in Manila, ranked top 6 in the Philippines from 1996-1998. He played for the national team, representing the country in the South East Asian (SEA) Games. Before that, he had an impressive record in the junior division where he competed in three of the four world grand slam events: the Australian Open in 1994, Wimbledon in 1996, and the U.S. Open in 1996.

Tennis opened up opportunities for him. On a full scholarship, he finished an Economics degree at the Southern Illinois University (SIU).

After getting his degree, his legal status became a ticking time bomb. His student visa was expiring soon and he needed to find work to keep him in the country.

“You need money to play tennis. And I did not have the funds. I tried to make it work by teaching and working in L.A., after SIU. But that only caused wear-and-tear to my body,” he said. “May mangyayari ba talaga sa akin sa tennis? Or should I tell myself ‘It’s game over?’

That’s when he decided to move to New York. He arrived in October 2001 – a month after 9/11 — with $200 in his pocket, two suitcases, two tennis rackets, and three months left on his student visa.

“I got injured after a year of playing tennis in Los Angeles. I couldn’t even lift my left arm and I’m a lefty. At the same time, I still had three months left on my visa and I thought I’d exhaust that by trying something new. Pag ‘alang nangyari, uwi na ako,” he assured himself. At least, he knew his limitation.

“Everyone was leaving New York because of the 9/11 scare. But I went. I was so sure there was job waiting for me on Wall Street,” he thought, confident he could put his Economics degree to use.

Instead, the Wall Street hopeful ended up being fired from his job as a waiter.

Alone in New York and with no viable options left, he turned to an old friend, Filipino tennis champion Rod Rafael.

Dante away from the court: ‘I stayed and I learned a lot.’

Dante away from the court: ‘I stayed and I learned a lot.’

“When you have nothing, you have everything to gain. When you’re zero, broke and you make $1, you’re $1 richer,” he reasoned.

Rafael introduced Dante to a tennis club. He was hired to teach and got paid $200 for his first two weeks of work.

It felt like coming back to an old flame. He was back to tennis not as player but as a teacher.

In the meantime, his immigration status continued to worry him after his petition for a visa conversation was denied.

Once more, tennis came to his rescue. He applied for a P-1visa for internationally recognized athletes.

“That’s the magic! That’s when it started,” Dante said. With that, he has been able to stay legally in the U.S. Town Tennis, a private club in Manhattan, eventually sponsored him for a work visa.

Through many years of working at the club, Dante has met – and played with – a host of impressive names in tennis. He assisted Roger Federer on the court for five years during the NetJets events. He plays with tennis “Bad Boy” Jimmy Connors, a “fellow lefty,” every year. He appeared on the Williams’ sisters’ reality show called “Venus and Serena: For Real.”

“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 star-struck for the first two minutes or so. After that, I just get comfortable playing.”

There appears to be no turning back for Dante at this point.

As the resident head pro at Town Tennis, he also does private tutoring 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,” he mused. “I stayed and I learned a lot. And I experienced a lot of things I don’t think I would have experienced had I chosen to go back home to pursue tennis there.”

His oath-taking as an American citizen is a milestone just waiting to happen.

Jannelle So is credited for creating, hosting and producing America’s first and only locally-produced daily talk show for Filipinos, ‘Kababayan L.A.,’ that ran for 8 ½ years under her leadership, making it the longest-running Filipino talk show outside of the Philippines. She loves to travel. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter –; Instagram –; or email her at

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