By T.J. Stricklin
Senior men’s tennis player Dante Saleh signifies what it means to be an Auburn man. Originally from Newport Beach, Calif., the family atmosphere is what drew him to the program. The Auburn Family not only drew him here, but it is also still his favorite part of Auburn.
“The people are much nicer here. It’s a completely different vibe. I traveled to the South a few times for tournaments before college and I liked the atmosphere. That was one of the things that drew me here when I visited. It’s a little more down home here.”
Family is a vital part of Saleh’s life. His father swam at Pepperdine University and the University of Texas while he was in college. That experience has played a big role in Saleh’s tennis career.
“I grew up in an athletic environment with my dad. He always pushed me towards sports. It didn’t really matter what sport it was. He’s a fan of sports, so I guess that’s part of what led me through tennis and to Auburn.”
Saleh credits his father and coaches for his growth as a tennis player. Despite his lack of knowledge in the sport of tennis, Saleh’s father still managed to give him the support he needed. From childhood memories to inspiring him to be his best, Saleh’s father and coaches have had a monumental impact on his life.
“Honestly, my dad is my role model. When I was growing up, my dad was always on the side of the tennis court. Being a swimmer, he didn’t know that much about tennis when I first started. As I grew up and played more and more, he learned. He was always that one that gave me the extra hours on the court that I needed, besides the time with my coach and matches. Coach (Eric) Shore really helped me through some tough times with tennis when I first got here. That really set me on a track to get me to my senior year.”
As with most college athletes, living away from home was an adjustment, but also an opportunity to bond with his teammates.
“My freshman year, I definitely had to make an adjustment to being on my own. I traveled a lot, but I’d still have my parents to fall back to if I really needed something. I was the only freshman my first semester here, so we had a couple of seniors here that helped me out a lot. Being totally without my parents was a big adjustment my freshman year.”
Saleh had to grow up quickly. He was the only freshman on the team during his freshman year.
“It had its challenges. Then again, I also got pretty good attention from everyone when I needed help. There were tradeoffs.”
Along with tennis, Saleh has been able to gain experience in the workplace. The finance major always had an interest in business. He was able to seize the opportunity to intern for Monster Energy this summer. Although he is undecided on whether he will return to Monster Energy or pursue an MBA, the future is certainly bright for Saleh.
Being a college athlete can make maintaining good grades a difficult task for many. Saleh, however, has had no issues in that category. He is an Academic Top Tiger and a member of the SEC academic honor roll. He attributes his success in the classroom to his work ethic.
“Sometimes, it’s just putting in the late nights. It’s just getting stuff done and being as efficient as possible. I can’t waste too much time. I have to get straight to work when I get home from practice.”
Saleh started his career at Auburn with a bang. He won the flight two singles championship at the UNLV Larry Easley Memorial to close out the fall of his freshman season. Since then, he has been able to maintain a positive win/loss ratio throughout his career at Auburn. While he deserves much of the praise for those accomplishments, he gives all of the credit to his coaches.
“Obviously, Coach Reynolds has picked up the slack this semester being our new head coach, as well as Ryan (Lipman). Coach (Eric) Shore and Martin (Stiegwardt) in my past years really set me on a track as a tennis player. They helped me find myself on the court. That’s something I really didn’t have before I came to college. It’s kind of put me to where I am now.”
Saleh has grown quite a bit since he arrived on the plains. The once wide-eyed freshman is now a mature leader of the team. As he nears the end of his college career, he is able to appreciate every moment.
“I remember my first class. I remember all that stuff. I remember my first match. I remember all of those feelings. Now, I see the young guys that are coming up and going through the same stuff. Here I am thinking, ‘Wow, it’s almost over.’”
The college experience has given Saleh an opportunity to learn about himself. Now that he’s grown as a tennis player and as a man, he is able to focus less on himself and more on others.
“It’s showed me the person that I am. It’s taught me a lot of lessons, especially college tennis - specifically, in the spring. I just learned how to be there for other people. In this case, I learned how to be there for the team. That’s probably my favorite part of what I’ve done here. I’ve been able to be there for the other guys, on and off the tennis court.”
Saleh’s career may be coming to a close, but he is prepared to help the new guys in the process. His leadership role is vital to the bright new core of this team. Rather than trying to tell the younger guys what to do, he has chosen to lead by example.
“I just want to be there. I want to be that rock. I’m just trying to show them the same things about college and college tennis that the seniors my freshman year showed me. I just try to be that silent role model. I’m not trying to speak too much. They can see things and want to follow that same path.”
With the responsibilities of being a leader and keeping up with classes, Saleh takes on just about all he can handle. He is able to push through the obstacles by doing one simple thing. He goes back to why he plays the game. At the end of the day, Saleh has one goal – to have fun.
T.J. Stricklin is a student assistant in Auburn athletics communications